Who I Am By Pete TownshendThe great tilter at, and of, windmills is a wonderfully literate commentator not only on his own turbo-charged band but the generally turbulent milieu of rock and roll. We might not be in the least surprised that he’s been banned for life from Holiday Inns because of leaving a Lincoln Continental in a swimming pool, but we might be ever so slightly surprised that he held the Everly Brothers in such esteem.
The Trinity By St. AugustineAugustine, the only major thinker of Late Antiquity who was monolingual (Latin) and could not read the original Trinitarian speculations of the Greek Fathers, so he had to look inside himself for the image of God.
I did not come to essay writing immediately, but fell in love with the form after fiddling around with fiction and poetry, even publishing books in those two genres. In time I came to see the essay as so capacious and flexible that it could accommodate the storytelling impulse of fiction and the associative, quicksilver moves of poetry, enabling me to draw on my training in both.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan DidionI read this in Glasgow in one big sitting when I was a teenager, and I couldn’t speak for like a week and a half. These essays capture the moral temperament of the 1960s and the weather as well as the inner life of the author.
Colorful stylists, whatever their other virtues, make dangerous models. Aspiring writers might look instead to the pure. Here are six works of nonfiction to cleanse the palate of the reader dining on too-rich prose.Reporting By Lillian RossThis is the collection in which Ross’s classic profile of Hemingway appears—as fresh as it was in 1950 and more valuable, especially for its preservation of the literary manners of a disappeared era.
New York Jew By Alfred KazinA dense memoir, both lyrical and incisive, from one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century. Though it’s brimming with famous writers—Kazin’s collaborators on the slew of magazines and journals he founded and wrote for—the real star here is the New York Public Library, where Kazin first discovered himself.
Haiti: The Aftershocks of History By Laurent Dubois I’ve written about Haiti for a long time now, and thought about it for a long time, and whenever I get blue, or stuck, or think I’m over it, Laurent Dubois, newer to the scene than I and far more erudite, publishes a new book on Haitian history.
Everyone knows what a novella is, but try to define the genre. The easiest and most flat-footed definition would be the one I frequently use: a novella is a long short story that is not a novel. But this can hardly pass for a definition.
Winter Journal By Paul Auster More than simply a memoir by one of the finest American novelists. This is also a reflection on time, age, mistakes, work, the closing of some doors, and the opening of others. For me it’s a perfect book for a season usually marked by reflection, regret, and, yes, hope.
The Letters of John Cheever Edited by Benjamin CheeverNobody put things quite like Cheever. On life in Iowa (something everyone, from Styron to Vonnegut, describes differently): “I’m having a great time but I’m getting tired and I am having trouble with alcohol again.
The Lives of the Artists By Giorgio Vasari, translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella This is the book, first published in 1550, that kicked off both art history and artist biographies. Vasari was a painter, architect, and friend of Michelangelo.
Five books that deal with the complexity, nuance, and fearful intensity of family love.Torn in Two By Rozsika Parker In an era when people gamely put themselves on network television to talk about the most unlikely sexual practices or personal criminal activity, few parents are willing to admit to ambivalence about their own children.
There are certain historical figures of such importance that we need to know everything about them, which is why books about Napoleon, Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, and the great religious founders continue to proliferate; these lives require constant reevaluation and interpretation.
3,096 Days in Captivity: The True Story of My Abduction, Eight Years of Enslavement, and Escape By Natascha Kampusch Her brilliant memoir about being kidnapped and held captive for eight years by Wolfgang Priklopil. I had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago.
World War IIThis is almost impossible. Where to start? There are so many good histories, so many powerful memoirs, starting with Winston Churchill’s and Field Marshal Slim’s. Also, Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on the Army’s war in Europe—the last volume will come out next year—is a must read.
Need a book recommendation? We get asked all the time, but we've left the task to the experts: every week, great writers pick their favorite books and tell you why they are must-reads.
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