There are certain items in a gentleman’s home that should be present no matter what his profession, tastes or background.
In his wardrobe, you should expect to find a white dress shirt, a pair of good quality jeans and a sturdy pair of Oxfords. His kitchen cupboard should boast a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, coarse rock salt and a jar of the thickest cut marmalade you can buy.
But his bookshelf?
Clogged up with paperback thrillers and subpar sports autobiographies, the bookshelf of the modern man is lacking, desperately missing such solid staples as those that form the foundation of his kitchen and wardrobe.
So which titles should your ‘capsule library’ comprise? Which handbooks and hardbacks should be perennials of your bookshelf – to impress, to enrich and to make your life a little more literary?
The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Salinger’s brooding bildungsroman is a classic of the 21st century. Narrated in a subjective style, protagonist Holden Caulfield’s thoughts may seem disjointed, but the real challenge is in trying to work out the meanings behind this multitude of made up slang terms.
Notable quote: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
1984 - George Orwell
Orwell’s dystopian tale truly deserves its place on your bookshelf – if not only for how eerily prognostic it turned out to be. Food for both inner thought and outward conversation, 1984 tells the tale of Winston Smith, a man tasked with rewriting newspaper articles so they stick to the totalitarian party line.
Notable quote: “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Not only is this darkly gothic and philosophical story a cautionary tale, warning against vanity and excess – it also doubles up as an invaluable handbook of stinging, intelligent and well-observed insults (see below). Needless to say, the debauched plot of drinking, sex and acerbic barbs doesn’t end well for anyone.
Notable quote: “Inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write.”
Fight Club - Chuck Palahnuik
Despite using a dizzying narrative of sucker punches, split personalities and soap, Palahnuik’s modern classic is often overlooked in favour of the film adaptation. However, the book offers insights unseen on celluloid, so to add a little post-modern angst to your collection, invest in a copy – but you must never, ever, talk about it…
Notable quote: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Decadent, idealistic and a thrilling depiction of the roaring twenties, if The Picture of Dorian Gray was a handbook of insults, The Great Gatsby is a handbook of hedonism. With parties and selfishness pervading each and every page, this is the great American novel at its best – Gone with the Wind or The Grapes of Wrath would plug a similar hole in your collection.
Notable quote: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Live and Let Die - Ian Fleming
This may not be the most famous James Bond novel, nor is it even the first. But Live and Let Die, the second in Fleming’s superspy series, packs the best of Bond into 234 pages. Glamorous women and great food, cocktails, action and exotic locales are all masterfully woven together into a tale of smuggling that takes 007 from Harlem to Jamaica. The epitome of the adventure spy thriller.
Notable quote: “You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world.”
On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Kerouac, famous for his quotes and the voice of the Beat Generation, chronicles his travels across America with a group of friends. Set against a backdrop of cool jazz, poetry and drugs, Kerouac changes the names of all involved to heighten the narrative and, as a result, we end up following the exploits of such flowery-named individuals as Rollo Greb, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
Notable quote: “But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?”
It may seem a strange choice to eschew the Bard’s plays in favour of his sonnets, but including this collection of 154 poems in your capsule library will show an important appreciation of the artistic over name-dropping a bigger title. An abundance of drama, metaphors and an insight into Shakespeare’s personal life give his sonnets an undeniable edge.
Notable quote: “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence, save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.”
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
Every book collection needs a hardboiled, noirish detective novel, and nothing beats Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Set in a dusky 1930s Los Angeles, we encounter casinos, murder, double-crossing and many, many double scotches. What more could you ask for in the thrilling tale of a private investigator?
Notable quote: “She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.”
Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
A true story retold by mountaineer Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is the tragic tale of Christopher McCandless, a young idealist who decides to leave modern society behind – first donating his college fund to charity, then leaving his car by the side of the road and finally giving himself completely to nature.
Notable quote: “You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”