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List #4 – What book do you re-read most?


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LISTS: LITERARY & LAUNDRY

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Given 28 years of teaching Shakespeare, the book I re-read most is his Complete Plays. As a writer, otherwise, I am most inspired by Hamlet, Henry IV Part One, King Lear, and The Winter’s Tale. I also teach courses in American Short Story, where I am most inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as “story cycles.” Aside from that, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road has been my constant sea-mark since the mid-Sixties (at least 15 readings), and along with Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been my personal standard for different ideas about form, style, characterization, dialogue, description, and the layering of irony. In nonfiction and memoir, likewise for Gorki’s Childhood, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, James Alan McPherson’s A Region Not Home, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, all of which helped me to structure my memoir, Sweet Dreams, and all of which inspire me with the possibilities and stakes of story-telling. In poetry, I suppose I’ve re-read Robert Frost and Lowell more than anyone else. Bill Knott has inspired me as well to “come at things slant” and for “the act of the mind in finding what will suffice.”

DeWitt Henry is a memoirist, novelist, and editor, whose most recent book is Sweet Dreams: A Family History. He teaches at Emerson College and was the founding editor of Ploughshares.

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I’ve read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison 12 times. I barely need oxygen while reading it. It begins and ends with human beings in flight. It contains Pilate Dead’s extraordinary lines, “I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would a loved ‘em all. If I’d knowed more, I would a loved more.” It contains the exhilarating transformation of Milkman Dead and an ending that keeps turning and refracting like a prism. It’s hard to go more than three years without revisiting, partly because I learn something new about craft every time, but really because I miss Pilate.

Dylan Landis is the author of Normal People Don’t Live Like This and the recipient of a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

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William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrowwhich I have read no fewer than 10 times. Slight only in its page count, this is a masterwork of structure, empathy, and contemplative first-person point-of-view. If I can manage to go any full year without reading it, I will be surprised. I will also be all the worse for it. In those dark moments of writerly self-doubt, when I wonder if I am good enough, artful enough to “pull off” some scene  or manipulation of craft, the book damned near leaps off the shelf into my hands. I open the pages, and it whispers, “Look. Look at how, in careful prose, everything is possible.”

Bruce Machart‘s collection of stories Men in the Making was published last month, following the publication in 2010 of his award-winning novel The Wake of Forgiveness.

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Well, there’s William Maxwell’s novella So Long, See You Tomorrow; Lousie Glück’s Wild IrisRichard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day or Best Word Book Ever; Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth—especially for “The Fourth State of Matter.” There’s the Collected Wallace Stevens and The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and The Complete Emily Dickinson, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion, and Mark Helprin’s Dove of the East, and Regis Faller’s The Adventures of Polo…. But Milan Kundera’s Immortality is the one I’ve read most, even if only in my mind—revisiting often to dwell within the scene a single gesture births, a glance unfolding for the writer to step into and unspool. I love the way this book lives within simultaneity, enacting moments fictive and not, setting in motion a pastiche of past and myth, fact and present, marrying anecdote with prayer, while meditating on human persistence. The nature of this longing snares me; yes, I think… continually, inexplicably, these pages entrance. The narrator says of Agnes’s gesture, “I was strangely moved.” Indeed.

Katrina Roberts is an award-winning poet and the author of How Late Desire Looks, The Quick, and Friendly Fire. Her most recent book is Underdog.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David Cooke November 3, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has found its way onto my nightstand a few times. I hardly ever reread books in their entirety but the beauty and the intrigue, the smoke and the mirrors, the romance and the satire draw me back in again and again.

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Maura Jordon February 9, 2012 at 8:42 am

I truly appreciate this blog post. Really thank you!

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