Books That Shaped Great Authors

By | Jul 06, 2016

Carl Bernstein / Geraldine Brooks  / Alan Dershowitz / Anita Diamant / Ariel Dorfman / David D. Friedman / Paul Goldberger / Allegra Goodman / Etgar Keret / David Makovsky / Daniel Matt / Leonard Mlodinow / Walter Mosley / Joyce Carol Oates / Cynthia Ozick / Martin Peretz / Daniel Pinkwater  / Anita Shapira / Gerald Stern / Avivah Zornberg

Symposium editor: Marilyn Cooper

Author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Indeed, regardless of what they write, authors have a great love of reading in common. For our special books issue, Moment asked 20 prominent Jewish authors to discuss the books that shaped them. Their answers are highly personal, ranging from A. A. Milne’s children’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh to Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir The Periodic Table. But as varied as the answers are, every author speaks of their chosen book in much the same way most of us might recall a beloved friend. 

Cynthia Ozick

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Two great works of history have bookended my life. The first, Heinrich Graetz’s six-volume History of the Jews, which I discovered at age 17, is a book that is essentially obsolete as a history but nevertheless remains very important. He published these volumes between 1853 and 1875. He died in 1891, three years before the Dreyfus Affair. He did not live to see that infamous case, and his books also do not contain WWI, WWII, the Holocaust—all of the terrible events of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But Graetz is one of the great Jewish historians, and these books were my first serious encounter with Jewish history. In school and even in college there was no Jewish history. In the 1940s, European history classes said nothing at all about Jews. They didn’t exist. They were not part of history. It was galvanizing and empowering, beyond interesting, to discover a history of the Jews. I found these volumes on a bookshelf in Newark, New Jersey while on a family visit. I opened the first book and began to read—I was immediately absolutely electrified. I began to read Jewish history with Graetz and I have not yet stopped reading it.

The second book, David Nirenberg’s 2013 Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is really Graetz’s companion volume. Together the two are the most important history books I have ever read. Nirenberg’s book is not about anti-Semitism per se. It is a book about imagination, Christianity, Islam and the whole history of secular philosophy. It’s about all the cultural discourses that imagined the Jew. It is a hair-raising and extremely depressing book.

For most readers, I would recommend Nirenberg’s history because in just one volume, it covers the entire historic span of ideas about the Jews. This book discusses our secular and philosophical history, Jews living in Islamic countries and the European experience. To understand Judaism today and anti-Semitism, which is now having a huge surge, you have to know about the past. These books are essential reading. Today’s Jews need to understand the historic environment in which we as a people marinated. Our present is saturated with our past.

Cynthia Ozick is an essayist and novelist and the author of more than 20 books. Her most recent book is Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays.

Etgar Keret

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The book that most influenced me is The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka. I read it while I was doing my basic training in the army. I grew up reading epic storytelling—I loved authors who themselves were probably influenced by Kafka. Kafka’s work is mainly about anxiety and human stress caused by our inability to comprehend the world. When I read him, for the first time I saw that in order to write a good story you don’t need to have all the answers; often the role of the writer is just to present some good questions.

This metamorphosis of a man into a cockroach is really the story of a man who gets trapped in a world and a life that he did not choose or create. This story echoes much of my experience in the Israeli army and my feeling that I had been painfully transplanted into a strange world that, at the time, just made no sense to me. I really identify with this idea of being abruptly thrown into a system or a reality that you don’t understand the logic behind or, really, that there isn’t any logic behind.

Kafka is one of the most powerful storytellers of all time. There is something very powerful about how his work combines humor and terror. We can link these two qualities to much of what we now perceive as Jewish humor. In Kafka’s writing, humor is very primal, but when Jews use humor, it is never just to make people laugh. There is always something deeper; there are always complicated emotional undercurrents to Jewish humor. In this, Kafka is not an exception. These two qualities in Kafka’s work, humor and terror, connect to what it is to be a Jew—funny and terrifying.

Etgar Keret is a short story writer, graphic novelist and author of 11 books, most recently The Seven Good Years: A Memoir.

Carl Bernstein

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Norman Mailer’s nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night had an enormous influence on me. Mailer managed to write about himself as a character in his narrative while simultaneously doing amazing journalism by writing about himself in the third person. He created the character “Mailer” and then wrote about himself as this character. When I first read it, I saw that this device gave him incredible remove and distance that allowed him to write honestly about himself in a way first-person narrative would not have. I had covered him during the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War rally and march on the Pentagon that the novel describes. Mailer is a spectacular reporter. He reveals at the beginning of the book that he was drunk for much of the period the book covers. Having been with him at the time, I can say that everything he describes—including his own drunkenness—is completely accurate. I didn’t remember him taking many notes, and yet The Armies of the Night is one of the greatest pieces of journalism of our era.

When the time came to write All the President’s Men, which is as much about [Bob] Woodward and myself as it is about journalism, the question we had was, “What should be the voice of the narrative?” Bob tried to write a first chapter using the first-person plural “we.” I read it and knew it was never going to work. There was no real way to separate the two characters of Woodward and Bernstein. I remembered what Mailer had done. So I took the draft and turned the “we” into Woodward and Bernstein. We each wrote the parts of the story in which we had had the primary role. So Bob would write something like, “Woodward was thinking that the attorney general was dissembling about what he knew.” Or I would write, “Bernstein knew that Haldeman had quite a reputation.” This technique allowed us to explore our individual characters in much the same way that Mailer had done. It gave us an opportunity to write about our mistakes and foibles with less self-consciousness or worry than if we had written in the first person.

Jewish readers may find it of particular interest to look at the example of the Vietnam War in Mailer’s book as a case where a government profoundly lost its way. It seems to me that Mailer covers a problematic war and the resulting antiwar movement in a way that is just as applicable to Israel as it is to the United States, particularly these days. Mailer describes painful divides in a rapidly fracturing country. Israel is also a country divided by some of the exact same questions about good governance and about what actually represents real and necessary national security.

Carl Bernstein is the author of five books, including All the President’s Men, which he coauthored with Bob Woodward. The two won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for their Watergate coverage in The Washington Post.

Ariel Dorfman

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Rayuela (published in English as Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar shaped my writing. I had been an ardent admirer of Cortázar’s work ever since my mother, when I was 17, passed me a copy of his book Bestiario, saying that I absolutely had to read this unknown Argentine author. I was mesmerized. Each one of the eight stories tore reality to shreds and did so unobtrusively, turning ordinary life into a mystery that crept up on the reader and finally delivered a knockout punch, leaving us breathless, questioning our own sanity, hoping that we would become accomplices in changing the way we looked at the world. And all this in the everyday street language of Buenos Aires, with a sly sense of humor, a view of existence that was both ominous and full of mischief. I quickly went on to devour two more books of his short fiction and a novel, The Winners.

  But nothing prepared me or my future wife, Angélica—or anyone else I met—for Hopscotch, which appeared in 1963 and became, quite simply, the foundational text of my Latin American generation. It was like an earthquake of language, a transgressive assault on literature and life and the stable categories of what we call reality, anticipating and accompanying, with its joy and radical demands on the reader, the social liberation that the youth of Latin America dreamt of for our continent. After reading that novel, nothing ever seemed the same. Because Hopscotch wasn’t only asking to be read and then discarded. It was inspiring us to drastically alter and break out of the prison house of language, consciousness and history in which we were ensnared. Cortázar said that we need to throw reality out the window and then throw out the window as well. To rethink and re-feel everything—this is a great and playful challenge.

Ariel Dorfman, a playwright and professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, is the author most recently of Feeding on Dreams.

Joyce Carol Oates

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The most influential book of my teenage years was probably Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It is so intimately bound up with my imaginative life that it is difficult for me to speak of Thoreau with a pretense of objectivity. Thoreau’s appeal is to the instinct in us—adolescent, perhaps, but not merely adolescent—that resists our own gravitation toward the outer, larger, fiercely competitive world of responsibility, false courage and “reputation.” Its appeal is as readily described as existential as transcendental; the voice making it is individual, skeptical and rebellious.

Thoreau is an emblematic and even heroic figure for many writers. He is the quintessential poet of evasion, paradox and mystery. Walden is mosaic rather than narrative­—a carefully orchestrated symbolic fiction, not a forthright account of a man’s sojourn in the woods. The meticulous craftsmanship of Walden—reminiscent of the obsessive, fanatic, inspired craftsmanship of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—gives the book another dimension, another angle of appeal, of particular interest to writers. Writing is not, after all, merely the record of having lived but an aspect of living itself.

I would recommend this brilliant memoir for everyone, of any age. It is unflinchingly honest, candid, often funny, beautifully written and memorable. It is a great American classic, antithetical in temperament to our current culture with its emphasis upon fleeting fame and notoriety.

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of more than 70 books, including them, for which she won the National Book Award. Her most recent book is The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.

Alan Dershowitz

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Although it was published 120 years ago, Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State remains current, relevant and persuasive. I first read parts of it when I was in high school and it was so insightful about the Jewish condition, particularly in Europe, and so prescient about what was to happen to the Jews in Europe that it really changed my life. I own an original copy of the first English edition, which I still go back to from time to time.

This book influenced every aspect of my life. It influenced my decision to spend a great deal of my time in defense of Israel and Zionism. It influenced my career choice to become an advocate because what I read in that book was advocacy at its best. It persuaded me to become a writer because it was written in a compelling way.

Herzl was not the first person to write about a Jewish homeland. Leon Pinsker had written about this a generation earlier, and obviously it is a part of Jewish tradition to return to Israel, particularly to Jerusalem. But Herzl set out a dramatic political plan to bring this about, and he had extremely compelling arguments for why Jews needed a homeland and why they had no future in Europe. The fact that Herzl was a secular Jew also gave my life some credibility, because I didn’t want to live the same kind of Orthodox Jewish life my parents had, but I still wanted to lead a meaningful Jewish life. I collect a lot of Herzl memorabilia. I have a signed letter from him and a rug that has his picture on it. I’m a Herzl groupie!

Alan Dershowitz is a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and the author of more than 1,000 articles and 31 books, including the best seller Chutzpah.

Geraldine Brooks

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Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek changed the direction of my life. I first read it when I was in my early twenties. I had been an urban child in an inner Sydney (Australia) neighborhood. We were not an outdoorsy family. We were like the Woody Allen quote, “I am at two with nature.” Particularly me! My school went on a camping trip and I refused to go. Then, as a newspaper reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald I was sent to cover environmental stories. Urban ecology and environmental issues such as toxic waste fascinated me. I first read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while reporting on a controversial conservation project in Tasmania; it seared me in so many ways. Dillard’s images are very rich. She pays close attention to the natural world and shows why you should intensely observe what’s going on around you. I started to practice this kind of mindfulness. Because of her book, I began to carefully look and watch and notice nature.

I love the way every time you read a book, it is different because you are different. The last time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it spoke to me about something entirely new. I didn’t have much patience for its transcendental dimension when I first read it. As I’ve gotten older, that spiritual aspect has become much more meaningful to me. When my rabbi asked me to pick something to read at the last High Holy Days, I chose the section where Dillard talks about the qualities in us that respond to extraordinary sights in nature. She shows that part of us, by design, responds to creation; it is almost an obligation.

Dillard is reminiscent of Jane Austen. She takes her little piece of landscape, the Virginia foothills, and describes it so perfectly that you feel you know it through her. If you are a spiritual seeker, this book shows how to take advantage of the unusual, miraculous, remarkable experience of simply being alive and conscious. We play a unique role in creation every single day. This book is a wonderful guide to being fully conscious in this beautiful universe.

Geraldine Brooks is the author of eight books, including March, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel is The Secret Chord.

David Makovsky

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The book that made the biggest impression on me is David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. It’s a look at how the British shaped the Middle East between 1914 and 1922. As someone who works professionally in the policy field, I love the drama of history. It is a cautionary tale, in certain ways, in terms of the risks policy makers face if they don’t understand history. This book explains the evolving nature of Britain’s global perceptions and its changing domestic political dynamics and how they shaped the Middle East over time. It’s an important lesson for those who make policy. You need to make sure you know, and have a firm sense of the history of, a region before you make powerful prescriptions and create political policies.

All Jews should know about the origins of the modern Middle East. We are living in a time when ISIS is trying to erase borders between Iraq and Syria by creating a Muslim caliphate. This book gives us a definitive account of how the current borders in the Middle East—which are now a source of constant contention—were originally created. We have to keep in mind George Santayana’s statement: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can’t say, “Oh well, that’s just history and it’s simply irrelevant.” In the Middle East, when they say “that’s history,” that means something that it is still alive; it is still very present. We are now living with serious consequences of policy decisions made in the historical past.

David Makovsky is the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of four books.

Allegra Goodman

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Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was the book that excited me when I was a young person dreaming about becoming a writer. Tolstoy has a unique ability to get inside many different kinds of people. What’s really exciting about this book is its intimate qualities. It’s a novel about history with many philosophical ideas. But it’s also a book with an impressive understanding of humanity. Tolstoy inhabits his characters. He becomes Andrei getting ready for war, Natasha at her first ball, a drunken soldier or a great general. He can be old or young. He gets inside the mind of a dying person and takes the reader with him. He disappears inside his characters, just like a great actor. That’s an incredible quality to have as an artist. This quality excited me a lot when I first read the book at age 14. I knew that was the kind of fiction I wanted to write. Tolstoy spoke to me and made me think about the kind of novelist I wanted to be.

Just as you would recommend that everyone should go to museums and look at the great masters, everyone should read Tolstoy. I would recommend reading War and Peace very slowly. In this day and age, people read too quickly. The great novels of the 19th century require and reward a long attention span and unplugging from the outside world. Immerse yourself in this novel the way you would a great painting.

Allegra Goodman is the author of seven books, including the novel Kaaterskill Falls, a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent novel is The Cookbook Collector.

Leonard Mlodinow

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Chemistry is my first love, and The Periodic Table by Primo Levi influenced how I write about science because it narrates Levi’s experiences in a WWII labor and concentration camp through the metaphor of the elements of science. Each chapter focuses on a specific chemical element, and the stories compare actual events to the properties and characteristics of the periodic table of chemicals. The book is a series of small memories, exquisite stories about very dramatic occurrences in his life that show both the greatest strengths and most contemptible qualities of human beings. It is a warm but deeply analytical study of people’s motivations.

Levi showed me how it is possible, in a metaphoric and artistic manner, to make connections between the truth and knowledge we derive from science and the ways people behave in the course of human events. I aspire to make these kinds of connections between science and humanity in my writing. Levi helped me see that science is a uniquely human pursuit. Science can tell us about our own lives, not just about the technologies we develop or the workings of ions and atoms.

Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist and author of nine books, including The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. He cowrote the best seller The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking.

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Anita Shapira

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Two Israeli novels have impacted me enormously because they capture the beauty and the pain of the essential Israeli experience. Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness tells of the creation of Israel and the grief of leaving Europe behind. It chronicles the difficulties of immigration and beginning a new life in a new country. It’s a story of starting over again and of eventually getting a new identity. This is the book that best describes the origins of Israel and the reasons why the modern state came into existence.

The other book is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. It describes life in Israel in the shadow of the conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. It shows how the conflict affects Israel’s basic humanity and the lives of simple people who want to maintain their values. It demonstrates how reality encroaches on the attempt to maintain ethical principles in a country that faces the constant pressure of unending conflict. Grossman does this very delicately—so expressively that it really imparts the authentic and painful Israeli experience of humanity being eroded by reality.

To truly understand Israel, you need to read the great Israeli novels. Israeli novels are a key part of Israeli identity. These extraordinary novelists express what all Israelis feel but are not capable of describing. They help Israelis like me reconcile our own feelings, emotions and problems with the reality in which we live. Reading these two books will enable American Jews to comprehend Israel and all its complexities, both its achievements and its heartbreaking conflicts. American readers need to more deeply understand the Israeli experience, and Jewish American readers in particular need to comprehend the Israeli experiment. It’s something they could have joined and have chosen not to. But even so, they are still part of it—whether they like it or not.

Anita Shapira is a professor emerita of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. She is the author of 11 books, including Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948.

Paul Goldberger

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I first read Vincent Scully’s American Architecture and Urbanism in college and I continue to reread it. This book shaped my view of architecture. It replicates the powerful and vivid lectures Scully gave when I was a student of his at Yale. The book is one long continuous stream of words not divided into sections or chapters. Woven throughout are a constant plethora of pictures. Even though it was published 50 years ago, the book prefigures new media. It is a cavalcade of words and images, all intended to be experienced together. It combines scholarly academic art history with the emotional action of real buildings; it recognizes that architecture exists in political reality.

Scully’s work helped me realize that it is okay to have emotional reactions to buildings as well as intellectual ones. Emotional connections do not undercut scholarly analysis. It made me understand the role of ideology, theory and dogma in architecture, and then pulled me away from all of that because this is a profoundly humanistic book rather than one driven by theory. Scully makes constant connections between architecture and the rest of culture. Architecture should not be analyzed clinically or solely in terms of form. Architecture is about everything: politics, economics, finance and who and what we are as a community. Visual expression is an important way to understand and experience the world.

The Jewish tradition has not been as visual as some others. There is an interesting and serious tradition of synagogue architecture, but it is not as rich and deep as the architectural traditions of certain other religions. For Jews, words matter most of all, but the word and the image have always gone together. It would be a tragedy and a loss if Jews interpret the tradition of the book and the word as somehow excluding that of the image and the visual arts. They are both tremendously important parts of our Jewish heritage.

Paul Goldberger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic who wrote the “Sky Line” column for The New Yorker from 1997 to 2011. He is the author of 19 books, including Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry.

Anita Diamant

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The book that changed my life was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In it she asks: Where are the women? Where are the stories of women? The book, published in 1929, was originally a lecture for a women’s college. Having agreed to discuss women and fiction, she went to the British Museum, which is also a library, to look up works by women and couldn’t find anything written by them before the 18th century. She wondered about that silence and what the lives of women were like. She imagined that their histories were probably lost or scattered in parish registries. Her question has been a challenge for the generations that followed her.

For Jewish readers, A Room of One’s Own challenges women and men to ask questions about who has been left out of our history—what didn’t make it into the official narrative of Jewish history, Jewish civilization. After the publication of The Red Tent, I pulled A Room of One’s Own off my bookshelf for something to read on a long plane trip. As I was reading it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought, “This is why I wrote my book.” And really, it’s why I write: to give voice to people who are voiceless, especially women, so many of whose stories are under-told, untold or lost.

Anita Diamant is the author of 13 books, including the best-selling novel The Red Tent. Her most recent novel is The Boston Girl.

Martin Peretz

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Strangely enough, the book that most influenced me is not a history book or one about politics. It’s a novel written by an Italian woman who was half Jewish but whose soul was completely Jewish, Elsa Morante. Morante was the wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, who was much more famous than she was. Elsa Morante’s greatest book was La Storia, translated into English as History. It is a family history shadowed by the history of the Jews of Italy. It is an evocation of a terribly poor family with psychological tensions that was typical in early 20th-century Italy. Many Jews were rich at that time; Elsa’s characters were not. Emerging from poverty, the son in the novel, whom Morante based on a family member, first became a communist and then a fascist.

Morante was haunted by her own Jewishness; she saw it as having potential for problematic as well as promising outcomes. She had to deal with a Jewish problem that ran very deep in Italian history. The Jews of Italy were afraid that the fascist movement was anti-Semitic. The non-Jewish parts of her own family were anti-Semitic. She experienced a deep conflict between her Jewish heritage and this aspect of her Italian family. This conflict so troubled her that she eventually moved to Palestine.

Many of my friends who are very comfortable in their American identity have had difficulties with being Jewish. I, for the most part, have not. This book helped me understand their experiences and what it would be like to have conflicts with your Judaism. Morante faced a lot of ridicule and difficulties for being Jewish in Italy. Her critics tried to negate her identification with being Jewish and harshly discounted the meaning she found in it. The book helped me understand and experience a kind of Jewish life that I myself had not lived.

Martin Peretz is a professor emeritus at Harvard University and former publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic.

Daniel Pinkwater

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During the second semester of first grade in the mid-1940s, I went into Eddie’s Toy Land, a candy store across from my elementary school, and I put down a shiny dime for a brand new comic book. It was a Batman and Robin comic. I don’t recall the exact title or the story. I remember a couple of panels in it in which Batman and Robin are discussing that they are going to scale a building. I read the phrase “scale the building using their great athletic prowess,” and I realized that those words were not in my first-grade syllabus. Dick and Jane do not scale buildings or discuss their athletic prowess. I figured these words out on my own—I understood what they were talking about. I could read this comic! I read every word in it, including the ads and publishing credits. After that, I knew I could read anything, and I did.

There is no objective value to reading comic books, but it’s fun! I used to have a copy of Mendy and the Golem, a comic book about Jewish siblings who discover a golem in their father’s synagogue. It’s not written at the erudite level of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but it’s really great to read. Reading comic books is similar to reading children’s fiction; it can give you a sense of what it would be like to live in a different world or time. I don’t usually read adult fiction. I don’t like being disappointed. Children’s fiction and comic books don’t have many of the business constraints of adult fiction. There isn’t as much at stake with children’s books or comics, so they can be extremely honest.

Daniel Pinkwater is the author of more than 100 works of fiction for children and young adults, most recently Bear and Bunny.

Avivah Zornberg

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I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on George Eliot, whose great novel Middlemarch was at the heart of my work. I spent a lot of time with this book. It affected me on many levels. Her portrayal of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, resonated deeply with me. Since then, I found that other young religious Jewish women felt a similar sense of identification. Middlemarch tells the story of a high-minded, passionate young woman who is unconsciously arrogant toward others. She makes the fatal mistake of marrying a dried-up old scholar whom she idealizes, misperceiving both her own nature and that of her future husband.

Middlemarch explores the difficulties of translating private ideals and emotions into the complexities of the real world. Every time I read the book, I have a different view of what George Eliot really thinks about Dorothea. I have an ongoing conversation with this novel. That, I think, is the mark of a great novel—that it engages readers in this way throughout a lifetime. Virginia Woolf said that Middlemarch is a novel for grown-ups. Its difficult subject is illusion and disillusionment.

A major theme in the novel is the 19th-century crisis of belief in God in the face of the scientific worldview that had begun to dominate European culture. In Eliot’s novels, as well as in her nonfiction writings, she confronts the problem of sustaining ethical values in a world no longer braced by religious faith. Her passionate humanism is inspired by her desire to incorporate these values into a changed reality.

Avivah Zornberg is the author of six books, including The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, for which she won the National Jewish Book Award. Her most recent book is Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.

Gerald Stern

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I have read the collected poems of Hart Crane for years, over and over, as if the words themselves were musical notes and the “message” was purely emotional and could not be told in words, even if words were the very medium. This is the mode Crane is best known for. As a young poet, I loved Crane’s lyrical narratives, best exemplified by his great poem “Eternity,” one of the last poems he wrote before his suicide at age 32.

Crane has two strains in him. The first is statements made exclusively through metaphor and symbolism. The message is difficult to access in these poems, but they contain a strong sense of reality, with all of its tensions. The other is a simple, often very stark, reportage of events in plain language in a mode similar to that of Wallace Stevens. I am deeply attracted to Crane’s central sense of decency, sanity and what I would call his respect for the common order. Crane allows for the mystery that underlies our existence, and his poetry possesses a voice that is sane and trustworthy, reflecting a deeply intelligent, knowledgeable, reasonable, kind and generous soul. Many modern biographers emphasize Crane’s drinking, chaotic personal life, self-doubt and the proclivities of his sexual life, but he managed these qualities. Before his suicide, he created poetry that was tender, attentive, wise and radically original.

Reading his poetry gives a tremendous sense of an original mind at work with a new way of expressing both general ideas and personal anxiety and happiness. It is affirmative poetry. This was in response to the extreme negativity of the modern masters, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Crane was born in 1899 and killed himself in 1932. His poetry offers a special journey through the history of that period. He was gay in a period in which homosexuality was not approved of. Although he was not Jewish, the sense of alienation from society in his poetry is one that speaks to many aspects of the Jewish experience. The sense of vulnerability and fragility that underlies much of his poetry will seem familiar to many Jewish readers. But all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, need to read poetry; it allows you to discover a new and different version of humanity.

Gerald Stern is a poet and literary critic who has written 18 books and won the National Book Award for Poetry. His most recent book is Divine Nothingness: Poems.

Daniel Matt

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I first encountered the Zohar—the great mystical commentary on the Torah, composed in Aramaic—when I was 19. I had previously read Martin Buber, whose writings led me to Hasidic texts. These texts often quoted brief, juicy passages from the Zohar. As a rabbi’s son, I had read numerous Jewish texts, but never anything like the Zohar. The Zohar is not a normal religious text; it is poetic, lyrical and entrancing. The Zohar is dramatic and erotic—the most erotic book in the whole Jewish canon—portraying the divine romance. But the union of the feminine and masculine halves of God can only be consummated with the help of human virtue. Each virtuous human act promotes the divine union, whereas human wickedness hinders it. So God needs us. Human sexual union is celebrated in the Zohar: This element appealed to me as a teenager!

The Zohar reimagines God as something you can find deep within yourself and within the world. Today, people yearn to connect with something deeper. The Zohar challenges the normal workings of consciousness, inspiring the reader to discover the divine dimension hidden within the self and the world. That becomes possible if we quiet our normal mental chatter.

A cautionary note: As tradition indicates, these teachings are both profound and dangerous. They are so deep that you could lose your balance, becoming so entranced that you are unable to function effectively in this world. There is both a psychological danger and a social danger in pursuing mysticism. So one should proceed carefully, find a reputable teacher and use some common sense.

Daniel Matt has been translating and annotating the Zohar for 18 years, with 10 of the projected 12 volumes published.

David D. Friedman

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A science-fiction novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, helped create my political views. I started out roughly as a classic liberal in the 19th-century tradition. I believed that almost everything should be in the free-market model, but that this framework should be controlled by a system of laws created by the government. I wasn’t entirely happy with that system because the same arguments showing that the government was bad at managing growing crops implied that it was also bad at making laws.

Heinlein gave a fictional portrayal of a society in which the legal system was itself endogenous. That is, the legal system emerged naturally from the private nongovernmental actions of the larger society. Even though this happened in a fictional context, it intrigued me. If a theorem has a single exception, then the theorem is false. If Heinlein could describe a society in which you had law without government, that meant it was at least logically possible. My first book, which was published more than 40 years ago, was a sketch of what a society with laws and private property but without government might look like. After I read Heinlein, I decided you could have a society that combined anarchy and capitalism. He made me realize that something I’d always assumed was true might actually be false. Heinlein shows ways to look beyond what you think you know and to imagine possibilities. That’s of great value to everyone.

David D. Friedman is an economist and a professor of law at Santa Clara University. He is the author of nine books, including The Machinery of Freedom. His most recent book is the novel Salamander.

Walter Mosley

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Most writers, when asked this question, are going to lie when they answer. They will lie because they feel they have to, because there are business practicalities involved here. It’s equivalent to a boxer being asked what he likes about fighting and answering, “Beating up small children.” So if you ask most writers what they were most influenced by, they will answer with one of the great works such as Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. They want you to know and understand them through impressive-sounding authors they’ve read and liked. So if you ask a young African American woman who has influenced her and she answers Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, the truth is really it was Nancy Drew. She was ten years old and she loved those books. That’s where her love and imagination developed; they develop from the stuff you read and loved as a child. Regardless of when you start writing, the life of a writer starts when you start reading.

My first reading of the very first book I ever read, Winnie-the-Pooh, was a magical moment in my life. When I started school, I felt very regimented. That can kill the part of you that wants to create. But I would sit by myself and read books. I found that there was poetry in the language of Winnie-the-Pooh. The “thump, thump, thump” of Winnie’s head on the stairs in the opening sequence—you can feel it as you read it. You can understand the characters and how they feel. They are very real. Everyone has read the great children’s books. Ones like Winnie-the-Pooh provide a classic way to understand your inner child.

Jews should read Winnie-the-Pooh just like everyone should. Jews think and need the exact same things other people do. Jews think, “I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m in love, I have a job to go to, my back hurts, and I’m getting older”—all of that stuff is common to everyone. Ninety-nine percent of who we are is the same. Jews should be interested in these books for the same reasons as everyone else. And there is no conflict; I’m not saying people should eat Piglet!

Walter Mosley is the author of 48 novels, including his popular Easy Rawlins crime fiction series. His most recent novel is Charcoal Joe.

One thought on “Books That Shaped Great Authors

  1. Michael Wenthe says:

    I really, really enjoyed reading these responses–for the light shone on the individual authors’ tastes and outlooks, for the wide variety of books they cited and recommended, and for the (at times surprising) ways that the authors’ remarks reflected on each other (not least in Walter Mosley’s wry mention of War and Peace, following Allegra Goodman’s citation of same!). I found something of value in each of these twenty responses. Kudos to symposium editor Marilyn Cooper for assembling such an array of talent and for curating the symposium so effectively!

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