What is your favorite book? As a writer, this is the most common–and most dreaded–interview question I get. I know writers are supposed to be readers, and I am one. But my mind always goes blank.
In The Writer’s Library, literary mavens Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager ask this question of a slew of prominent authors. And these people know how to answer. This fascinating book is filled with 23 interviews with authors including T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Madeline Miller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Donna Tartt, and Ayelet Waldman on books that “made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives.”
Books that Change (Writer’s) Lives
This is a book you’ll want to keep around just for the lists at the back of every chapter naming the most influential authors and books each author cites. If you want a great writer-vetted list of books to read before you die, this is a great list to keep on hand.
It’s also an affirmation of the joy of reading and books and writing. And a great guide to anyone looking to freshen up their reading list.
Literary Inferiority Complex
Admittedly, this book is a tad intimidating. Especially if you read the book chronologically, which I did. The first interview is with Jonathan Lethem, who seems not only to recall every favorite and influential book: he can instantly describe every obscure title he’s ever read in excruciating detail. Worse, his interviewers Nancy and Jeff can too!
Not only do these people seem to have instant recall of everyone they’ve read and why they’ve liked or disliked them. They also seem to remember minute details about plot, character, and style. I can barely remember what I read last night.
Writers who also teach writing or review books for a living have better recall. That makes sense.
But as you read on, you realize that having an elephant’s memory for literature is not necessarily a prerequisite for literary success. Some writers (e.g., T.C., Boyle) say they change their minds daily about favorite books. Others say they can’t recall what they read 2 weeks ago. For plenty of writers, it took the discussion itself to dredge up memories. Phew.
Building a Writer’s Library
For all the feelings of literary inadequacy this book fueled, I had one moment of vindication when one of the interviewers admitted never having made it through Proust.
Here I get some points: By devoting part of every evening to reading 10 pages for nearly a year now, I am now in the home stretch. I only have 700 or so pages left to go.
Now I’m hankering to finish so I can devote my Proust-time to these new luscious books.