All the usual suspects: the Bard, Chekjov, Emilk D., Villon, whoever wrote the Book of Job—ditto the Book of Love. But instead of playing favorites, I'd much rather plug a few texts that knocked me out in the last decade yet received little, if any, local attention.
• Sarah Rossbach, Feng Shui, the Chinese Art of Placement (EP Dutton, 1983). Literally the art of where things belong, feng shui began in ancient China with the simple observation that people are affected by their surroundings. How hills, buildings, walls, corners, windows, beds face wind and water, say practitioners, can have serious effects on people. Rossbach defines feng shui as an "eco-art, dealing with conservation, ecology, orientation, and spatial arrangement - basically how and where man should place himself or build his shelter in this vast world." Her examples range from where to live on a hill to where to hang a mirror. She never proselytizes for her subject — she even cautions readers against having "feng shui hypochondria" — but throughout she is never less than fascinating.
• Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago Press, 1983). A sage Montana fly fisherman, "haunted by waters," recalls his past and proves conclusively that "you can love completely without complete understanding."
• Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (University of Chicago, 1980). Without planning it, I was at Ground Zero — the School of Critical Theory, UC Irvine — in the 70s when the radical shift from the old New Criticism to French Structuralism occurred. I had an office across the hall front a professor-friend named Frank. He taught courses on Wallace Stevens and Yeats and, for the most part, stayed off the battlefield. But when the smoke from the various theoretical frays cleared, Frank wrote an excellent history of critical theory from 1960-1980. This book will take you from Cleanth Brooks to Jean Baudrillard. After that we're on our own.
• Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1990). Berry is a farmer in Henry County, Kentucky. He is also an indefatigable writer whose sworn enemy is "technological fundamentalism." These essays, which range from the literary to the ecological, relish the hard questions: How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it? How do we reduce our dependency on what is wrong? There are times when Berry's tone smacks of sanctimony, and he could brush up on his feminism, but other than that this is the sanest collection of essays I've read in years.
• Florence King, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (St. Martin's Press, 1985). Recently out in paperback, this is an autobiographical search for an identity in a world without role models and one of the funniest books of the '80s. One quotation should suffice: "No matter which sex I went to bed with," King says in the prologue, "I never smoked on the street."