It goes without saying that me selecting my five favourite or most influential books is going to be a shifting affair – the list would look very different next year; it would probably be slightly different tomorrow. The criteria for the books below are either that, like the Yates, they would have to be on any list I wrote and come with my feverish recommendation. Others, such as Tolstoy or Mansfield are loved, but also directly influenced the way I write, so are ‘influential’ in the truest sense of the word.
I am not someone who tends to read all or even many books by the same author. With so many books to be read, I often feel that once I’ve read a Roth, a Carr, or a Diaz, that I’ve done my duty by that writer and can move on to the next. However, nearly all the below books are by authors whose complete works I have devoured. In that sense, they are all jumping off points and invitations to read more.
Richard Yates, Cold Spring Harbour
I could pick any of Richard Yates’s books – his short stories are incredible. The Easter Parade was the most recent of his that I read, and is completely devastating. Cold Spring Harbour follows Evan Shepard’s entanglement with the Drake family and is full of nostalgia, incredible dialogue and heartbreaking characters. Funnily enough, I never find the experience of reading his books miserable. He pulls of the trick of making them sad, but so true that the experience is somehow rewarding and life-affirming.
Katharine Mansfield, The Complete Stories
I could recommend specific collections, but Mansfield died so young (even her last words were poetry — “I love the rain. I want the feeling of it on my face.”) and her work is so consistently good, that you may as well just buy the lot. I almost never cry at books, but her story ‘The Doll’s House’ never fails to floor me in the last line. Her story ‘Bliss’ is the piece of writing that made me realise what kind of writer I wanted to be, when we were given it to read at university. It is so perfectly done.
John Steinback, Cannery Row
This is a brilliant, joyful book about nothing at all. Steinbeck had an incredible ability to shift between styles and lengths. In The Pearl the story is all fable-like plot. In Cannery Row you have nothing but character. It’s such a gentle portrait of what are some pretty sad figures, in many ways, but again leaves you feeling hopeful and like you’ve read something ‘true’ about life.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina is simply a lesson in how to write. He gives you a complete sense of a society at a certain time, and if you’re a historical writer, he is the best guide to how to make this work. His psychological insights into all of his characters are incredibly striking, but also the way he moves you through a party, brings you along on the duck hunt, places you in the train carriage. It is a book that can’t be overrated.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
This is simply one of my favourite books. It’s exciting and thrilling and so cleverly put together. The scene at the end when Perry Smith describes the murders again is completely chilling, despite the fact that we already know what happened and what the series of events was. Masterfully done and, as mentioned above, should lead you onto every other book he ever wrote.
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