My Favorites’ Favorites

September 22, 2010 | 8 books mentioned 13 5 min read

covercovercoverMany of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading.  Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.

This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.

But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.

coverI devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”

Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”

covercovercoverAnd so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.

After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.”  Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.

Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.

coverA few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections.  (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)

Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”

I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.

Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each.  (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.

coverI started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs.  A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”

She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”

coverEven before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?

My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.

But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?

covercoverI suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians!  I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.

Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.

I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.

is an editor of Atlas Obscura and a regular contributor to The Believer. She writes the column "A Modern Reader" at The Rumpus. Her interests include nineteenth century medicine, education policy, and farmstead cheese.


  1. Rebekah–
    I’m guessing I’m several decades older than you. In my youth, if someone said to me, “It was the most depressing book I ever read,” I bought the book immediately. This magic phrase was used when describing “Rabbit Run” and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t get through more than 2 chapters. I wasn’t depressed but I most assuredly bored. I tried reading “Couples” when my mother wasn’t around. Bored. I tried Updike again when yet another friend told me that the Rabbit books had changed the way she viewed life. I tried again.
    Updike is a taste I haven’t been able to acquire You’re not alone.

  2. Updike, I think, was always too much in love with his facility in language.

    But that quote from McCullers about the shapes of children’s hearts! Here’s a writer whose empathy is less self-directed. I immediately downloaded a copy of Sad Cafe. Thank you.

    Sometimes, the best recommendation is the author’s prose itself.

  3. Favorites’ favorites! A great concept.

    I also have not been able to read Updike, and used to feel like it was an ominous character flaw. Now I just think I don’t like Updike (with the exception of some poems, which I might only like because The New Yorker said I should).

  4. You should have read science fiction as well. Read Dhalgren at least. Muddy old Jews with tears on the sleeve are everywhere. I read the Rabbit and Bellow and the old war horses in my early years.

  5. With apologies to Oscar Wilde, Absolute catholicity of taste is normally lacking in all but publishers, who are impelled to admire all schools of writing. I too, have suffered through quite a few highly touted books, wondering “why am I not enthralled?” Reading recommendations are so hit-or-miss, especially when the recommendation comes from someone that you don’t know well. Before recommending a book, I always ask “tell me some of your recent favorites’ and go from there. It seems as if I’m regularly reading books that I feel I should read – only to be disappointed. It’s strange that an Alabama boy like myself, would have been so impressed by Updike’s Rabbit series (and Couples), completely identifying with his northeastern characters with their preoccupations with sex, love and God. As we say down here, whodathunkit. And by the way,,,Silence of the Lambs was great – I’m not surprised that DFW loved it. In the end I think you hit the nail on the head with your “not being a bad reader or intellectually deficient” because your tastes are uniquely yours.

  6. When I discover an author I really like, I’m always interested to know what his or her favorite books are. And it is undeniably gratifying when you discover that a writer you admire happens to love a book that you love, or when they direct you to a wonderful new discovery. Then again, when a writer turns out to be a fan of something you find mediocre or forgettable, it’s kind of disillusioning!

    There should be a database or something that points people to the favorite books of various authors, lol. Like, I read somewhere that “Bleak House” was Kafka’s favorite novel. And that Proust was a huge fan of “The Mill on the Floss”. And that Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” was the novel that taught Kazuo Ishiguro everything he knew about first person narration. Stuff like that is useful to know!

  7. Ballad of the Sad Cafe is one of the best things I’ve ever read, and believe I will ever read, in my life.
    A Good Man Is Hard to Find I also love.
    I think I had the same experience as you did with Updike.

  8. I’m a long-standing Updike fan, and read most of his work when it was first published. After his death last year I went back and reread the entire Angstrom Quartet , finding them each even better than I had remembered. Long live the late, great Johnny U.

  9. Nice little piece, really enjoyed it! Baker is inimitable – PG may be right that Updike is too much in love with his facility in language and Baker has that too, but with a playfulness and joy that makes it more than forgiveable. The opening paragraph of his article about wikipedia for example, especially the last line. Wonderful! : “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It’s fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, “Diogenes of Sinope,” or “turnip,” or “Crazy Eddie,” or “Bagoas,” or “quadratic formula,” or “Bristol Beaufighter,” or “squeegee,” or “Sanford B. Dole,” and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before. It’s like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.

  10. I came across Baker and Updike separately, and found it sweetly aligning when it turned out that one had a significant connection to the other.

    I think I may have the been the youngest person in the group when I went to hear Baker read, too.

  11. I too worry at being a really bad reader…but years ago, Updike did the job for me. Now, I cannot say. I have found writers only apply directly and easily to me at the right time and conversely apply oddly and with difficulty when the time is not right, like looking at one’s image in the circus mirror. Something, or everything, is quite wrong. Regardless, you must live up the coast from me, being, as you say, close to the mecca of the aspirant essayist, that “salt-water farm” of the master. I have a friend who was hired, late in Mr. White’s life, to make his martinis on Sunday afternoons. What more can a writer aspire to? Thanks for your essay. I enjoyed it.

  12. Authors you respect really are the best for recommendations – I’ve spent the summer reading through all the authors and books that Hemingway mentions positively in “A Moveable Feast.” Best literary idea I’ve ever had. I started with War and Peace (and even got the Constance Garnett translation, though I hear it’s not the best), because I knew if I could do that I could do anything. I finished it in a week, and it really got me on a Russian kick – I hit up Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and just checked out Turgenev. None of these would have been on my summer list if not for Hem, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve also reread a lot of his contemporaries in expat Paris… I love how their writing dialogues and builds on each others’, I’ve picked up on so much more nuance by reading books in cultural/ time period bulk. (I also got into Cezanne thanks to MF)

  13. You know, Baker originally wanted to write about Donald Barthelme. I wonder how his book and this essay would have turned out if he had.

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