What Do Writers Read?

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Suzy Hazelwood

Reading a good book is like spending time with a good friend. When you leave, feeling warmhearted and thankful, you look forward to coming back to them as soon as possible. To me, they are both a privilege and a treasure. Reading, like friendship, is essential to our quality of life—helping us relax or sleep, enhancing empathy or reducing stress by sharing new realities—but it also stimulates memory, critical thinking, and intelligence. In addition, and especially if you are a writer, you might have heard that the best advice for good writing is good reading.

So, what do writers read? What can we call a good book? Of course, the options are innumerable, as vast as people and tastes are on Earth, but I have narrowed a list of writers and books that have talked to me in the past, or hopefully will touch my life soon. I am quoting below the reading preferences of the following extraordinary authors: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, J.K. Rowling, Maya Angelou, Henry Miller, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Barak Obama.

Ernest Hemingway once said: “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” In 1934 he created and shared with a friend a 14-book reading list. Some of its titles were: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Dubliners by James Joyce, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In an interview with The Paris Review, the novelist and creative nonfiction writer Joan Didion called Joseph Conrad’s Victory, “maybe my favorite book in the world… I have never started a novel without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing.”

Ray Bradbury’s favorite books mentioned in 2003 included the collected essays of George Bernard Shaw and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. One book that most influenced his career was The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He said: “[They] entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands, and ask for Mars to take me home. Within a short time, I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs.”

During an interview in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov shared a list of what he considered to be great literature: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and “the first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time.”

Samuel Beckett’s reading habits were made public through his letters in 2011. The author of Waiting for Godot wrote that Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne was “lively stuff,” and that he liked The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger “more than anything for a long time.”

J.K. Rowling said she prefers a classic: Jane Austen’s Emma. “You’re drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you’ve seen something great in action. But you can’t see the pyrotechnics; there’s nothing flashy.” One of her favorite books as a child was The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit.

Poet and author Maya Angelou had a number of favorite books, including Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white, but they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen.”

The Tropic of Cancer author, Henry Miller, explained books as “a vital experience.” Some of the books he mentioned in his The Books in My Life were: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Les Misérablesby Victor Hugo, and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

In an interview with The New Yorker in 2011, Jhumpa Lahiri told what she was reading at that time: Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai and To the End of the Land by David Grossman. She also said: “I usually re-read a Thomas Hardy novel every six months; this season it will be The Mayor of Casterbridge. My page-turning beach book is The Talented Miss Highsmith, the recent biography of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.”

Haruki Murakami recommended The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby is my favorite book”; Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, “it’s a dark story, very disturbing. I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong”; The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, “most writers get weaker and weaker as they age. But Dostoevsky didn’t. He kept getting bigger and greater;” The Castle by Franz Kafka, “I encountered Kafka’s work when I was 15-years-old, the book was The Castle. It was a great big incredible book. It gave me a tremendous shock.”

Paul Auster chose To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf because it “is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. It pierced me and made me tremble and continually had me on the verge of tears. The music of its long, looping sentences, the understated depth of its feeling, the subtle rhythms of its structure were so moving to me that I read it as slowly as I could, going over paragraphs three and four times before pushing on to the next.”

Seeing by José Saramago is recommended by Ursula K. Le Guin as a sequel to his amazing novel Blindness. “Saramago is not easy to read. He punctuates mostly with commas, doesn’t paragraph often, doesn’t set off a conversation in quotes; mannerisms I wouldn’t endure in a lesser writer, but Saramago is worth it. More than worth it. Transcendently worth it. Blindnessscared me to death when I started it, but it rises wonderfully out of darkness into the light. Seeing goes the other way and is a very frightening book.”

“I am flying to Africa for the first time since I left The Office,” Barack Obama wrote on Facebook on July 2018, “along the years, I’ve been often inspired by the extraordinary African literary tradition.” He recommended: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Variety summarizes the previous paragraphs, does it not? Glorious diversity, worth spreading and reading. I hope some of these readings reach you in the near future and warmly light your life, just like good friends do.

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Paula Arellano Geoffroy is a Chilean writer that lives with her family in the Netherlands. She is also an engineer in forestry, but her true passion resides in working with both creative and technical writing. Always curious, avid reader and a perennial student, she is actually writing articles for different organizations, revising the draft of her first novel, and studying creative non-fiction and professional writing at an American university.

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