1. Samuel Pepys [A book about oneself]
Dude doesn’t have an idea in his skull. He never philosophizes. His whole trick is he just gets everything down, ideally within hours of its happening, and he doesn’t do anything to doctor the picture to improve his self-image. That’s key.
2. John Aubrey [A book about others]
Treat every single person like they might be of interest one day to scholars. Record every drop of gossip you hear about people. You don’t have to think anything; you barely have to comment at all. Just the facts, ma’am. Keep it brief and lean, and it’ll be great stuff. Leave yourself out.
3. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury [A book of favourites]
Poems one returns to over and over, like one returns to favorite songs. In selecting the contents, there has to be absolutely no concession to fairness. If three quarters of the book is one poet, so be it. If one of the poems is seventy pages long and none of the others are anything like that, so be it. If it’s all men or all women or all gay or all straight—so be it. There has to be one operating principle behind the book: the poems you go back to. Nothing more, nothing less.
4. Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas [A book of words]
And it’s a dictionary all right, but instead of definitions, it tells you what to say about any given topic, if you want to come off like a conventional French twit of the 1880s. So look up “moon,” and it says, “Induces melancholy. May be inhabited.”
5. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon [A book of lists]
The Pillow Book is not all lists, but it’s the lists that always make the biggest impression. “Things that give you a funny feeling in your stomach.” “Things that make you feel dirty.” “Subtle things that your lovers do when they’re taking their leave and it’s just so offensive.”
6. Li Zhi’s A Book to Burn [A book you dare not publish]
The story is that Li Zhi, the late Ming philosopher and gadfly, wrote this book thinking to enclose therein all his completely unacceptable views. … My philosophy professor at Penn State told us that Sade’s idea was to write a book one glance into which would entail eternal damnation for the reader. Open to any page, you’re going to hell. See, to me, that’s the spirit.