What book mesmerized you in college?

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 8:29 AM

My First Literary Crush

The books famous people loved in college.

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George Saunders, author, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil The book I was obsessed with in college was You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe, a six-foot-five raving romantic of a writer, who supposedly wrote the book on the top of his refrigerator, and would just toss the pages on to the floor, dozens of pages a night, to be gathered up by the cleaning lady next day. But that's not why I liked him. I liked him because he was epic and broken-hearted and sloppy and emotional and in love with the world and wrote sentence after sentence beginning with the word "O," as in "O Brooklyn, harbinger of cruel autumn," or "O mourned and never-to-be-regained Time" (though I'm pretty sure I just now made those two up). I loved his big-heartedness and the way, apparently, he had just taken his life and made a huge book out of it. But damn, his life was so much bigger and romantic than mine! He felt things so much more deeply, knew so many more Tragic Figures! So, soon I had developed the habit of pacing tragically around and phrasing my life in his terms: "O bitter Seven-Eleven of broken love, which, mourning, how many times have I paced by you, mad visions trumpeting my ravening brain, because of the lovely (FILL IN NAME OF GIRL) lost, no more to be Regained?" Finally I realized that my life didn't GO in that voice, and left the book behind, but sadly, with an affection I still feel. O Wolfe!

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Bill Simmons, columnist, ESPN.com During the summer after my freshman year in college, I bought a collection of Raymond Carver's short stories— Where I'm Calling From—that ended up impacting me more than anything I ever read. At that point in my life, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to attend law school or become a writer, and that book literally made the decision for me. I can't even tell you how many times I read it—in fact, I have the exact same copy from college, only it looks like somebody pounded it with a bloody baseball bat or something. I don't know what's holding it together. Aside from the obvious classics ("Cathedral," "A Small Good Thing"), my favorite Carver story was "The Calm"—structurally perfect, layers to everything, quirky as hell—which had one of those classic Carver endings that made you just shake your head and think, "I will never be as good of a writer as that guy." Not only did he inspire the hell out of me in college, he completely discouraged me in every way. Now that is an influential book.

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Sam Tanenhaus, editor, New York Times Book Review

When I was a sophomore in college I decided to read Bellow. I had dragged myself through Seize the Day, an assignment in high school AP English, but hadn't liked it much. The story was so dreary, and the hero so pathetic and doomed. But all the culture signals were beaming Bellow, Bellow, so I tried again. I started with Herzog, which, frankly, I didn't get. The letters interspersed with the narrative confused me. Also, Bellow manipulates time—back and forth, past and present—quite as complexly as Proust, and if you're not ready for it, you can easily get thrown. Still, I stuck with it. I admired individual scenes, and the prose appealed to me, its intelligence and erudition, plus the wit and contemporaneity. To paraphrase Dylan, I knew something was happening, but I didn't know what it was. Then I read Mr. Sammler's Planet and was simply overwhelmed—the philosophical depth and brilliance on every page, the way the streets and living rooms of New York were so pulsatingly alive. I liked a lot of contemporary fiction—Mailer, Roth, Updike, in particular—but Bellow was the first contemporary who made me realize the age I was living in could be evoked with the same rich dense saturation of Balzac's Paris, Tolstoy's St. Petersburg, or Joyce's Dublin. Also, I was very big on the romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Keats, and it was clear Bellow descended from them in some way. At any rate, I was blown away and reported all this in babbling ecstasy to my English professors, who plainly thought I was out of my mind. To them, I think, Bellow was a kind of freak—not a literary writer at all.

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Ricky Van Veen, editor, collegehumor.com High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess by Charles Fleming. This glimpse into the ridiculous world of Hollywood pushed me in the "entertainment-career-after-college" direction more than any guidance counselor or computerized survey ever could. I'd find myself stopping every few pages and reading passages aloud to my roommate. "Wait, he paid a hooker just to watch TV with him?" "Yeah, dude."

Andrew Wylie, literary agent

The most influential book I read in college was The Odyssey, which I was taught to sing in the original by the legendary professor Albert Lord, author of The Singer of Tales. Lord's presentation of the text, the extraordinary beauty of the verses intoned, the logic and history of the oral tradition—all pushed the dirt of a good education under my nails.