A piece of a wasted hour

October with Wei
Virginia is perfect this time of year. (A vineyard nearby.)

“Still, a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Vincent van Gogh, in a letter

Annals of Everyday Sexism, No. 1,204

I told him some about my new job and what I would be doing and how I was so excited about it, about the work itself and about all of the new challenges and opportunities it would bring.

“It sounds like Guion and I would be better at that job than you would be,” he said as soon as I finished.

I blinked. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said, and then with uncharacteristic firmness, “I am going to be great at this job.” My blood was feeling hot in my face.

He furrowed his brows, implying he didn’t believe me. But for once, I had a retort ready.

“Just because I’m not constantly talking about myself and how great I am all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have any skills,” I said, turning away.

“Oh, you’re adorable,” he said, in the purest of patronizing tones. And all this despite the fact that he is several years younger than me.

(You are not surprised when it happens, this kind of thing, because it has been happening all your life, but you are now almost 30 and ready to say something about it when it does. To name a thing, to call it what it is, to not hedge anymore.)

That said, I just finished the first week at my new job, and I am feeling all of the good feels: happy, grateful, fortunate, enlightened, challenged, hopeful, thrilled, capable, eager.

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” — Annie Dillard

I just finished The Abundance, which I thought was a new collection of Annie Dillard essays because I didn’t read the subtitle carefully. It isn’t; it’s almost entirely old stuff, repackaged. But her old stuff is still beautiful and challenging and mind-expanding, and I was happy to re-read it. If I ever were to aspire to nonfiction in this way, Dillard is all that I could ever hope to be. Her boundless curiosity, her lyricism, her patience, her directness. It will always be difficult to convince me than any other American essayist can surpass her.

Up next on the reading docket: A big haul from the library book sale (somewhat thick, heady European novels that have been on my list for a long time + James Baldwin + John McPhee + Simone de Beauvoir’s short stories) and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (I’m scared).

Insensible waters

“We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add—until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.”

— Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard

Books for escape

Living by Fiction

10 books:

  • Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard
  • The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
  • The Wisdom of the Desert, ed. Thomas Merton
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Suite Francaise, Irène Némirovsky
  • Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  • Close Range, Annie Proulx
  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose

Books for lounging in the sun

Henderson the Rain King

10 books:

  • Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
  • On Love, Alain de Botton
  • Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
  • Light in August, William Faulkner
  • The Essential Haiku, ed. Robert Hass
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams
  • The Waves, Virginia Woolf

The Waves

A copy editor’s daydream

It’s easy to get lost in the microcosm of your job and think that the rest of the world should be operating within your work-day paradigms. Today, for instance, I was editing an extremely poorly written blog post, and instead of whistling while I worked and cheerfully improving the piece, my to-author queries just started getting more and more touchy; I was enraged that such a person could exist, someone with such a paltry ability to form a solid sentence! With such little knowledge of punctuation and the difference between an em- and en-dash!

So I had to stop. Put it away. Breathe. Realize that I live in a weird, underground world that is detached from most people’s everyday reality. A world in which editors obsess over language precision and the correctness of a word for hours. A world in which you strive not to betray an author’s trust by changing a comma. A world in which, if our jobs are done well, no reader even thinks of our existence.

Dutch braid, attempt no. 1. #braidselfieBeing a copy editor makes you super-attuned (almost presciently) to detail, but it also makes you an ass. I don’t know why a knowledge of grammar makes people self-righteous, but being a copy editor is a fast track to unbearable party behavior. Guion can’t go out to dinner without me making snide remarks about apostrophes and how most people think “portobella” or “portabella” is the correct name of the mushroom “portobello.” I’ll launch into a tidy tirade if you talk about how your English teacher told you that two spaces belong between every sentence. It’s amazing that I have any friends at all.

Because it’s a hard thing to turn off, this editing nature. I’ve been reading a memoir by a stroke survivor, and instead of thinking, Wow, this woman is amazing, and she has overcome so much, all I can think is, Couldn’t she afford an editor? What is this run-on nonsense? What is the deal with these double spaces between sentences?

Many of my coworkers say that they can’t read for pleasure anymore because of this curse. Or, if they do read, they can only turn to the lowest common denominator fiction (e.g., Nelson DeMille), fiction that requires only a marginal part of your brain.

I don’t want to resort to that, but I admit that reading Proust was a heck of a lot harder than it might have been if I’d had a different profession. Or Faulkner. Or Woolf. Or any of the writers that I deeply love and admire. Since Infinite Jest, fiction has been much harder on me. I gravitate toward nonfiction now. I don’t even read the short stories in the New Yorker; they don’t interest me. I don’t know if this turn away from fiction can be blamed on my handful of years spent editing or on David Foster Wallace, but something significant in my reading life has shifted.

I miss stories, but I crave knowledge. I want to know about everything. Reading 100 books a year doesn’t seem like enough. It’s a foolish endeavor, to want to know everything, but it’s never felt like a vain striving. Rather, I’d like to class it with Annie Dillard’s deep curiosity about the universe, spanning from the vast Milky Way all the way down to the mystical formation of a butterfly in its chrysalis. I want to know about all of these things, and I want to be able to tell these stories.

Goat moth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t pretend to have Dillard’s level of beautiful, boundless curiosity, but I can aspire to it. To know, to have precision, to be curious; I think of these as developing attributes of my small life as a copy editor.

I have, perhaps, always been this way; it’s just now that I’m realizing that my love of being a copy editor has fit perfectly within my natural design. Being a good editor means knowing right from wrong; valuing precision; internalizing arcane details of our complex and often nonsensical language; memorizing rules; ably recalling information about history, politics, and culture; possessing all of this knowledge and holding it at the ready, on a precipice of your brain.

I learned to read when I was 3; I enjoyed being sent to time-out because it meant I could stay in my room and read; I read straight through our set of encyclopedias when I was 7 or 8 (remember when you had physical encyclopedias? An alphabetized set that probably lived in your parent’s basement?). When I got to “D,” my mother had to explain the birds and the bees to me earlier than she expected, because I was confused as to why a woman would use a diaphragm during something called “intercourse.” I memorized the names of exotic animals and thought of them as my invisible companions. (Guion and I have been watching David Attenborough’s fabulous documentary series, “The Life of Mammals,” and every episode brings me this childlike glee when I can successfully identify an unusual animal. A tapir! A pangolin! A dik-dik! Heaven!)

As a child, I wanted all of the information (a history, a theory, a flood), and a large part of me still does.

I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013

I read 125 books in 2013, down somewhat from last year. But as far as I can tell, here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read.

1. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about this marvelous little book, but the critical thing is that it saved me. I felt like I could keep believing in Christianity after reading Wiman’s memoir of faith. So, if you’re ever in a place like me and find yourself deep in doubt and ennui, turn to Wiman. He has some beautifully perfect and powerful things to say about being a modern believer in an ancient religion.

2. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Topping out at about 1,000 pages, Far from the Tree was my Big Tome of the year. The fact that I, a childless person, so enjoyed this book about parents and children speaks to Andrew Solomon’s gift as a writer and storyteller. The book is also riveting and frightening to me, as a childless person, but Solomon writes with honest hope about what he calls “horizontal relationships” between parents and children — that is, children who differ markedly from their parents (e.g., parents to kids who are transgender, deaf, or autistic; have dwarfism or Down syndrome; are criminals, etc.). Solomon spent 10 years researching this book, and his meticulous attention to his subjects is filled with grace and understanding. Each chapter tackles a separate identity and how those parents and children have learned to live and love through their differences. It’s a momentous book on a rarely discussed topic.

3. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness

This completely charming, intelligent, and engrossing little book is for everyone. Provided that you’ve ever lived inside a structure or been enchanted by the form of a building, Alain de Botton has some words for you. Why is it that we are attracted to beautiful buildings? Why, as he asks, do we feel different inside a McDonald’s than inside the Westminster Cathedral? This is a beautiful, thoughtful foray into the theoretical ramifications of architecture, and I want to read it all over again right now.

4. Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead

Yes, I feel a few years behind the John Jeremiah Sullivan craze, and I am embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to read it, but maybe I should say that it was worth the wait? This is an ideal collection of essays: deeply funny, honest, and far-reaching. Plainly, Sullivan is just a great writer. Favorite essays: His experience at Creation, the giant Christian rock festival (“Christian music is the only music industry that has excellence-proofed itself”); the essay about his brother’s “resurrection” after being electrocuted; and the essay about caring for “the last Confederate,” Mr. Lytle. They’re all good; they’re all perfect; they’re all delightful; you should go get a copy of this book right now.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

If I’m being perfectly honest with you, I’ve never been much interested in foreign poverty narratives. You know what I’m talking about: Those sentimental books by non-native writers about the noble, angelic people trapped in desperate poverty in the Third World. For these reasons, I didn’t really want to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A white journalist writes about life in a Mumbai slum? Sounds like it’s going to be out-of-touch and cheesy. But this book is so far from that — which is probably why it has garnered such widespread acclaim. Katherine Boo spends several years living with and researching the people of Annawadi, a specific Mumbai slum, and produces this book, which reads like a thrilling novel with a complex array of characters. The best part about this book, though, is that Boo displays real life with real people in Annawadi. These are people as complicated as any of us; no one is purely good or purely evil. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so refreshing to read, and it vitalized this small, difficult part of India in my mind.

6. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

This year, I read this book for the second time as part of my church book club. I’m an ardent Annie Dillard fan, so even though this memoir wasn’t new to me, I had to include it on this list: It’s just that good. I first read this book when I was 15, and reading it again at 25 left me with such a different impression. Instead of being pulled in by the stories of childhood adventure and discovery, as I was before, this year I was more entranced by her careful portrayal of the nuanced pain and beauty of growing up and the intricate process of figuring out who you really are. Dillard has such a fertile, curious mind; she’ll always be a writer that I turn to year in and year out.

7. How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Artists and writers love to portray death in all sorts of romantic and eloquent images and phrases, but what is it really like to die? Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland wants to tell you, in this little book, his classic account of what happens to our bodies at the end of our lives. It is rare that we get to hear about death from someone who is actually in the business of living and dying, and Nuland writes with unsentimental clarity and precision. Recommended, because it’s going to happen to you and me one of these days.

8. Overdressed, by Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book does for the fashion industry what Michael Pollan and his ilk did for the food industry. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline researches the dark side of the cheap fashion business, which comprises the vast majority of the clothes that are purchased in the United States. A dramatic shift has occurred in the way that Americans consume clothing. Much like food, we now spend more money on clothes than ever before and have far bigger wardrobes than we actually need, and yet the clothes are vastly poorer quality. We see clothes as disposable items, which has created a powerful fashion industry that is unethical, wasteful, and unsustainable. I do believe that Overdressed is a book that every clothes-consuming American should read. It’ll change the way you think about what you wear.

9. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Finishing the book Delusions of Gender really took the wind out of my sails. Rather than making me proud to be a woman — o, the happy, beleaguered sex! — the barrage of studies and debunked gender myths has only made me more dejected, more frustrated, more hopeless. Gender roles and stereotypes are all so ingrained. You are already disadvantaged in the workplace, in math and in science, in general living and everyday safety by having been unfortunate enough to have been born a woman. That’s all you had to do to lose, just be born.

And yet, while reading the book, I was filled with a frantic, Sisyphean energy to do all of these things:

  • Stand up taller!
  • Make eye contact with men!
  • Take a math class!
  • Benchpress something! (Is that a thing? Is that what you call it?)
  • Study for and take the GRE!
  • Have a baby girl just so I can NOT buy her anything pink!
  • Write a children’s book with a female lead! (And with a boy character who is nurturing and gentle and needs to be saved, like Peeta.)
  • Punch a wall!

Which just made me feel more tired and more despondent. We still live in a country in which women live in fear of men on a daily basis — a feeling that most men would be hard-pressed to even sympathize with. It’s a sad state of affairs. But Fine’s book explores the ways that we’ve been misled to think that men and women are “hardwired” to act in certain ways. Rather, we’ve all been insidiously cultured to act in certain ways — even from the womb. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great book, even if you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.

10. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf, and I love when she’s in love. Most famous people’s letters are desperately boring, but Vita and Virginia couldn’t be boring if they tried. Recommended even for those who only have a passing interest in Woolf.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Deborah Needleman
  2. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
  3. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  4. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  5. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas
  6. American Sphinx, Thomas J. Ellis
  7. The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson

Up next: Best 10 fiction (novels, poetry, and plays) books I read in 2013.

Weekend ready

Hydrangea

Angela and Marshall are coming for the weekend! We are going to laze about, drink tea, take walks, and reminisce. They are taking the train down from Brooklyn, which is very romantic of them.

Fall brings changes in various ways: The maple trees on the street look like they’ve gone up in a brilliant array of flames; Pyrrha has started barking, even though it’s not intimidating at all; our little hovel is no longer as damp; I am reading poetry again; I am writing again; Guion is… OK, Guion is the same, blessedly the same.

I am reading American Primitive, by Mary Oliver, right now. I don’t know if Oliver is a critically acclaimed poet, I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to mention her in the company of the MFA community, but I love her. I don’t care who knows it! She’s like Annie Dillard, if Annie Dillard wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry. She makes me want to go outside and sit in the leaves and carry on conversations with woodland creatures. As you do in the fall, when you are reading poetry.

A cathedral and a physics lab

“What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue.”

Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Annie Dillard knows all the things.

Who’s really ready for this election to be over?? I am! I am! I don’t think I’ve ever been more exhausted by politics and its relentless charade. Someone on NPR referred to the Republican National Convention as “theater,” and I thought, Yes, that is what all of it is, regardless of your party. One big performance, predicated on fear.

I am going to the mountains this weekend to celebrate at Kelsey’s bachelorette retreat! Hard to believe lil sis is getting married so soon. Can’t wait to see her and spend some time in the Blue Ridge, hanging out and teaching her how lingerie works.

Talk to you later.

Choosing the given

Click for source.

“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular–shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?–but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.”

Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A little more on my animal theme this week. I also have sad news: We learned that dear Aoive, Guion’s parent’s springer spaniel, had to be put down last night, after an excruciating cycle of non-stop seizures. She was such a sweet, affectionate girl. Rest in peace, Aoive; I hope you are stalking birds to your heart’s content in heaven. Happy weekend, everyone.

20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?