This year’s National Book Awards were recently announced and the winners for the nonfiction and fiction prizes, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, were books I’d read upon suggestion from a fellow writer and reader months before their respective overwhelming hype and critical praise.
This got me thinking about how and why I decide to read certain books. Thousands of titles are published every year, and it is difficult to sift through the masses of new titles and decide which to read. Checking reviews is one thing, but out of a thousand books newly released, about half of them will receive glowing praise from respectable critics, journals, papers and websites. So the question beckons: how do we decide what to read?
In an average year I will read just over one hundred books. Only about a fourth of them will be published that year. In 2015, of the twenty-five recently published books I had read, I noticed that quite of few of them made up the long-list and finalists of the National Book Awards, including A Little Life, How to be Drawn, The Turner House and Fates and Furies.
After considering what had prompted me to read these titles long before their respective nominations I realized that they had all been suggested by readers I respected and writers I admired. Upon further introspection, I determined that this was the case for more than half of the books I had read in 2015 and I’ll admit that 2015 was a damned good year of reading.
This was to way to do it, I thought, read books suggested by those I knew would not steer me wrong – befriended booksellers, idolized writers and people who simply know what good art is. Ernest Hemingway fits two of my three parameters in a recommender to a tee. Hemingway knew how to write a great novel, but also knew what constituted one. And if you ever wondered what Hemingway’s reading list might look like, here it is:
1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
2. Dubliners, James Joyce
“I like [Joyce] very much as a friend and think no one can write better, technically, I learned much from him. . .”
3. The Enormous Room, E. E. Cummings
4. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
“Her Making of Americans is one of the very greatest books I’ve ever read.”
5. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
“War and Peace is the best book I know. . . . Tolstoy was a prophet.”
6. A Sportsman’s Sketches, Ivan Turgenev
“Turgenev to me is the greatest writer there ever was. . . . Turgenev was an artist.”
7. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
8. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.”
9. “The Blue Hotel” and “The Open Boat”, Stephen Crane
10. West with the Night, Beryl Markham
“Written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [Markham] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . it is really a wonderful book.”