Underworld by Don DeLillo
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
My parents were uneducated. No teachers had time to take an interest in my reading. There were 70 students per class and the slow readers brought everything to a crawl, so in the early grades I read my books upside down to make reading interesting. My father would take me to the library every Saturday morning to bring back a stack of books and pick out a new stack. I read indiscriminately as I had no means of discrimination.
I would recommend Maxine Hong Kingston's Warrior Woman, which showed us a dazzling, new way to be an American; and I would urge them to read Bernard Malamud's The Assistant, for its deep insights into America's immigrant culture and our abiding obsession with "belonging."
My mother, an American married to a Peruvian, who was trying to teach her children about the larger world, made an enormous impact on my reading habits. She introduced us to Joseph Conrad early on, figuring that he, too, was a cultural transplant who kept his eyes open and made keen, original observations about the nature of man. She also taught us to love Rudyard Kipling, whose fey humor and adventurous soul made a huge impression on us. Conrad's short stories and Kipling's poems were an integral part of our childhood in Peru.
I don't think I would have become a writer if I had not read seminal works by the following writers: Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Vladimir Nabokov (Speak, Memory), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler) and Yasunari Kawabata (A Thousand Cranes). Reading these as a youngster, I was persuaded that good stories trump cultural differences. They hold the key to human understanding.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat, and The Collected Stories of John Cheever. Miller's heart-wrenching play gives insight into our society's obsession with commercial/monetary success. The Steinbeck book represents the opposite pole, in this hilarious and utterly charming novel about a group of "paisanos" in Monterey who live only for the pleasure of the moment. Finally, Cheever's stories not only provide a unique insight into his generation of Americans but also deal with their bruised aspirations and the malaise of a consumer society.
My mother taught me to read, as I was too hyperactive to get by very well in class. The earliest books I remember were animal books, such as those by Albert Payson Terhune, Jack London and the like. And then there was my eighth-grade English teacher, Donald Grant, who read some of the hair-raising chestnuts aloud to us, stories like "To Build a Fire," "The Most Dangerous Game" and "The Monkey's Paw."
My mother, probably, who did not get past eighth grade but read the A.A. Milne books to me, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. My own reading was helter-skelter and little of it was great literature—I’d be embarrassed to come up with any names—but I took home from the library as many books as I was allowed to check out at one time (ten, I think) in my bike basket and finished them as fast as I could. And in the earliest grades, our school librarian had us “review and recommend” books to each other every week, which I found thrilling.
The Russians: Chekhov (naturally), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Others: Kafka. Alice Munro. And as a writer, possibly one of the most important books I read at exactly the right time was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, to teach me how to deal quietly, in beautiful prose, with emotionally intricate, even passionate drama.
The Collected Plays of Lillian Hellman. Since I have published plays and had one produced that addresses U.S. policy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my recommendation would be along those lines. Given the ongoing move by conservative groups against Latinos, Mexican immigrants and women’s civil rights, I revisit the plays and writings of Lillian Hellman. (Pentimento is also one of my all-time favorite books.) Ms. Hellman’s famous quote, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion,” spoken as a response to the McCarthy years, rings painfully true in 2012. Among other states, Arizona has taken the lead against Latino and Native American writing. (Two of my own books are on their ban list.)
Ms. Hellman’s plays enjoyed popularity and success in her lifetime and Hollywood movies were based on them. The plays The Children’s House and Little Foxes—classics—remain popular. Ms. Hellman’s works have been embraced by Marxists and later, feminists. In my opinion, while her strongest characters are women, her theme is always that of human rights and exposing the core of (wo)man’s conscience in mid-twentieth-century U.S. society.
I’ve also taken away from her work her tongue-in-cheek style and sharp humor. I would recommend her entire collected plays but in addition to the two mentioned above, Watch on the Rhine. Today, she might have written “Watch on the Mexican Border.”
I was born and raised in Chicago and attended the Chicago Public Schools. I did not have encouragement in this regard. As it turned out, however, my own advanced reading skills drew me on my own to seek out books.
I do have one book-related memory. My cousin and I helped my third-grade teacher, Mr. Stump, an older, mild-mannered, light-skinned black teacher, to clean his room on grading day. As a thank-you he gave me an old book off the bookshelf in his classroom. It was Huckleberry Finn. Of course, I read it and treasured it. After innumerable moves over a lifetime, it is still in my library.
Having neither studied literature nor creative writing, my choice of reading has come to me over my lifetime—sometimes pragmatically or by sheer accident, or because at that time in my life, a nagging question burned inside me requiring a literary response.
In my mid-twenties to early thirties many of the writers of the early 20th century held my avid attention. They have included many of the French, Russians and also the ex-pats. Anaïs Nin, who may be considered a citizen of the world, led the pack. Among the French, De Beauvoir, LeDuc, Genet and Colette were my “book friends.” Many of the books I discovered at used bookstores, which Chicago was rich with. Dostoevsky will always remain among my long-term fiction teachers. Jean Rhys comes to mind and V.S. Naipaul, speaking of the colonized experience. Born in Chicago before the Civil Rights Movement and coming of age during that era, I have always sought out writers who in some way spoke of the outsider’s experience. This also applied to my gender. I was in my twenties when the white middle class was going full throttle. I needed to carve out a little space for my own experience. In recent years, I have discovered French writer Georges Bataille and Italian novelist Marianna Sirca and what I could find on them in English. I could of course go on with books and writers who have been my friends throughout my life and my journey as a writer.
My mother gave me one of the greatest gifts an adult can give a child: she read to me nearly every day. Mostly children’s books, of course, then repeatedly at my insistence the animal classics, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (50 million copies sold, it might be added) and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. My mother also had memorized hundreds of lines of poetry, which often found their way into her conversation. Reading and quoting were familiar parts of my growing up.
My mother made it a practice to read aloud to my brother David and me at bedtime. She read authors whose likeness appeared on "Authors," a card game we played. The pictures of the authors—Poe, Dickens, Sir Walter Scott—fascinated me. The book I most remember was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I thought it would bore me to listen to a story about girls (how my mother longed for a daughter!) but I was totally caught up by the story. As much as I loved the books my mother read, the books that made the greatest impression were those that I would hide away under my bed along with a flashlight to read at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. Reading never seemed more subversive or dangerous. Many of the books involved modes of transportation, especially over water, and my bed would become Huck Finn's raft, the ship in Treasure Island, the ship in Jack London's Sea Wolf and the balloon in what was my favorite book, Jules Verne's Mysterious Island.
There are far too many books by the many writers from G8 countries to name, so I will record only a sampling: French modernists have had an enormous influence on me, the poets in particular, from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire, through the surrealists and the post-World War II generation that includes Pierre Reverdy and René Char, and prose poem writers such as Jean Follain and Max Jacob. Russian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries—all the classics, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and especially Isaac Babel, and also the poets—Pasternak and Mandelstam, in particular—along with Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, etc. And I should also include the incredible richness of Russian folk tales and proverbs. Though neither writer was German, Kafka, one of my favorite of all writers, wrote in German as did the great poet, Paul Celan, and, of course, Rilke. Two of my favorite writers are Ligurian, Eugenio Montale and Italo Calvino. I also love Italian fabulists such as Dino Buzzati and Tommaso Landolfi. Italian 20th-century poets, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salvatore Quasimodo, etc. have been important writers for me, as has Primo Levi. And I am grateful for the many good translations of Dante and more recently Jonathan Galassi's inspired translation of Leopardi. My two favorite Japanese writers are Yasunari Kawabata and Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. I have read everything available in English by these writers and I never stop reading haiku. One of my favorite of all critical books on writing is Traces of Dreams by Haruo Shirane, and of course I am a fan of Haruki Murakami. As for the United Kingdom, it is impossible really to even summarize—Joyce, Greene, Yeats, Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad—one might begin with Beowulf and simply work forward through the glorious centuries.
My mother has always been a huge reader; she read to me as soon as I was born, and taught me to read at age 4. Our reading tastes are still quite similar. As for childhood favorites, I'd say the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which I feel I actually LIVED, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which obsessed me at age 11 and—I think—inspired me to write a gothic novel years later.
I love 19th-century writing from both Russia and France: Dostoevsky and Zola especially. And of course I grew up reading the great English novelists; Eliot and Dickens are two that I consciously emulate. From Japan, I'm partial to the work of Yukio Mishima. And the Canadian Alice Munro is an inspiration.
DeTocqueville's Democracy in America, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and Richard Ford's trilogy: The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land.
In order to understand America, you need to understand three things: its origins, its soul and its trajectory. Democracy in America describes the first; Leaves of Grass delineates the second; and Richard Ford's trilogy sketches the third.
When I was seventeen, a child by literary standards, my English teacher, Eric Linder, forced me to read Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. How I hated it! But how I love it now! This is what teachers are for: to tell us what we need to read when we don't yet know.
In my teens, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce; in my twenties, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, Nabokov's Lolita and Pale Fire, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez; in my thirties The Information by Martin Amis; in my twenties, thirties, forties, and forever, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My mom was a great reader. So was my older sister. The nuns who taught us at St. Patrick's seemed more interested in getting us to obey and be organized than to lose ourselves in literature. But we did have a closet-like "library" at school that contained all the Hardy Boys books, Horatio Hornblower, Lad a Dog books and the like. One of my favorite books was The Lion's Paw, by Robb White. Also, The Once and Future King, by T.H. White.
Too many to list. More than half of the hundreds of books that have been important to me originated in a G8 country. A few highlights:
War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann
A Personal Matter Kenzaburō Ōe
The Confessions of Zeno Italo Svevo
In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust
The Beggar Maid Alice Munro
Bleak House Charles Dickens
So hard not to want to pick books that mattered so much to me, like Native Son by Richard Wright, or Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Working by Studs Terkel, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver, Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx. How can anyone not mention El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain) by Juan Rulfo? But here are mine:
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, a truly American novel about the American character, drama, humor and bravado. And The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. As a fan of the short story, and of what the East Coast calls "regional" writing, there is none better than her. I am also fond of writers whose lives were large, too, stories themselves, and both my selections are bold on my kind of billboard.
Really unfair to have to choose which book by Dostoevsky was most important to me—The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Possessed—but I'm going with The Idiot. Also impossible to not want to select one of many by either Kafka or B. Traven, but neither of them are exactly or clearly German, and almost impossible for me to not want to say Camus, the immigrant Frenchman. I am forced to pick what I find the most stunning combination of various arts, The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht.
That’s going to be a hard one. Sula by Toni Morrison is one of my very favorites and I reread it regularly. Good and Evil are not so easily defined, are they? I also think The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie should definitely be in the briefcase. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, because torture is a terrible thing and we must both stop torture and find a way of forgiving those who created this hell on earth. I would close my list with Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which takes a deep and powerful look at the Atlanta child murders.
I have no recollection of not reading books and books not being read to me. My grandfather was a Latin scholar who told us tales of the Greek and Roman Gods; my mother was a lover of poetry and she, my sister and I would read and recite together. My father’s first gift to my mother was a book: A Bell For Adano by John Hersey. At one point our family lived in a home without indoor toilet facilities but Mother had a piano and a small library. I still have her books. My desire was to read All This And Heaven Too because it was big and way up and Mommy said I would not understand it. She was right but years later I saw the movie with Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. My very favorite books for my own age were the Mother West Wind series by Thornton Burgess. I adored Reddy Fox and His Granny. Loved Mother West Wind letting the Merry Breezes play in the meadow while she worked. It was so my own life.
Of course we all read, and had to read, the Russian classics. I found them trying, though my favorite Dostoevsky is Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. I thought an exile in Paris would be just the bees-knees though I never as an adult considered exile. I had an interest in the history of World War II and did some reading in that area, but my favorite books were the British. I adored Daphne Du Maurier and, quite naturally, Agatha Christie. But one of the books that recently shot up to one of my very favorites is The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson. It makes the top favorite new book, right along with Song Yet Sung by James McBride.
The one that first knocked me for a loop was The Story of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff. Later, when I could read and could make my own choices, it was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, with the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.
Canada Short stories by Alice Munro, A Passion in Rome by Morley Callaghan, and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler
France On Love by Stendhal, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, everything by Albert Camus, Passing Time by Michel Butor, Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, and Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
Germany Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
Italy Diaries by Cesare Pavese, Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia,The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, and the short stories of Alberto Moravia. Then there are Boccaccio, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius...
Japan The River Sumida by Kafū Nagai, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata and Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe
United Kingdom Everything by Charles Dickens, everything by George Orwell, short stories by V.S. Pritchett, The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. A list that would fill pages...
Russia The stories and plays of Anton Chekov, A Sportsman's Sketches by Ivan Turgenev, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and Dostoevsky, of course.
Well, for one, Gem of the Ocean, a brilliant play by August Wilson, and in terms of (relatively) contemporary fiction, I rather think that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Rudy Anaya's Bless Me Ultima would be eye-opening. (And to go further back, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mr. Twain, of course.)
I think each speaks to a certain formative time in American history. August Wilson addresses the legacy of slavery, while Ralph Ellison's novel addresses the emerging African American male, at the cusp of a time when everything began to change in terms of civil rights. Rudy Anaya's book recounts a saga, taken from a certain moment in Mexican-American history, while Twain's very famous book offers a lyric and tender look at yet another time, pre-Civil War America. Of course my list could go on, but I think each of these books is a piece of the puzzle that comprises the collective, ever-emerging American identity.
Oddly enough, I really didn't have a teacher or parent to guide me; my mother, though, was somewhat of a creative soul, who wrote poetry, so I always had that in my head. As for influences, a childhood friend who always had books in his home seems to have had a positive influence on me, though the only ones I can recall reading now were Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, a copy of which my mother found somewhere—I still have it.
Goodness. During my formative years as a writer, I very much liked Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that would be the tip of an iceberg that included other writers like Julio Cortázar, José Donoso and Carlos Fuentes, all Latin Americans. At the same time, I was very much under the spell of two rather unlike writers—the Polish/British writer Joseph Conrad and, from Ireland, Flann O'Brien, whose fanciful works were always interesting to me, even if they hadn't anything to do with my Cuban ancestry.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. These books are about "the American dream," and our tragedy as we try to attain that dream, or illusion. I wish I could be more upbeat in my choices. Okay, let me hope that the world leaders read my book, The Fifth Book of Peace. Also, In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams. Actually, I'd like more Americans to read that book, so that we might understand ourselves better.
My mother and father were readers. And my mother would constantly “talk-story,” and my father would sing poetry. They read to me, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in Chinese, illustrated with ink drawings. The books I read over and over again were Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. I heard these adventures told by my mother, then later read them in English translation. Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. The Iliad. The Odyssey. I read The Aeneid in Latin. The mythic and the legendary verify my own imagination. A real-life book that inspired me would be Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The tome I am currently immersed in is War and Peace, the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Nancy Drew series, the Wizard of Oz books, especially Ozma of Oz, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ruth Plumly Thompson.
Because Feminism is old, not new, and because Jewish authors added a lot.
Our living room walls were covered with books, hundreds of them, from floor to ceiling. It was a given that if my brother or I wanted to understand ourselves or the world, it was all along those walls.
Old Yeller is the first book to make me cry (which as a young boy I tried to keep from everyone else). Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in an odd sort of way, made my adolescence feel less dark. It gave me perspective.
The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead, a novel set around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. by an Australian-born novelist who also set books in London and Sydney, and who somehow captured in it a portrait of everything impossible and ineradicable in the spirit of American optimism.
It begins for me with my mother's bookshelf, and her copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, a very handsome Heritage Reprint edition in yellow cloth which contained a statement in the front that said: "This series of books has been made necessary by the government's wartime regulation that, whenever a book is reprinted, less paper must be used in the reprint." After the Carroll she next handed me Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, and the die was cast. By the time of school, my teachers were mostly reduced to discouraging my reading.
As the example of Carroll suggests, fiction in English from the United Kingdom was always as important to me as that from North America. Graham Greene was among my earliest favorites. Then, shortly after, in translation, Franz Kafka—who has been a lifelong obsession. I'm teaching his work this week to my university students.
My parents were very enthusiastic readers. Among the very worthy suggestions of my parents were: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Moby Dick by Herman Melville and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. These all turned out to be incredibly useful books for me. I can also attest to the importance, in childhood, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
So many that it's almost impossible to catalogue them. I have already
mentioned Lewis Carroll. From the U.K., there is also Sterne, Swift, Hogg, Peacock, Hardy, Woolf and many others. From France, André Breton's Nadje, Artaud's The Theater and Its Double and Roland Barthes's A Lover’s Discourse. In order not to go on too long, I will also mention The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, The Divine Comedy, The Decameron, etc. Maybe that's enough!
This is an impossible task, to winnow out a lifetime of reading and decide on one or two books for a foreign leader to read. But if I have to choose, I might say James Agee's A Death in the Family because of its universal themes of love and loss. It could certainly show people from other places how much we have in common. And as for a play, I guess if pinned down, I'd opt for Tony Kushner's Angels in America, for its exploration of events and themes peculiar to this country, but universal, as well.
I grew up in a household where the only books were written in Yiddish, and there were few enough of them. My parents did not read anything but newspapers, generally the Daily Forward, written in Yiddish. So encouraging me to read in English was a task that fell to my teachers and mainly to the head librarian in the Jackson, Michigan Public Library, a refuge and an endless fountain to quench my thirst for reading. It seems to me now that I was largely self-taught. It was my goal to read every book in the library, and I can tell you the names of authors beginning with "A" and "B" as testimony to the prodigious amount of reading I managed to do. I remember E. Nesbit (much further down the alphabet), whose books enchanted me.
Early on I made no distinction in my reading concerning an author's country of origin (E. Nesbit is an early example). But as I grew and my tastes became more guided and more sophisticated, I came across memorable work from other countries. Camus's The Stranger still haunts me with its unforgettable opening line. Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country was another book that still resonates with me, as does any work by Nadine Gordimer. I discovered Aldous Huxley early on, and Point Counterpoint helped shape me as a writer. I read all of Hermann Hesse in the ’70s and I go back to Franz Kafka again and again, especially his short story, "The Metamorphosis." Vladimir Nabokov influences me to this day, especially his memoir of childhood.
My original list contained 37 books, filled with mostly the canonical works. After three hours of whittling … Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West; The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor; Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
For their language—for their ability to make words seem larger than they are. And for their characters, whom I absolutely love, though I’d deny most of them entry to my house.
My parents worked twelve hours a day, trying to make it in this new country of ours. They didn’t have the luxury of books, let alone time for the intangibles in life, such as encouragement. And I’m sure my teachers pushed me to read but I just don’t remember them doing so, which is more a statement about my faulty memory than anything else. But what I do remember distinctly is my first English-language book—Andrew Henry’s Meadow—a picture book about a boy inventor who runs away from home because his parents don’t appreciate his wacky (genius) creations. Andrew builds a home for himself at a faraway meadow and forms a community of other wayward children. As soon as I read this book, I wanted to read another. And another. A few years later I myself would run away from home, and nearly 25 years after that (long after I had forgotten about Andrew Henry) I would write a novel about a runaway who forms her own community in the underbelly of New York. I can’t help but wonder about these connections. And how, in the end, it was a book that had encouraged me to read other books, and perhaps to write one too.
My second-grade teacher, Harriett Barron Lane, of Central School, St. Louis, was a passionate advocate of poetry-reading for her seven-year-old students. She believed we gained vocabulary, insight, confidence, wisdom and a sense of context from reading a vast array of poems. Two books I fell in love with in her class were Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson and Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. Nothing was above our heads in second grade.
I have been deeply moved and changed by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Barry Dempster and Carol Shields of Canada; Robin Robertson and Carol Ann Duffy of Scotland; Shuntarō Tanikawa of Japan; so many countless voices of England I can't even begin to name them, but definitely including Jacqueline Saphra; Rafik Schami, the Syrian writer who lives and writes out of Germany; and Bertolt Brecht for decades—and so many more.
My father, mother, brother, cousins, playmates, everyone I knew was reading. I read books from the public library and books recommended (a classmate put me onto Vanity Fair, and I stayed up with it all one night and into noon of the next day, unable to stop). An uncle who was a poet gave me Just So Stories, another uncle brought a three-volume Shakespeare set, a third uncle passed on his son's Don Quixote... “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!”
Russia: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bunin, Nabokov, the Yiddish writers Chaim Grade, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz
Britain: Oh! Countless! Austen, George Eliot, James, Conrad, Forster, Woolf, Byatt ... Countless!
Austria: Joseph Roth
Germany: Heine, Thomas Mann
France: Maupassant, Balzac, Proust
The United States is a constant battle between narratives. To me, the plays of Tennessee Williams demonstrate that beautifully. Consider the struggle between Amanda and her daughter in The Glass Menagerie. Or the battle to establish the “truth” about the killing in Suddenly, Last Summer. Both plays are about revising the past to serve the present and control the future. That is America. Each of the works I cited seems to represent the world as an unstable and constantly shifting clash of larger forces. And my favorite characters, like Billy Pilgrim, are people who can exist in this perpetual turmoil without being broken by it. World peace will never come to pass, so I aspire to be such a peaceful person.
Please, may I list three people? The first was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Richard Olson, who praised me for writing a few poems and for memorizing all 18 verses of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” I was 10 years old and he paraded me from adult to adult and insisted I recite the poem, he was so shocked by my strange talent for rote memorization. The second was my best friend in sixth grade, who returned from a holiday trip and brought me a copy of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, the paperback movie tie-in edition released with the Karen Black film. It was a strange gift from one 11-year-old to another, but the surreal movie studio back-lot scenes reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s strange alternative reality: doors leading from one century to another, strange paper palaces, overgrown gardens. I loved it. The third inspiration was my tenth-grade English teacher, Judy Frasure, who asked us to read Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Once more, here was a story that jumped between vastly different realities. Everything was in flux, and the narrator was simultaneously old and young. Each of these surreal, absurd visions—as well as the people who presented them to me—has shaped my perception and taste.
As usual I trend toward the surreal: Günter Grass, Irvine Welsh, Michel Houellebecq. Each of them uses strong, well-depicted physical moments to achieve their effect. Who can forget Grass’s severed horse head filled with eels? Or Houellebecq’s brothels? The physical actions and descriptions imprint on the reader in ways that dialogue never could.
The Virginian and Huckleberry Finn probably sum up the vision Americans like to have of themselves, but I think a different, fuller picture could be drawn, of America and of Chicago, by reading Gwendolyn Brooks. Bronzeville is a good place to start, although it is her early work. Maya Angelou speaks to contemporary readers in a powerful and authentic voice.
My older brother taught me to read when I was four. My mother was a constant reader; to us, to herself, and the habit became central to all of my siblings and myself as we grew up. The Laura Ingalls Wilder series and Little Women were my hands-down childhood favorites.
Ratushinskaya's Grey is the Color of Hope, the whole oeuvres of Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell and Austen, and Democracy in America. David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel are two contemporary writers I greatly admire. I like Daniel Pennac's quirky voice. Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and Howard Engel.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, to my mind, the quintessential American novel. It gets at the heart of how we strive and desire and so often fail to take responsibility for our actions. America is the land of reinvention and that's what Gatsby manages to do. At the other end of the spectrum, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun show what happens to the people who are shut out of the dream or fail at it. They're both brilliant plays.
Sister Nena, who was a Sister of Mercy at St. Bernard's in Nashville, taught me to read. It was no easy task and I didn't love her for all the work she made me do at the time. Forty-two years later she's one of my dearest friends.
There was a picture book I loved called The Lonely Doll, by Dare Wright. Later on I was devoted to Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White. I begged my parents to give me a pig, which they did, for my ninth birthday.
My mother was the one who encouraged me to read. She was ALWAYS reading, and one of the first memories I have is learning how to sign my name so I could go get my own library card. I remember her giving me the All-of-a-Kind Family series of books, Little House on the Prairie, and later, Gone with the Wind.
Anything by John Mueller, particularly Retreat from Doomsday—an analysis of how, contrary to popular opinion, nations are moving away from war. And David Courtwright, Violent Land—a history of America with special reference to its patterns of violence, combining history with biology.
My mother was an avid reader and book buyer, and she provided me with two books whose impact has been lasting. One was George Gamow's One, Two, Three....Infinity, a delightful children's introduction to number theory, geometry, relativity theory and other areas of math and physics. The other was a Time-Life series of books on science, with volumes on different topics mailed to our house monthly—The Planets, Electricity and Magnetism, Evolution, Mathematics and, most importantly, The Mind. I was gripped by the idea that the mind could be studied as a topic in science.
Recommended books for foreign leaders: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, because it so beautifully articulates certain aspects of the American sensibility—its commitment to truth, the experience of the frontier, the sense of struggle between the idea and the world. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, because it shows a sense of ruthlessness and frenzy that still obtains in American society, and the consequences. Also My Antonia, by Willa Cather, which tells a story of immigration and the early struggles between the people and the land.
When I was a child, it was my mother who most encouraged me to read, and that by example. It was clear to us that reading was one of her greatest pleasures. She would go to bed at night with a bowl of ice cream and a volume of Simenon, in French. When we were children, she and my father read aloud to us, from lots of different kind of books, from the great ghost stories to James Thurber. Reading was at the center of our household and our conversation.
There are many books from other countries that have been important to me as a writer. My all-time favorite may be Anton Chekhov, who revealed, with his remarkably observant and compassionate eye, what life was like in 19th-century Russia—and everywhere else, throughout history. Other great favorites are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which showed so gaily and elegantly how to render an entire family and its history; Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, another great chronicle of a family, and its mesmerizing descent; also Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which enters into the sensibility of each of its characters with such understanding that the whole book is nearly unbearable. And there are more, of course.
Mona Simpson's most recent novel, My Hollywood, delves into the inner lives of both Claire, an upper-middle-class white working mother in Los Angeles, and Lola, the Filipina nanny who cares for Claire's son. Simpson brilliantly captures the complications of various elements of contemporary childrearing, the so-called mommy wars, and the immigrant experience. On a lighter note, Tina Fey's Bossypants chronicles being an American female in a way that is in equal measure honest and hilarious. I don't know any woman who hasn't loved Fey's book. And then there's always Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, of which I am—for its ambition and intelligence—one of many admirers.
I read The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian writer Alaa-Al-Aswany in fall 2010, shortly before the Arab Spring. Although I wouldn't say the book particularly influenced my own writing, I think of it often when I read or hear reports about all the political shifts in Egypt.
I suspect these foreign leaders understand much more about the U.S. than most of us do of their countries. Given that, I'd choose "The Bear" by William Faulkner and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; in case they are fully familiar with both works, then I'd say the poems of Emily Dickinson, which are always surprising no matter how many times you have read them.
Tough question. For those outside of the United States, I would recommend anything by Eudora Welty or Toni Morrison to understand the enduring complexities of caste and race in America, as well as the plays of August Wilson and the nonfiction of James Baldwin and Richard Wright for their unsentimental witness-bearing to the plight of those long consigned to the lowest caste in so influential a country. I consider myself to be a writer whose subject area is not race or ethnicity but rather human nature. I chose these books and authors because of the beauty of their art and their unflinching commitment to bearing the truths of the human heart, truths deeply and richly told, that we all might learn from what they have seen in their imaginations.
My parents, who grew up in the South and migrated to Washington, D.C., where they met and married, had exceedingly high expectations and made sure that I got a library card as soon as I could read, something they had been denied as children in the segregated South. As a young child, I remember reading E.B. White and Astrid Lindgren, but recall losing myself entirely in the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett, which seemed to fit my deeply felt imagination.
Two books from other G8 countries that have greatly affected my own sense of the possibilities as a writer have been Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Ian McEwan's Atonement. Obviously, they are gorgeously written, but what moves me the most are their mastery of the inconsistencies of the human heart and how accurately the portrayals are rendered.
Above all I’d recommend Leaves of Grass, by the incomparable American poet, Walt Whitman, though Whitman is already so celebrated throughout the world that I imagine any literate person in the world will already have read him. The other book would be the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, surely one of the great prose works in world literature. Interestingly, Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass were published within five years of each other, and astonishingly Les Fleurs du Mal was published in the same decade.
My father read a lot to me when I was young, and bought me my first poetry books, one of which, One Hundred and One Favorite Poems, I used to pore over, without quite knowing why. I also went through a phase in late childhood when I was obsessed by horses and everything to do with horses and my junior high-school’s librarian used to order and save books for me. My very favorite was a purported autobiography, Lone Cowboy, by the cowboy writer and artist Will James. The book turned out to be three-quarters true, and one quarter a painful lie, which tormented James, drove him to drink, and finally to an early death.
When I first began to write poetry in college, the poets who first excited and heartened me were Charles Baudelaire, the French genius who was in many ways the inventor of modernism, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet. Baudelaire’s master-work, Les Fleurs du Mal, it turns out, was a powerful influence not only on me, but on Rilke, too, as he recounts in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, another book that meant a great deal to me. I’ve had many masters since then, most notably the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, but Baudelaire and Rilke have remained touchstones for my whole writing career.
This is a daunting task but for two views of America: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, to understand much about the world that is emerging. And Steven Weisman’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Portrait of an American Visionary in Letters for a sweeping view of American political history.
My father had the biggest influence. He had been a newspaper reporter in his younger days, and he raised me on stories of Chicago “front page” journalism in the 1920s and 1930s. I learned from him about storytelling, and he passed to me the importance of being a writer. I’m sure in some way I was following through on what he had always wanted to do. I vividly remember we had four tall dark-wood bookcases in our living room, filled with books, and I still remember a family friend standing in front of one of the bookcases, saying, “Your father is a big reader.”
I read a great deal of science fiction and the adventures of Captain Horatio Hornblower. As to specific titles, I remember John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and books by Ray Bradbury (I got to interview him for the high school literary magazine). And I totally loved short stories by John O’Hara. I was fascinated that critics would say that he had “a great ear for dialogue” and would reflect upon that. Later I was very influenced by David Halberstam and Gay Talese for narrative nonfiction. And the conclusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby echoed in the way I concluded my first book.
Power of the Word: Leaders, Readers and Writers is the first online exhibition of The American Writers Museum. As world leaders gather in the U.S. this spring, The American Writers Museum Foundation is inviting American writers and readers to explore the power of the word and join in a discussion of how American books can help readers in other parts of the world better understand our culture.
An exploration into what some of the world’s most powerful leaders like to read, and how reading has influenced them.
American writers comment on their early experiences with reading and name the books they think world leaders should read in order to better understand American culture.
An interactive, open forum where readers are invited to join the discussion by answering the question: Which American works of literature do you think leaders from other nations should read in order to gain a better understanding of America?
We would like to thank our exhibit sponsors for their generous support:
The mission of The American Writers Museum Foundation is to establish the first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives. Learn more at www.americanwritersmuseum.org