Freebies at the PEN Festival

bag-of-booksImagine this: you're staying at a swank hotel in New York City, you're drinking and dining and hobnobbing with literary luminaries, and you receive a the ones handed out at kiddie birthday parties. Only not like them.

Your giftbag contains 12 books...delivered to your hotel room...and selected by a Pulitizer Prize winning author. For you. All for you. Oh! Happy daze, happy daze!

Such is the fate of the Poor Unfortunates who participated in the PEN Festival of International Literature starting April 30, 2012. The reigning Pulitzer winner, by the way, is still Jennifer Egan for A Visit from the Goon Squad. She was invited to select the books for the giftbag—here's what she chose...and why:

Emma by Jane Austen
Politics masquerading as matrimony. Austen was a mathematician of social interaction, and her novels are impossibly, preposterously good. Emma happens to be my favorite.

The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin
In 1961, before the Vietnam War was close to being televised, Boorstin identified...a longing for authenticity that naturally results from increased mediation of human experience. His observations hold eerily true even in the era of Facebook and YouTube.

Don Juan by Lord Byron
Who can resist an epic poem in which the protagonist gets shipwrecked, hides in a harem (and then is chosen by the sultan for an evening of pleasure), has a fling with Catherine the Great, and endless other romps—all narrated in Byron's slouchy, sinuous poetry?

Underworld by Don Delillo
My favorite American novel of the past 25 years. A gigantic vision of the Cold War and its aftermath, in which DeLillo manages to be sweeping, intimate, political, hilarious, and sad.

Middlemarch by George Elliot
A quintessentially swaggering 19-century English novel, thrillingly attentive to a sweep of diverse characters, and impossible to put down.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
A surreal tale that exposes the ravages of racial persecution, yet ultimately subsumes them in a meditation on identity and transformation, whose proportions are nothing short of mythic.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
Utterly unique: a flexible, sharply written, wide-ranging story that encompasses the life of a young Australian woman who comes to England.

The Golden Notebook by Dorris Lessing
An epic, experimental yet utterly human work that manages to fuse a political vision (disillusionment with communism) with a social one (women, men, and the collisions between them).

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tough, bleak, and deeply atmospheric. Rhys wrests a gripping--even phantasmagoric--narrative from the solitary perambulations of an alcoholic woman in Pais.

Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne
One of the first novels in English...and a bouyant, postmodern romp. A heart reminder of the power,malleability, and deep playfulness of the novel form.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Tragic in the classical sense, yet also hilarious, nuanced, and socially astute; the novel's cool assessment of the calculus of beauty and wealth rings true even in our radically divverent era.

Germinal by Emile Zola
My favorite reportorial 19th-century novel. A vivid story full of spectacular set pieces--like a horse being lowered into a coal mine--and also a brutal indictment of the mining industry's exploitation of its workers.

Thanks to The Daily Beast. And thanks, to my dear librarian, Lynne Schneider, at the Sewickley Public Library, for handing me the printout.

Quite a list. If you've not read them all...well, most of us haven't. They don't spring easily to mind...nor to the top of everyone's reading list. But HERE's THE QUESTION: what would you choose to be in the giftbag?

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