The Art of Re-reading: Favorite Books of Famous Writers

By Carole Reedy

Just as many of us trust our friends to recommend the books we read, so it is always of interest to know what our favorite writers prefer to read at their leisure. After all, if we like their books, we surely should enjoy the ones that they choose to read. As on any list of favorite books, the classics dominate, which stands to reason; otherwise they wouldn’t be classics. A surprising fact though is that many writers and teachers reread their favorites, often every year (when do they have time?). My professor of American Literature at university reread Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn every year. 

Renowned author Vladimir Nabakov has written: ‘One cannot read a book: one can only reread it. Only on a third or fourth reading do we start behaving toward a book as we would a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.’ Flaubert adds to this ‘what a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.’

Here are a few authors’ thoughts on the writers who influenced them, as well as some of their favorite novels.

Jonathan Franzen (Author of The Corrections, Freedom)
Franzen credits Franz Kafka for ‘opening my eyes to what literature can do.’ It was the impetus to start writing. Among Franzen’s favorite books are Continental Drift by Russell Banks and Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1976 ‘for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work’).

Joyce Carol Oates (Author of over 100 best selling novels)
Although also influenced by Kafka, she claims to ‘feel a writer kinship with James Joyce.’ Ms. Oates names Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevski as her favorite novel. Not really surprising to Oates’ fans, considering the themes of terror and guilt in books of both authors.

David Foster Wallace (Author of An Infinite Jest)
Wallace cites The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis as one of his favorite books, and says that Thomas Pynchon has been an important author in his development. Pynchon, in turn, names Jack Kerouac, specifically On the Road, for the same honor.

Vladimir Nabókov (Author of Lolita)
He fell in love with the novels of H.G Wells as a boy, and to this day recognizes that influence.

Truman Capote (Author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
The popular and precocious Capote gives credit and expresses admiration for several of his favorite writers for the effect they left on him: Flaubert, Turgenev, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Proust, H.G.Wells and Willa Cather

Hilary Mantel (Author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies )
I read a small impressive passage of literature as a child, and later in life she discovered it was from Shakespeare. From that moment on, The Complete Works of Shakespeare has been her favorite read.

Haruki Murakami (Author of 1Q84, Norwegian Weed, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Yet another famous contemporary writer influenced by Franz Kafka, Murikama lists among his favorite books The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

David Mitchell (Author of Cloud Atlas)
In the process of doing the research for this article, I discovered that Mitchell names the only book and author unfamiliar to me. One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimura is his vote for his favorite book, a novel about the effects of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Yoshimura has written over 20 best-selling books, but this is only the second to be translated into English.

John Irving: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Norman Mailer: (Pulitzer Prize winner, 1980 for The Executioner’s Song) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Nora Ephron (Author of screenplays and Heartburn)
Nora Ephron writes (in a chapter in her entertaining book of essays I Feel Bad about My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman) about the ‘rapture’ of reading. ‘The most rapture-inducing book of my adult life is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins’ (the 19th century British novel known as the first mystery). Both Ms. Ephron and author Jennifer Clement credit Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess as having a tremendous influence in their childhood. Clement says that it ‘provided all the direction I needed for later life.’ Ms. Ephron cites The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing also in her list of memorable books.

Zadie Smith (Author of White Teeth) Pnin by Vladimir Nabókov.
(I wonder if she has reread it, which would’ve pleased him). Appearing on her list of favorite books is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by the late David Foster Wallace.

Jeffrey Eugenides (Author of Middlesex, The Marriage Plot )
The Aeneid by Virgil and other Latin poets, as well as the ‘great Russians’ (Tolstoy and Nabokov) and the ‘great American Jews, Bellow and Roth.’

And, the final author mentioned here expresses the thoughts of many of us: Emma Donoghue (Author of Room and Astray): ‘Any Jane Austen, anytime.’

Here’s hoping this leaves you with many reading and rereading choices for the future! Based on this list it seems that you will need to dust off those classics that have been sitting on your bookshelves. Many are available at little or no cost for those who read on an electronic device.

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