For our final post in the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members share their Top 5 books that have influenced them as readers and writers:
1. A Death in the Family by James Agee
2. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
3. The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Gluck
4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My whole life I've read, hungrily, literature of every kind, but these are five titles I turn to again and again as a reader/writer and as a human, books with resonance well-beyond admirable craft or entertainment...books that, I think, are actually important. While disparate, these books have challenged the canon's status quo, have done something fascinating & unconventional with writing, have altered me in some way. No author I'm aware of has entered the head of a character more exactly and completely than Hilary Mantel has with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. To say that she knows him, centuries later, is insufficient; he is alive and flawed and marvelous. James Agee's A Death in the Family is a posthumous autobiography-of-sorts, a story of a family that dips, beautifully, as life does, in and out of narrative. In Howard's End Forster illuminates and questions the rigid socioeconomic norms of Edwardian England: “Only connect,” he tells us. One Hundred Years of Solitude makes a useful gateway into magical realism, in which the wondrous always running alongside/against/within/above/below/through/under us is realized. Louise Gluck is a prolific former Poet Laureate, but it's this collection—her early poems—that showed me how razor-sharp, how wonderfully harmful language can be. “Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras” she begins “Cottonmouth Country,” finishing the poem just as unexpectedly: “Birth, not death is the hard loss./ I know. I also left a skin there.”
1. The Bell Jar (novel), 1973, by Sylvia Plath
2. The Vegetarian Epicure (cookbook), 1972, by Anna Thomas
3. Notes of a Native Son (essays), 1955, by James Baldwin
4. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (workbook), 1992, by Julia Cameron
5. The Passionate, Accurate Story (creative-writing guide), 1990, by Carol Bly
Each of these books changed my life. That’s what I want from a book. They raised my ambition or curiosity, or deepened my sense of responsibility. The title essay in Notes of a Native Son made me an essayist. On the spot. No looking back. After a long creative drought, desperately I took up The Artist’s Way and it surprised and reawakened me. The Passionate, Accurate Story challenges writers to write nobly and seriously, like adults. It radically changed my revising and teaching. The Vegetarian Epicure and its Volume Two, wonderfully written, showed me a new approach to daily life, and I savored their company through the leaner years. The Bell Jar, which I read while in high school, led me to Plath’s poetry and journals, which fascinate me still.
1. Ronia the Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
2. Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
3. Gilgamesh by author unknown, various translations
4. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
5. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner/ Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In my early childhood, around second or third grade, Ronia the Robber's Daughter addicted me to reading; a real adventure tale starring a girl and with a love story at its core. In sixth grade, I read Clan of the Cave Bear. I got so immersed in that world; that book let me know it's ok to like genre. (I can't read the book now; I tried and the writing in it is so contrived and silly.) In high school, Gilgamesh really captured me and made me think about the origins of human writing and the written story, about universal stories, about the shared human condition. My freshman year in college, Hemingway's In Our Time made me want to be a writer with its simple lines about serious stuff. The final book on my list are ones I aspire to, books that have keep me in love with literature in my adult life, the best books I know of and that I have enjoyed most of all.
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
4. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
5. My Life as a Dog by Reidar Jonsson
These are all books that had a huge impact on me as a young reader/writer transitioning away from the pulp/genre stuff I grew up on. Gatsby needs no explanation. I still feel that it is the best novel ever written in English. A girl I fell for in high school (and later married) turned me on to Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is still my favorite novel of his, a perfect mix of comedy and tragedy. (She disagrees, preferring Breakfast of Champions. So it goes.) Nineteen Eighty-Four is the best of the literary dystopias I read in my late teens and early twenties. It still terrifies me. The Silko novel I picked is less celebrated than her debut, Ceremony, but had a far greater impact on me when I discovered it in an undergraduate native american lit course. It's a ridiculous, sprawling, undisciplined book to be sure, but its strength of voice and gonzo sensibility proved to me how malleable the fiction writing rule book can. Finally I have chosen to include My Life as a Dog on this list, a great, idiosyncratic Bildungsroman that takes place in Sweden during the 1950's. I bought a translated copy at a used book sale in college and fell in love with it. It is another rule-breaker, often confusing in its eccentric voice and structure but remarkably humane and insightful nonetheless.
1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
2. Our Story Begins (story collection) by Tobias Wolff
3. The Love of a Good Woman (story collection) by Alice Munro
4. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
5. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
The Road is at the top of my list because after completing my own MFA program as a student, I had to remember how to fall in love with reading again—reading for me, for the love of it, not for a school assignment, not to analyze it and pick it apart. I read The Road like I used to read books when I was young (like The Velvet Room and A Swiftly Tilting Planet and Goldenrod and Under Plum Lake and The Case of the Snowbound Spy): all in one gulp, curled up for an afternoon in the world of the book, not stopping until I was done. It was lovely to read like that again, to be so fully swept up in a story that it was all that mattered at that moment. The other reason The Road had a strong impact on me is that it’s a completely different style of writing than I had usually loved—very unlike Munro and Atwood, two of my very favorite writers—with the spare, removed feel of its language, which still allows such emotion to come through. It was a huge shift for me, both as a reader and as a writer. From the first line, I was hit hard by the relationship between the father and son, shown through a simple action, but also through the music of the language: "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him." I read that line at the bookstore, looking through the shelves for a new book to move me, and I immediately knew I had to read this one. I was struck by the reserve in the father in that moment, the distance in calling him "the child," and the safety of showing fatherly affection while the boy is sleeping. It felt heartbreaking to me, the pull of his love for his son, which was difficult for a man like him to express, as he tried to protect him and do what was best for him. It's interesting what speaks to us at different times in our lives, how a certain style of writing can shake us up.
1. The Alphabet of Grace by Frederick Buechner
2. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3. Ulysses by James Joyce
4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
James Joyce writes that language is a weak instrument,
but it's all that we've got. Writers who use the language to bring grace and
beauty to the page and a distinct voice in the chorus of voices always bring to
me a sense of hope and humility. I seek transcendence when I read, these books
take me there, and higher.
1. Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
3. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
4. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Deciding on five books to dub “the most influential” for me as a writer and as a teacher seems a Herculean task. It is also a task with an end-result that is completely changeable and fluid. If I consider which books have shaped me as a person, as a Self, the list will be populated with fairytales, myths, and wild poetry. If I consider the list with only books that have informed me as a scholar, there will be much Foucault, Eco, Lawrence, and Paglia. My lists as a poet and my lists as a fiction writer are dramatically, thrillingly different and often opposed. So, for today, in this moment, when I think “what words have helped craft my own?” these five books leap from the brain cradle.
Yes, these are books by men, and yes they are each aggressive and tender, both. The most common thread among them is intention—to teach, to offer salve in a nonsensical world, to help us pretend vertigo is elegant, necessary for reaching just far enough toward this or that ledge.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
2. Neuromancer by William Gibson
3. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
4. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
5. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Each of these books raises the bar for fiction writing—for both novels and short story collections. What I especially enjoy is that each book is dynamic. I admire the writers who take chances, whether they succeed or fail. The risk stretches the limits of fiction into vivid, new directions. As a reader, I love to find works that keep me guessing, keep me wondering. As a writer, I love the books that keep me invigorated and inspired and longing to exceed my own limits.
1. Flamingo Watching by Kay Ryan
2. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
4. The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch
5. Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
In the case of the poetry collection, Flamingo Watching, I continue to shake my head in disbelief as to the apparent ease with which Ryan's poems land on the page. Each micro poem has whimsy and rhyme but at the same time is deeply metaphorical and metrically interesting.
I give high praise to McCarthy's and Doctorow's novels for their emphasis on character. You can't help but deeply care about these fictional people within the first few chapters of the books.
Tan's and Lynch's books were both soul-searching journeys for me. One is completely fictional and wordless (Tan's) and the other (Lynch's) tackles the realities of mortality head-on.
1. Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
3. Now and Then, Poems: 1976-1978 by Robert Penn Warren
4. The World According to Garp by John Irving
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As I made this list, it was hard to remember when I read what and it was tempting to include works by Fiztgerald, Faulkner, Pynchon, and Hesse, but if I really think about it, I found those later. The ones I listed above are the ones that affected me the earliest and shaped me as a writer and a person. In fact, I read Chapter 5: Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing over and over as I travelled with various companions across the deserts and mountains of the American West in search of my self. To these “classics” you must add the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, and the 70s cowboy music in Austin, Texas, for they were always playing in the background.
1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
2. Airships by Barry Hannah
3. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
4. Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
5. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
Infinite Jest: By far the most orchestral opus I have ever read. Some of the most funny, memorable, intellectual and observant, horrific, grotesque, disturbing, and poignant moments I've ever read have all come out of this novel. Its complexity is only superseded by its beauty.
Airships: One of my favorite story collections—Hannah was a lyricist as much as a fiction writer. This book taught me many things about the bizarre and the deeply-felt, but above all it showed me how to weaponize the sentence, and I still look to this book to teach me how to wield it.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: All of Saunders work has been a tremendous influence on me (as well as his tutelage and mentorship as well). These were the first stories I read of his—and they taught me how humor juxtaposed to poignancy creates a real emotional fission—how one devastates the other. "Isabelle" is one of my most-favorite stories, as is "The Wavemaker Falters"—the characters are unforgettable and heart-breaking in their clumsy decision-making. Their pathos placed in our modern times demands the question: is surreality the new reality?
Jesus' Son: Johnson, much like Hannah, taught me the poetics of fiction. How a sentence can carry on in an infinite echo. How four or five words can be much larger than the space they occupy on the page. This book is a master of language compaction, urgency, and energy.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth: This graphic novel has forced me to reconsider the way a memory or an observation unpacks itself on the page, and how thought is constructed both visually, textually, and in collaboration with each other. It is a deeply somber look into the pathos of pathetic men, and it shows how sometimes the most honest thing a book can do is tell you that things sometimes only get worse, and that "Happily Ever After" can be the biggest fiction of all.