Considering that I have no personal experience of either selling it or paying for it, I’ve been oddly preoccupied (as both reader and writer) with prostitution all my life. For me it’s the ur-job, the original trade, the one that stands for all the other bargains in which we rent out our time or energy.
Hugging the Shore by John Updike. For 20 months, between marriages, John Updike lived alone in Boston, “my foam-rubber reading chair three paces from my dining table and two paces from my bed.” Hugging the Shore, Updike’s fourth collection of assorted prose, grew out of this period, and shows what marvelous things can be done with readerly solitude.
We range widely, we readers of fiction, but I think we all need a home. Mine is science fiction. It’s my home shelf, my homeland, my home planet, my essential genre. Without science fiction, without the influence these books have had on me over the years, I'm not sure I would care much about reading or writing today.
1. Goodbye to a River by John Graves (Also anything else by John Graves.) A magnificent natural history of a place, a classic down-the-river narrative in which Graves and his dog float on a section of a river about to be buried by a dam.
1. The Nature of Prejudice by Gordon W. Allport. The classic about prejudice that was the gold standard when published and remains so today. A comprehensive survey of the issues and brimming with insight. 2. Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson.
The world of young adult fiction is a bridge to adult fiction and a world entirely unto itself. My taste in YA works was highly influenced by growing up with seven sisters—six of them dominatingly older than me—mixed with a dash of the swashbuckling masculinity that comes from being sent off to English boarding schools from the age of 7.
Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” For any writer tackling the theme of dangerous mentors, it begins with Spark’s novel, and so it was for me. For the six pupils under the tutelage of the seductive, witty and poisonous Miss Brodie in 1930s Edinburgh, the risks extend well beyond the classroom, culminating in disillusionment and ultimately betrayal for some and far worse for her most devoted disciple, the lamentable Mary Macgregor.
The American West as Living Space By Wallace StegnerOnce when I asked a prominent historian what he thought of the many writings by Stegner, novelist and English-department star at Harvard and Stanford, about the background and the West, he didn’t hesitate: “He hits the nail on the head every time, damn him.
The Morning of the Poem (1980) By James SchuylerSchuyler, a New York School poet, is less famous than his friends John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, but his poetry, like theirs, is funny, ribald, noisy, erudite, and hospitable to every tangent and whim.
Nostromo By Joseph ConradJoseph Conrad’s insultingly ambitious and incredibly accurate political novel is, to my mind, the best piece of fiction ever written about Latin America outside of Latin America. The fictional republic of Costaguana watches one of its provinces secede, aided by the military intervention of the United States, in a series of events that are suspiciously reminiscent of the revolution through which the province of Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903.
In Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power Seth Rosenfeld traces the FBI’s secret involvement with three iconic figures who clashed at Berkeley in the ’60s: Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, University of California president Clark Kerr, and Gov.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge By Ambrose BiercePeyton Farquhar, a Confederate sympathizer, is tricked by a Union spy into an attempt to burn a bridge at Owl Creek. Caught by the Union Army, he’s taken to the bridge by an execution party; they stand him up on the edge, tie a rope around his neck, and push him off.
Leaves of Grass By Walt WhitmanOne of my favorite passages in Leaves of Grass, that breathless, exuberant poem so rich and full of innocence and joy and generosity and compassion, is “Mannahatta.” It springs from a 19th-century sense of possibility, but it feels just like Manhattan now.
Blues People: Negro Music in White America By Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)This reflection of black history, culture, music, and how they come together was published in 1963, but remains a profound insight into the development of jazz from blues, and the role of black culture in history.
Joyce, Yeats, O’Casey notwithstanding, these are my favorite Irish writers:Molly KeaneI have read and re-read Molly Keane more, I think, than any other writer. Nobody else can touch her as a satirist, tragedian, and dissector of human behavior.
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