If Not Now, Then When? 23 Authors on the Best Books to Finally Read

WSJ asked Viet Thanh Nguyen for recommendations from his current reading list.

Ready to climb your literary Mount Everest? We polled some of the world’s top authors for the best challenging reads

Photo: Vintage

WSJ. spoke to some of our favorite top-shelf writers, including Pulitzer- and Booker Prize-winning scribes like Ian McEwan, Anthony Doerr, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ayad Akhtar and Stacy Schiff, to find out what they’re reading under quarantine—particularly the longer, trickier books sure to take you out of yourself. 

Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See):

“In my latest restlessness-suppression effort, I’ve roped off a square yard of the backyard, and I’m trying to spend a few minutes every day paying attention to it. My guiding light in this endeavor is the biologist Bernd Heinrich, whose Summer World: A Season of Bounty details his work paying attention to a little clearing beside his Maine cabin. Heinrich puts trash cans over crocuses to study when they’ll open at different temperatures, stuffs a wasp nest into his crow aviary and triple-bags alder branches to see if they’ll flower in darkness, always with the goal of learning more about the living things just outside his door.”

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia):

“I am currently reading The Mirror & the Light—the third and final installment in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant “Wolf Hall” series of novels about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. The book is dense, deep, suspenseful, chewy, complex and utterly transporting—truly a full banquet. Most miraculously of all, it’s every bit as good as the first two books—both of which won the Booker Prize. Imagine if the third The Godfather movie had been just as magnificent as the first two: It’s like that. A perfectly executed masterpiece.”

Ian McEwan (Atonement):

“Later in April I was planning to do an event in Vienna with the great pianist Angela Hewitt. It was to be a musical evening centred around the young J.S. Bach’s 250-mile walk to Lübeck to hear the famed organist Dietrich Buxtehude. In place of that, I’m consoling myself with John Eliot Gardiner’s magisterial biography of Bach, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. For fiction I’ve been rereading a beautiful and strange novel about a hauntingly limited consciousness: The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, one of Norway’s greatest writers.”

Tayari Jones (An American Marriage):

“Nearly a month into sheltering in place, I am still looking to books that I have read before; but these are not works I look to for comfort. Last week, I reread Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. To escape, Jacobs took cover in a tiny crawl space for about seven years, only emerging at night to briefly stand up straight and stretch her arms and legs. Through a nick in the floor, she stole glimpses of her children. I think of Harriet Jacobs when I go visit my parents who are in their 80s. I deliver their groceries, then I get back in the car. They then come to the door and we speak to each other from opposite sides of the unmown lawn.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer):

“Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. David Treuer’s expansive, insightful The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Mira Jacob’s very funny and sexy Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. John Keene’s ingenious and daring Counternarratives—situated between history and fiction—is the most challenging of these books I’ve selected, about the making of the so-called ‘New World’ from the moment of first contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers up until our recent past.”

Ann Patchett (Bel Canto):

“Like so much of life these days, Gish Jen’s dystopian baseball masterpiece, The Resisters, lands somewhere between terrifying and hysterical. It’s a testament to the author’s brilliance that she keeps such a messy future under control. Louise Erdrich is the best of the best, and her new novel, The Night Watchman, is, for my money, her finest book to date.

Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins):

“I’m reading an Alice Munro story each week and then talking about them with a handful of writer friends over Zoom cocktails—so far we’ve read “Carried Away,” “A Wilderness Station” and “Friend of My Youth”—marveling at the way her stories can seem so traditional in tone and time and yet so unbelievably inventive and elusive. I’ve never read Middlemarch and was thinking I might land that big plane next. I just finished reading War and Peace for the second time, so I’ve also been tracking the #TolstoyTogether readers and enjoying the responses. But the most challenging book by far the last month has been my own, The Cold Millions, which comes out in October, if there is an October.”

Tara Westover (Educated):

“A friend told me she was reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and that it was helping her feel calm amidst all this fragility and paralysis. So I gave it a try and found it to be a good tonic. Now I’m on to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. The sentences are stunning. It’s such a pleasure to get lost in a string of words again.”

Garth Greenwell (What Belongs to You):

“James Merrill, Collected Poems. Learned, formally brilliant, macaronic, profound, Merrill’s poems are the sublime culmination of a kind of queer culture—the refined aestheticism of [Walter] Pater and [Oscar] Wilde—that has very nearly passed away. They often have a lightness that is utterly deceptive; beneath their glittering surfaces they ask the most urgent questions. His final poems, written as he was dying of AIDS, are astonishing documents of defiance and reconciliation, proof of the moral seriousness of a style and aesthetic gamesmanship sometimes dismissed as frivolous.”

Stacy Schiff (Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)):

“I find I’m reaching for the sensual and transcendent, the novelist who will unshutter the world, who can sing and paint and dance on the page. That has meant Cloud Atlas because of the richness of David Mitchell’s sentences and the kaleidoscopic, quarantine-defying scope of his imagination. Last week—I must be avoiding the final [Hilary] Mantel because then it will be over—it meant Arthur Phillips’ charming The King at the Edge of the World. And Paulette Jiles’ newest, Simon the Fiddler, cannot arrive at this address quickly enough.”

Jesse Ball (Census):

“The biggest book I have been attending to is called Katsura: Imperial Villa. It’s a Phaidon book about Japanese architecture and the way some of the facets of modernity were prefigured in this particular complex of Japanese buildings. I am working my way back through [Howard] Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is sad and instructive. Each time I read it I find it appalling again. Each time is the correct time. I read Alice Oswald’s Nobody. She is my favorite living poet and should be read everywhere. I also read Halo by Stephen Berg, one of my favorite dead poets. I have been rereading [Gerard Manley] Hopkins too. His sound, his sounds, the sound of all he did can hardly be believed. For instance: ‘As tumbled over rim in roundy wells/Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s/Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;/Each mortal thing does one thing and the same.’”

Joyce Carol Oates (Them):

“Little could I have anticipated when I planned my new spring course at Princeton—‘The American Dream: Visions and Subversions in American Literature’—that the course, with its close readings of writers as disparate as Walt Whitman and Jack London, Mark Twain and Stephen Crane, Jean Toomer and Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson would be so timely. We began with a close examination of the Declaration of Independence in terms of both content and style—quite a profound experience at this troubled time in our democracy.”

Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America):

“I’d like to report that I’m reading some lofty history, like [Edward] Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; but, in times of stress, I go for thrills and magic—and above all distraction. I just finished reading Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door, which I found unnervingly transportive. Right now, Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars about a female detective in 19th-century London who embarks on a quest to resolve a very odd kidnapping.”

Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year of Rest and Relaxation):

“I am reading a small book by Morgan Smith called Bricriu’s Feast: An Inquiry into the Diet and Cooking Techniques of the Early Medieval Irish. I bought it for research, along with a dozen other books about the Middle Ages. Included in these are The Black Death by Philip Ziegler and Becoming Slav, Becoming Croat: Identity Transformations in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Dalmatia by Danijel Dzino. I have also been poking through a large format book of European Hunter: Hunting in 33 Countries by Dr. S. Lloyd Newberry as well as The Canterbury Tales by [Geoffrey] Chaucer.”

David Szalay (All That Man Is):

“I’ve recently reread [Samuel] Pepys’s diary of 1665. No prizes for guessing what drew me to that. They published regular death statistics then too, and he was as obsessed with whether the numbers were going up or down as we are now. I can’t resist quoting from his entry of 31 December: ‘It is true that we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague… My whole family hath been well all this while, and all my friends I know of, saving my Aunt Bell, who is dead, and some children of my cousin Sarah’s, of the plague. But many of such as I know very well, dead; yet, to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again. Pray God continue the plague’s decrease! for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to rack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.’”

Catherine Lacey (The Answers):

“I’ve just read Lara Vergnaud’s translation of The Hospital, a thrilling nightmare of a book by Ahmed Bouanani, an under-appreciated writer from Morocco. The narrative is spectral and claustrophobic, but there’s a warmth in the language. I never crave ‘happy’ books, but I tend toward authors who give their characters dignity. Magda Szabó’s Abigail, translated by Len Rix, is next. I loved Rix’s translation of Szabó’s The Door.”

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals):

“Focus is in short supply. This is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together by Jon Mooallem is an unexpectedly timely book about another disaster: the 1964 earthquake that destroyed Anchorage, Alaska. Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness by Philip Goff. Goff, a philosopher who can write, wants us to take seriously the idea that consciousness is widely distributed—that it is not restricted to the brains of animals but rather is, like electromagnetism or gravity, a fundamental building block of reality.”

Kiley Reid (Such a Fun Age):

“The first time I read Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear And Trembling was because I had to; it was assigned in a religious studies class in college. The second time was because I wanted to. Kierkegaard approaches the testing of Abraham by God, over and over again, from just about every angle and perspective. It’s a fascinating take on faith for anyone, and an inspirational exercise in point of view for writers.”

Ayad Akhtar (American Dervish):

“For at least ten years, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West has been on my list of books to reread. I finally pulled it off the shelf and started to work my way through it again. I’ve gone slowly, very slowly, chasing down references as I go, allowing myself to savor sentence after astonishing sentence. In particular, McCarthy’s descriptions of the brutal, unending beauty of the American frontier are as gorgeous, I think, as anything I’ve ever read in our American language.”

Angela Flournoy (The Turner House):

“Maisy Card’s debut novel, These Ghosts Are Family, follows the descendants and ancestors of Abel Paisley, a Jamaican man who fakes his own death and moves to New York, over the course of more than a century. Poet Justin Phillip Reed just released The Malevolent Volume. I saw him reading from the new work on Instagram Live and immediately ordered a copy. Reed’s poems in this new collection are tinged with rage and indignation at the injustices that undergird contemporary life, but they are also buoyed by his specificity of language, and full of sparks of devotion and joy. In their own way, they make me feel hope.”

Annie Ernaux (Les années):

“I had the spontaneous urge to go back and immerse myself in [Franz] Kafka’s The Castle and [his] lesser-known texts, such as “A Country Doctor” and “In the Penal Colony,” as if there were a relation between his incomprehensible, frightening universe and what we are living with now. In addition, in the evening, I read the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, who was shattered by love and illness but possessed of a passionate desire to live throughout her short existence. The journals of women writers bring women a great deal of strength.” (Translated by Alison Strayer)

Lydia Millet (Love in Infant Monkeys):

“I’m reading nonfiction here in Pandemia. On my tablet I’m reading The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson, the best modern bestiary I’ve read as I research one I’m trying to write myself. Henderson’s compendium of creatures starts at the axolotl and ends at the zebrafish. It’s marvelous.”

Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents):

“Mark Musa’s translation of [Giovanni] Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a collection of tales told by 10 young people forced to flee Florence during a plague mid-1300s. A classic text mirroring our own situation. I reread T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Written during Europe’s own dark night of World War II and the bombardment of Great Britain, the book-length poem gives me an almost incantatory vocabulary for dealing with present quandaries and questions, fears and insights.”

Category: Interviews


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