Reading a book won’t necessarily make you a writer, of course,
but for many authors, one (or two) books set them on the path.
In the spirit of the Library of Congress’s program “A Book That Shaped Me,” we asked some of the National Book Festival participants:
“What book — or books — influenced you most?”
I brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to school in fourth grade and was teased relentlessly for it by a group of little boys who called me “Daisy Baggins,” for some silly reason, for the next eight years. I was a terrifically shy girl, but this experience formed me into a reader because, in the end, I couldn’t care less what these boys called me. I knew how glorious the book was, what a source of magic and wonder. If they chose to mock me instead of reading it for themselves, I realized then, the loss was entirely their own.
I didn’t start writing seriously until I was nearly 30, but I’d been collecting degrees in literature during my 20s, and I’m sure that a lot of what I read during that decade influenced me. But after I decided I wanted to be a writer, it was the great Richard Yates who was so necessary, and not “Revolutionary Road,” either, though I loved that book. No, it was the stories in “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” that I kept returning to, without, at the time, knowing exactly why. I think I know now, though. Yates was giving me permission to care about (and write about) the kinds of people who live their lives completely beneath the cultural radar. Which, for better or worse, I have continued to do.
Mary Roach ’s books include “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” and “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.” Her latest work is “Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.”
The Adventures of Tintin series, which I lived for in fifth and sixth grade. I badly wanted to grow up and be Tintin. He was always off someplace far-flung — the Congo! the moon! — in the company of scientists and eccentric strangers. Looking back now, I don’t recall what his job title was. Spy? Reporter? However he’d managed it, I wanted that life, and I guess to the best of my abilities I sort of got it.
James McBride is the author of the National Book Award-winning novel “ The Good Lord Bird ” and the memoir “ The Color of Water .” His latest book is “ Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul ”:
A book’s influence for me is a function of age and the lifelong desire — probably planted in me by my mother — to be right before God. When I was a young boy, William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy” fit the bill. When I got older, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” took top shelf. Later, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” bumped that off. When I got older, “Been in the Storm So Long,” by Leon Litwack, put those three to bed. These days, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” feels like the ceiling upon which all great history writing will forever bump. I know it’s a function of our upcoming election.
Margo Jefferson , a former theater and book critic for Newsweek and the New York Times, won a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir “Negroland”:
As a critic, I find that the writers I need vary according to my subject and my approach. I’m pragmatically fickle, you could say. Still, for years, I’ve found myself returning to Virginia Woolf and Ralph Ellison at regular intervals. Even if I’m going against their grain, I learn by studying it.
Yes, I could list a highbrow literary title to show how well-read I am, but if I had to pick one book that made me become a writer — an impossible task — it would have to be “Marathon Man.” When I was maybe 14 years old, my father loaned me his copy, and I remember being so engrossed I started thinking, “You could put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t put this book down.” At the time, I had no idea that I’d end up a writer, but I think subconsciously something inside of me wanted to be able to make people feel what I was feeling — to give them that same can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-all-night, complete-escape experience.
Bob Woodward has worked for The Washington Post since 1971. The Post won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his work with Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal. His current book is “The Last of the President’s Men”:
“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren. There is no stronger novel about politics, reporting, corruption, love, nostalgia, human frailty and the sad death of idealism. As Warren notes at the end, it all could have been different. But it wasn’t.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel is “ Homegoing ”:
I read “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison, in an English class my senior year of high school, and it remains my favorite book to this day. There’s so much to love, but I think the thing that I love most is Morrison’s great generosity and warmth toward her characters, even when they are at their worst.
The short-story collection “Not What You Expected,” by Joan Aiken, is one of the most magical of all the books I found at the Coral Gables public library during one of my many childhood moves. I checked it out on my library card over and over. In it were stories about dog ghosts, unusual harps, curses and phones that could connect you to the past. Aiken could put a whole world into a 10-page story, and she was funny as well as terrifying. She made the act of storytelling feel limitless, liberating, joyful.