My First Literary Crush
The books famous people loved in college.
James Fallows, national correspondent, the Atlantic
There are only a few books I can remember actually reading in college. The high-toned one was American Renaissance, by F.O. Matthiesen, which in retrospect was useful for understanding 19th-century literary America (Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, et al.) but at the time seemed to tie me down for most evenings through an entire year. But the ones that made the biggest difference to me were these three: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans; Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, whose most famous section described a murder in my hometown; and Nixon Agonistes, by Garry Wills. I am cheating a little on Agonistes, which came out while I was in graduate school. But I still remember reading each of them and thinking: There are some interesting possibilities in journalism.
Christopher Hitchens, columnist, Vanity Fair
He who hesitates is lost. If I gave myself any time to reflect, I might come up with Peter Sedgwick's edition of Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary. But to answer the question about "most influential" is really to choose the indelible, and the book I most remember reading between 1967 and 1970 is The Mill on the Floss, borrowed well away from Oxford in a "youth" camp in Cuba. Only Shakespeare and Proust are superior to George Eliot in guessing at the real springs of human motive and in describing the mammalian underlay of social forces. At the time, I may have believed that literature was of less importance than politics, but when I shook off this fatuous illusion I went straight to the Eliot shelf and didn't stop until I had read it all, which I suppose will serve as a paltry definition of influence.
Gish Jen, author, The Love Wife
Robert Fitzgerald's translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey changed my life—as did, I should say, Fitzgerald himself, my favorite professor. I couldn't believe how different his Homer was from Lattimore's—so much more lithe and live. Could translation really make that much difference? And did Homer really come to us through normal humans who played tennis and cracked jokes and wore berets? Suddenly literature was much less remote; suddenly it was something that involved, in one way or another, writers. What an idea!
Sam Lipsyte, author, Home Land
Simulations by Jean Baudrillard. It was the mid-1980s and this book could get you laid. Plus, reading about hyperreality was a great hangover cure.
Chris Matthews, host, Hardball
A Thousand Days by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Kennedy was assassinated in November of my freshman year at Holy Cross. I watched Walter Cronkite declare him dead on a dormitory television. I rarely read a book in those years that I didn't have to. I studied most of the time. I would read the Schlesinger book at evening's end. He is a beautiful, sweeping, and grand writer of the William Manchester sort.
Peter Mehlman, writer, Seinfeld
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong blew me away. Yes, it was well-written, funny, and very instructive about the lives of wealthy people. But the observations on sex kept me from reading the books I was assigned. With absolutely no attribution to Ms. Jong, I quoted lines to girls and sounded so evolved. One of those lines gave me a collegiate philosophy (paraphrase): A little phony feminism can get any man laid.
Daphne Merkin, author, Enchantment
The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. I read it for a class taught by Catherine Stimpson in my senior year at Barnard, and if I were grateful to her for nothing else, I would be grateful to her for introducing me to that novel. I was immediately riveted by its casual yet urgent style, as though there were a secret message running through the book that you would be able to detect only if you paid careful attention to what appeared to be its many inconclusive scenes and exchanges of throwaway dialogue. It remains for me an unutterably prescient book about so many things: the impact of celebrity on earthlings; the yearning for some kind of transcendental meaning in the midst of a secularly ordained universe; the possibility of romantic love even for the inveterately cynical (Binx); the limitations of romantic love, even for the nuttily hopeful (his cousin Kate); the temptations and arrogance of outsiderism; the pathos of emotional illness (Kate) and physical illness (Lonnie, Binx's half-brother).
Daniel Okrent, author, Great Fortune
I didn't read many books of lasting influence in college—I was in college from 1965 until 1969, so I actually thought Cleaver and Mao were philosophers. But Jim Bouton's Ball Four got me interested in baseball again (I had moved away from it so I could fight the revolution), and you could certainly do worse than that.
Charles P. Pierce, writer, Boston Globe Magazine The first problem I had with the book is that I was sitting in a great lost place called the Avalanche Bar on Wells Street in Milwaukee and it was 10:30 in the morning and I was laughing out loud to myself. It was not unusual at any hour in the 'Lanche to find someone engaged in a long, involved dialogue with the apparently empty air. But undifferentiated guffaws from deep in the cracked vinyl of the booth seemed to set my fellow patrons somewhat on edge. It was my first time through At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien, and the novel had wound its way into the mad scene in which an author's characters put him on trial before the bar—and I do mean bar. In the place of gavels, the judges wield imperial pints—and when one of them accuses the author of forcing him to act "at all times contrary to the best instincts of a gentleman," I pretty much lost it, my laughter drowning out Dylan's "Gates Of Eden" which, for some reason, was one of the more popular tunes on the old Seeburg that sat under the 'Lanche's front window. Mysteries unfathomable danced all around in the smoky air, like the snow off the big lake.
Neal Pollack, author, Never Mind the Pollacks
I probably should have been into Bukowski in college, or Burroughs, or either of the Thompsons, Jim or Hunter S. All the fashionable lowlifes at Northwestern read them. But my favorite book in those days was Middlemarch. George Eliot didn't speak to me in any particular way. It's just a great novel.
Jonathan Raban, author, My Holy War
My first summer vacation from the University of Hull in England, I had a job as a bus conductor on an unbusy country run between Bournemouth and Southampton. When I wasn't issuing tickets, I was reading William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity with a sort of jaw-dropping, Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus sense of being granted revelation. The book taught me how to read. Thereafter, every essay I wrote was an attempt to answer the question, "What would Empson say about this?" and I'm still proud to call myself a devout Empsonian. Just read the section early in the book where he discusses the covert meanings in Shakespeare's "bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang ..." It's as near to pure magic as lit crit has ever come.