Yann Martel's Favorite Reads

The bestselling author of Life of Pi picks his 5 favorite books—and one daily activity—for The Daily Beast. His new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is out now.

The Divine Comedy

By Dante Alighieri

Yes, that old classic from 14th-century Italy. But it's the last thing from dusty or dull. It's a thrilling work, morally sharp, and totally engrossing. The sort of book you lose yourself in. It tells the story of how Dante, “lost in the woods,” finds his way back to the light. To get there, he must travel though Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. It's a fantastical road trip, and the greatest allegory ever written. I loved the translation by the American poet John Ciardi.

Penney, Joanna

Disgrace

By J. M. Coetzee

Likely my favourite living writer. It's astonishing how much he does with so little. Disgrace is a spare and searing work about the changing South Africa, told through the story of a professor whose life goes all wrong.

Hunger

By Knut Hamsun

Hamsun was a cranky Norwegian writer and Hunger is his crankiest novel. It tells the story of a homeless man who wanders the streets of Christiania—as Oslo was then known—starving and dreaming. Hamsun shines as a writer because he was such an anti-conformist individual. He got into trouble in his advanced old age, confusedly seeing in Hitler some sort of salvation against the spectre of America, but that's the man, not his books. Hunger is a unique work.

The Tartar Steppe

By Dino Buzzati

A great Italian writer who should be better known and more widely read in the US. This, his greatest novel, tells the story of a young officer who is posted to a remote fort on the edges of an unnamed country. There, he waits for an invasion of barbarians that never comes, he waits for thirty years, he waits his entire life. The Tartar Steppe is a sober and luminous work. The luminosity is literal: the fort is set amidst high mountains and is bathed in pure light and thin air. But the story also achieves a philosophical brightness as it follows one man’s endless waiting in a setting that is stripped of all excessive adornment.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

For the language of it. A novel published in 1937, Hurston wrote it in the African-American vernacular. Which doesn't make it quaint or paternalistic or any other nonsense. It takes a language already established and in reshaping it to tell the life of one Janie Crawford, Hurston tells her story powerfully and expressively, besides reinventing the English language.

The New York Times crossword puzzle

I know, I know, that's more than five. But you can't always be reading Great Books. I love the NYT crossword puzzle. One of the great achievements of civilization, I'd say, at least in the domain of shits and giggles. I'm not very good at it, can never get much beyond Wednesday in the daily edition, but Monday and Tuesday, I'm in bliss as I try to get all the clues.