Last year, I asked every Chautauqua and Literary Scientific Circle author I interviewed what book they would want with them if they were on a desert island. I was fascinated by the responses, and so I decided to ask every CLSC author this year a different question: What book changed their life?
As someone who aspires to be an English professor — and someone who reads a lot — I’m always interested in knowing what other people are reading. That curiosity intensifies when said people are famous authors.
The answers I received were thoughtful, simple and sometimes revelatory. It’s interesting to see how one book can shape a person’s path in life.
It’s a hefty list, both in terms of page counts and in terms of topics and genres represented. Consider it recommended reading for the off-season. Here’s what the authors had to say:
Author of The Sounds of Poetry
English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson by John Williams
“He took these poems written at the very beginning of modern English — not just by William Shakespeare, but poets like Fulke Greville, George Gascoigne — and he presents them in a way that opened up to me the range of possibilities and the musical variety of writing in English,” Pinsky said.
Author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall,
the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America
Papillon by Henri Charrière
“It’s a funny answer, and it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, but as a young man I read a book called Papillon,” King said. “And I was probably too young to read it. But it’s the story of this big prison escape and a wrongly accused man escaping from Devil’s Island.”
King said the injustice of Charrière’s situation weighed on him heavily.
“I just felt like there was an adventure and drama that you could use in order to tell a story about injustice. And I think that stayed with me for a very long time. It’s a very simple book, but it just had an effect on me. It reached me deep inside and made me realize that drama was a great way to bring about stories of injustice.”
Author of Missoula: Rape and the Justice
System in a College Town
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey and
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
Krakauer had two choices: one he said that touched him recently and one that’s a career-long influence. He said he has a shelf above his desk with the 20 or so books “that are the touchstones” of his reading life.
“A book that I recently read — and I can’t even tell you why it changed my life — but it’s one of the few books that I started rereading immediately after I finished it — was Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey, a British novelist,” Krakauer said. “It’s just a pretty simple novel, on the face of it. It doesn’t sound profound. But it’s just beautifully written, and it speaks to the human condition. It turns out, as I realized halfway through it, that it was inspired by a Leonard Cohen song that I love called ‘Famous Blue Raincoat.’ ”
His other choice was one that he said has stuck with him for a long time.
“I really like Annie Dillard,” Krakauer said. “She wrote a book called For the Time Being. That’s one of the books that’s probably had the largest effects on my life. I’m sure it’s had a large effect.”
Author of Someone
The Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov
by Vladimir Nabokov
“Oh, my gosh,” McDermott said. “It’s hard to say just one. But I would have to say — because I think I’ve said it before — the first time I read The Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, I had a very clear sense when reading those that I wanted to be a writer.”
McDermott said she can remember exactly where she was and why she was reading Nabokov, and that she “just fell in love with his sentences.”
“And I just thought, ‘I will never be able to write that well, but if I spent my whole life trying to write that well, it would be worthwhile,’ ” McDermott said.
Presenter of The Opposite of Loneliness
Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
Fadiman’s choice was one she discovered when she was a freshman in college. She read McPhee’s work as a series in The New Yorker, and found a kindred spirit in someone who wrote about the outdoors in a profound way.
“This book made me think, ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’ ” Fadiman said. “I imagined that somehow I could spend my life writing about nature and the outdoors, and I have done that and written about plenty of other stuff as well. But the kind of literary journalism that John McPhee did — I didn’t know it existed as a genre. I never read anything like that for an English class in high school. That’s not what we were assigned. And my jaw dropped. I realized that it was possible, and that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that. Of course, not anywhere near on the level of John McPhee.”
Author of Chautauqua Prize winner Redeployment
Silence by Shusaku Endo
Klay’s answer was short and sweet.
“It’s a wonderful Japanese novel,” Klay said. “It’s a really profound, painful kind of book.”
Emily St. John Mandel
Author of Station Eleven
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Mandel’s choice ended up being a book that was part of the CLSC in 1994, something she was previously unaware of.
“That’s a great question — that’s what I say when I’m stalling for an answer,” Mandel said. “I think I can maybe say The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I read that book when I was 14, and it was one of those books where I felt like that was the book — I can’t say that there was any one book that specifically made me a writer — but that was the book that showed me what prose could be. He’s just a master stylist. I found that book to be absolutely gorgeous. And I still think about it all the time, even though I read it so long ago. So I think I have to point to that one.”
Author of Dead Wake:
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
“I really feel that, in that collection of short stories, it not only touched something in my life as a young man, but in a more concrete and relative basis, it really taught me to write,” Larson said. “It taught me how important it was or how valuable it could be to strip your prose of adjectives and adverbs and try to convey things without telling. That’s what Hemingway was really the master at — conveying themes and ideas without actually telling you.”
Author of Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories
of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine,
and the Miracle That Set Them Free
Native Son by Richard Wright
“I have to say the first book that always comes to mind when I think about that question is Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, which I read when I was a teenager in college,” Tobar said. “It’s a novel about a black man who is charged with a murder in 1930s Chicago, an era of incredible segregation and discrimination. And the anger and the ambition of that novel — it was a book that aimed to give voice to a community that was oppressed and silenced. That, to me, awakened my artistic ambition and my writerly ambition. I would say it’s a book that helped to make me a writer and a very important book to me.”
Author of All the Light We Cannot See
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
“When I read it in high school, I thought, ‘Hmm,’ ” Doerr said. “But when I read it again in my 20s, I would say that it changed my life.”
Author of Thirteen Days in September:
Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Wright’s choice had special significance for him, because he was actually able to meet Percy.
“When I was in college at Tulane [University], I was in a philosophy class, and I had to write a paper — an honors thesis,” Wright said. “And I decided I would write on the influence of [Søren] Kierkegaard on the novels of Walker Percy. Percy had won the National Book Award, but he was still a very little-known writer living outside of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain. But he was a philosopher and a novelist.
And I’d never met a real writer before. And he agreed to let me interview him.”
Wright drove out to meet Percy in his red MG, the same type of car that Binx Bolling, Percy’s main character, drives in the book. Wright drove Percy to pick up his car at the mechanic’s, an experience Wright still relishes.
“He was very generous to me,” Wright said. “There’s something about meeting somebody that you admire — it makes them more real to you. For me, it made the idea that I could become a writer too seem more approachable. Up until then, writers were mythic figures for me. I just had never actually met one. And Percy was very helpful to me, and we had a correspondence for a few years. So I would say that The Moviegoer is that book for me.”
Author of The Human Age:
The World Shaped By Us
Benedictus: A Book of Blessings
by John O’Donohue, My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, Man Against Himself by Karl Menninger, Language, Thought, and Reality by Benjamin Lee Whorf, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas, and Earthly Paradise by Colette
Ackerman said she couldn’t pick just one book.
“Not one book, but many have changed me,” Ackerman said. “And many more books that have changed me, neurons, hoodwinks and soul. As I spend eight hours in intimate conversation with a great book, a new world dawns.”