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Great writers are great readers. Writers spend endless hours studying the books of predecessors and contemporaries to learn what worked and what didn’t. In all this reading, some works stand out. We asked several alumni authors to tell us about one book that has passed the night-table test—a book always by the bedside to be consulted over and over, a book that has made a difference in their writing lives. Here, then, is a summer reading list from the best—with an introduction from Tom Wolfe, cultural critic extraordinaire, on what happens when writers read.
Tom Wolfe ’57PhD
To be perfectly honest, I had never even thought about how reading might affect a writer until our genial hosts and editors raised the question. The first thing that crossed my mind was all the destined-to-be-famous writers who were ignited—lit!—set off!—lifted!—launched!—just like that! -- by reading already-famous writers. Oddly enough, reading Dickens was what ignited Dostoyevsky. Odder still, it was reading Sir Walter Scott that ignited Balzac. He spent ten years imitating Scott’s historical novels… ineptly… before turning into an entirely different sort of writer, Balzac the chronicler of the here and now, Balzac “the secretary of French society,” as he put it himself. Reading Balzac ignited Zola, who imitated the great man brilliantly for the rest of his life, even to the point of proclaiming his life’s work a single vast epic, Les Rougon-Macquart, that had captured all of France in the Second Empire within its 11,000 pages, à la Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Zola, in turn, ignited two generations of American “naturalistic” novelists, resulting in the great era of the American novel, which ran from Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets in 1893 to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939… before another French influence, ism-lit—absurdism, fabulism, concretism, minimalism, existentialism, symbolism—ignited the talent in the university MFA creative writing programs in the late 1950s, sending American fiction into a long, grim slide that has not ended yet.
Turned on probably says it better than ignited, but turned on today has 39 years’ worth of drug paraphernalia dragging along behind it. Speaking for myself, I was… galvanized… by a writer who never rated so much as a footnote to American literary history: Dixie Willson.
Dixie Willson wrote, and Maginel Wright Barney illustrated, a book called Honey Bear in 1923. My mother used to read it to me at bedtime long before I knew one letter of the alphabet from another. Over and over she read it to me. I was small, but like many people my age I had already mastered the art of having things my way. I had memorized the entire poem in the passive sense that I could tell whenever Mother skipped a passage in the vain hope of getting the 110th or 232nd reading over with a little sooner. Oh, no-ho-ho… there was no fooling His Majesty the Baby. He wanted it all. He couldn’t get enough of it.
Honey Bear is a narrative poem about a baby kidnapped from a bassinet by a black bear. Maginel Wright Barney drew and painted in the japanais Vienna Secession style. To me, her pictures were pure magic. But Honey Bear’s main attraction was Dixie Willson’s rollicking and rolling rhythm: anapestic quadrameter with spondees at regular intervals. One has to read it out loud in order to be there:
The Willson beat made me think writing must be not only magical but fun. It isn’t, particularly, but Honey Bear was fun, and I resolved then and there, lying illiterate on a little pillow in a tiny bed, to be a writer. In homage to Dixie Willson, I’ve slipped a phrase or two from Honey Bear into every book I’ve written. I tucked the fourth line, above, into the opening chapter of The Right Stuff (page 4) from memory as I described how not-yet-an-Astronaut Pete Conrad’s and his Jean Simmons-lookalike wife Jane’s little white brick cottage near Jacksonville Naval Air Base was set in a thick green grove of pine trees with “a thousand little places where the sun peeks through.” Peeks… looked… Ah, well, hey ho…
By and by my sister, Helen, as fond of Honey Bear as I am, discovered that Dixie Willson was the sister of Meredith Willson of The Music Man fame and that Maginel Wright Barney was the sister of Frank Lloyd Wright. As luck and nonfiction would have it, they never laid eyes on each other.
Dixie Willson! Sui generis!—although in my school days, I imitated all sorts of writers. The ones I remember best are John Steinbeck and an Associated Press sports writer named Sid Feder. Steinbeck wrote with an almost archly simple biblical rhetoric, especially figures of speech involving repetition, such as (from chapter 5 of The Grapes of Wrath): “Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold”—a single 48-word sentence packing four King James Version favorites: anaphora, epistrophe, symploce, and conjunctio (the dreamy repetition of the word and). I used to turn in English papers written that way and history papers written that way and sociology papers written that way and even economics papers written that way as if that way were the only way. And no isolated case was the teacher man who said that way was out to lunch. All the while, as a sportswriter for my high school (St. Christopher’s) and college (Washington and Lee) newspapers, I tried to out-Feder the great Feder, whose typical lead (the subject is the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game between the Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech) would read: “The VMI Keydets had the Virginia Tech Gobblers for dinner yesterday and came away smacking their lips and picking their teeth after a 37–7 repast.”
As a graduate student at Yale, I found other paragons. One day I was roaming the stacks of Sterling Memorial Library—at the time only graduate students and faculty had free run of the stacks—when I came across, in English translation, a group of early Soviet writers who called themselves the Brothers Serapion. Their mentor, Evgeny Zamyatin, author of the novel We, which Orwell cannibalized shamelessly to write 1984, is the only one whose name is apt to ring a bell today. The Brothers Serapion were devotees of a rather precious, sensibility-wafting French movement, Symbolism, created for “a charming aristocracy” of aesthetes, as Catulle Mendes once put it. But in the early 1920s the Brothers found their refined sensibilities wafting over the brute material of the Soviet Revolution. The upshot was a self-consciously avant-garde, exotically reckless style that made wanton use of interjections and italics and pieces of punctuation that had been lying around narcoleptically for a hundred years: dots, dashes, exclamation points, anything to simulate the rushes and abrupt swings of actual thought. Santa Barranza! Would the day come when I’d have… fun… with that!— or wouldn’t it—
I pause to bow also to John O’Hara, James M. Cain, Evelyn Waugh, Mencken, my namesake Thomas Wolfe, Carl Van Vechten, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Celine and his American epopt, Henry Miller—but what in all the tangled trees and thickets of literature could ever ignite a writer faster than (up audio, please):
By the way, Mommy and Daddy, a woodsman, find Baby sitting on a carpet of moss next to the hollow tree having a party with the bear. He’s feeding her half a huge honeycomb he’s just purloined from a beehive expressly for the occasion and eating the rest himself, and everybody, Baby, Mommy, Daddy, and the bear, gets a hug. One has to remember that when Honey Bear was published, the age of Morbid Art was still a good 50 years off into the future.
Alexandra Robbins ’98
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi
The Yale Daily News taught me about the “nutgraf”—the pre-programmed post-lead paragraph containing the what-where-when of a story. But real life taught me that too many reporters concentrate on formulaic structure at the expense of good storytelling. Maraniss is the rare serious journalist who can tell a thoughtful story, this one about the man who found both formula and philosophy in football. The combination of the man, the sport, and the writing kept this book by my bedside far longer than others—a subtle but telling gauge. And because of it, I haven’t written a nutgraf since.
Julia Glass ’78
George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is the book that made me need to be a writer. I was in my late twenties, working diligently as the painter I’d studied to be while at Yale, but I was also reading voraciously, catching up on the “classics” I’d missed by deciding not to major in English. Deronda is flawed, but its ambitions are magnificent. Eliot’s assertively beautiful language, her contemptible yet ultimately heart-rending heroine (Gwendolen Harleth, one of my all-time favorite characters), and the novel’s daring structure (sprawling, like life itself, yet cunningly aimed at the climax) all stopped me in my creative tracks. This, I realized—a great book—is pure, unsurpassable sorcery, and suddenly I wanted, fiercely, to be conjuring stories of my own.
Alan M. Dershowitz ’62LLB
The Brothers Karamazov
Even as a kid I never trusted biographies, which tended to be hagiographies. I was inherently skeptical of authority figures, scriptural accounts, and perfect people.
Then in college I began to read fiction. Now here was something I could believe in, because it didn’t claim to be the truth or the word of God. Instead, the great novelist discovered truth without claiming to be faithful to the facts. My favorites were Kafka and Dostoyevsky. I wanted to be a lawyer even before I read The Trial, but it was reading The Brothers Karamazov that made me decide to become a law teacher.
Dostoyevsky’s major characters—especially Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha—represented different aspects of my own personality. I have reread the Brothers K at every important stage of my life, and while the book has never disappointed, it was ironic, and somewhat troubling, to learn that Dostoyevsky was a virulent anti-Semite. But partial truths can come from people whose lives were based on lies—witness Renoir, Wagner and Rodin—and as a disbeliever in hagiography, that should not surprise.
Carl Zimmer ’87
Charles Darwin: Voyaging and The Power of Place
Earlier this year Janet Browne published the second part of her two-volume biography of Charles Darwin. I can already tell that I will be rereading it many times in years to come. It’s like a dancing elephant: Although it runs 1,200 pages, it is always quick on its feet. That’s because Darwin’s life is so full of travels, ideas, friends, enemies, orchids, barnacles, and children. As you read Browne’s biography, you feel the shudders of the world as it enters the modern age, and you realize that this odd, obsessive, reclusive, selfish, big-hearted genius was hugely responsible for the change.
Glenn Fleishman ’90
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Moby-Dick is the fallback of anyone moderately literate in the Western canon, but it’s an old friend of mine. Moby-Dick is the only member of the canon I’m compelled to read again and again. In high school, I didn’t understand that it’s largely a comedy: it seemed deadly dull and serious. I picked it up by accident during college, and discovered the buffoon inside the stuffed shirt. Few novels echo back and forth down the long halls of allegory, analogy, and allusion, and every time I reread it, the echoes get louder.
Naomi Wolf ’84
I’d lived in Israel. I’d studied Christianity as an undergraduate. But my epiphany as a reader and a thinker came when I took a course in the Koran. While there were passages that were hard to wrap my brain around, I realized that the Koran was not so “other.” The core of Mohammed’s message of tolerance and generosity was similar to what I’d read in the Bible, and though the Koran has been misinterpreted by extremists and redactors—isn’t this a problem in every religion?—I became convinced that the schism I saw then and now was and is unnecessary. I also was surprised to learn that Mohammed was very pro-woman, so when I see what’s being done in his name, I want to tear my hair out.
David Quammen ’70
The Growth of Biological Thought
In the summer of 1988, I indulged myself with Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought. It’s a vast, ambitious intellectual chronicle that reads crisply and well. I nibbled away at it for 20 minutes every morning, while seated in a lawn chair under a mountain ash tree, at my home in Bozeman, Montana, before going inside to begin work. There was no hurry, and I enjoyed every bit. Like Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy—another long book that I’d read and savored very slowly—Mayr’s Growth was a fine way of opening my brain out, each day, to the larger world. As for its lingering influence? I suppose it inoculated me with a strong sense that evolutionary biology is a fundamentally historical science (as opposed to an experimental one) and that, in order to understand properly its most forceful and crucial ideas, one must also understand a bit of its history.
Sherwin B. Nuland ’55MD
The King James Bible
The Hebrew Bible had begun affecting my thoughts long before I knew that it was the source of so many of the fascinating tales and allusions I absorbed at my grandmother’s knee. Without yet realizing it, I was learning the value of a good story as a means of conveying some greater truth. But it wasn’t until college, when I studied the King James Version of what are called the Old and the New Testament, that I began to understand the significance of cadence and sound, to express the simplest or most complex idea in rhythms so magnificent that they enthrall the spirit and the mind.
Tom Perrotta ’83
Watch enough TV, and you might almost start to believe that small-town America is full of good-looking, good-hearted, optimistic people who always have a clever quip at the ready and a solution for every problem. Sherwood Anderson knew differently. His fictional town, Winesburg, Ohio, is populated by an assortment of thwarted souls and lonely dreamers who would dearly love to explain themselves to their neighbors, if they could only find the words, if their neighbors could only learn to listen. Awkwardly written, almost saintly in its compassion, Anderson’s subversive vision of middle America has continued to echo through American literature all the way to Raymond Carver and beyond.
Stephen Sandy ’55
The Portrait of a Lady
When Donald Rumsfeld, embroiled over Iraq, called France and Germany “old Europe,” we flew to our Henry James, particularly to The Portrait of a Lady. Maureen Dowd, of the New York Times, cast Colin Powell “as Isabel Archer, seduced and betrayed by the bloodless machinations of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.” Frailty of innocence, persistence of evil; the unripe culture of America encountering a refined, arrogant old world: These contrasts are unforgettably dramatized. It’s one of the great novels in the language; if you’ve not read it, or haven’t read it in years, get started. Forget the film; read the 1908 not the 1881 text; and no matter if Osmond and Merle are American, after all.
Anthony Kronman ’72PhD, ’75JD
Years ago, during my freshman year at Williams, I read Plato’s Republic for the first time. I’ve reread it almost every year since. It is a work of endless fascination—a deep work of philosophy and a brilliant literary achievement at the same time. It’s the one perfect book I know, and the fact that it has come down to us intact is a miracle. From its very first sentence, “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday…,” to its transporting conclusion, Plato’s Republic carries the reader along in a flow of argument that explores life’s most urgent questions and brings light and hope to the human struggle for understanding and justice.
Garry Wills ’61PhD
When I first read Augustine’s Confessiones (The Testimony) in college, I did not know there was any such thing as an interior life—much less that it was the place to find God: “I sought you outside me, while you were inside… deeper in me than I am in me” (intimior intimo meo). Ever since I have tried to be a spelunker there.
Ann Packer ’81
Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession
Impossible to choose a single work of fiction, and fiction is what works for me, what works on me: Mrs. Dalloway, Howards End, Pride and Prejudice, Tender is the Night, a hundred incredible short stories. So, instead: Janet Malcolm’s brief, provocative, and mesmerizing Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. I first read it as a series of New Yorker articles, again in book form when I was beginning my own psychological work, again (knowing the book itself had helped propel me) when I started psychoanalysis myself. A compulsively readable history of psychoanalysis, a fascinating portrait of a Manhattan psychoanalyst, a book that yields new treasures with each rereading, this is a work about the 20th century’s great project, our approach on consciousness, the illustration of which is, after all, one of the great projects of literature as well.
Steve Olson ’78
At Yale, after taking English 29, I read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, and that book, more than anything else, made me decide to become a writer. Leafing through its pages now I can easily summon up that delightful adolescent frisson of naïveté, discovery, and incredulity that the world could be so large. The book still astonishes me.
But I can no longer recommend it. To me now the book also seems distant and cold—a bit unlikable really (though very funny). It was the right book at the right time for me, but that was almost three decades ago, and I’m a different person now.
Jennifer Ackerman ’80
Complete Essays of Montaigne
When I am out of humor, from a bleak day or a poor train of thought, I read Montaigne’s essays. Pick them up, and it’s like talking to an old friend—about sadness, liars, the power of the imagination, sleep, prayer, aging, the affection of fathers for their children, cannibals, thumbs, anger, what it means to be a human being. Though Montaigne was writing more than 400 years ago, his concerns are modern and his voice, vascular, funny, uplifting: “Of our maladies, the most wild and barbarous is to despise our being… For my part, I love life and cultivate it.”
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