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Review: The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager

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My Interest and The Story

Nancy Pearl is America’s Librarian. She even has an action figure toy! She may not be as cool as Katherine Hepburn in Desk Set, but she’s the coolest librarian going in this country. Jeff Schwager is a playwright whose favorite book is Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son-which he brought to the stage.

I liked the whole premise of the book–finding out what books influenced writers along the way in childhood, high school, college, grad school, in adult life, in their writing life.

Each author was asked basically the same questions–a few different or unique ones were thrown in along the way, of course–these were interviews after all. (Although due to scheduling problems Donna Tartt was an email interview).

The one discordant note was no fault of the authors or their interviewees. At first I thought “this is stiff and pretentious.” Then it hit me–this is a recorded book, not a recorded interview. The authors being “interviewed” have been interviewed, their words edited and published in a book. They, and their interviewers, are reading their words, not speaking them. That cleared up, I went on to devour this book.

My Thoughts

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The Book Club I Would Join

“I decided to focus on reading books that were so accomplished, so rich, you would benefit from reading them at the age of twenty and forty and sixty and eighty.”

Amor Towles and three friends have had a book club based on this for sixteen years. The go to a restaurant and discuss over a good dinner. They’ve tackled Proust. done a study through great writers of “the American voice,” and did another study through great novels of “19th Century Wives Under Pressure” that included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, and Portrait of a Lady. Wow!  My kind of guy, my kind of friends. This book club idea shamed me for throwing back Towles’ book in the audio version. (It was the reader, not the book). To atone I’m going to buy it in a print copy and read is slowly.

Towles was the best of the book, but if one more person had gone on and on about how amazing Watership Down was I’d have wrecked the car. I have tried three times to read that book. It’s like The Hobbit–not on my wavelength. I do not doubt the quality of the writing and story, it just isn’t for me. Incredibly, The Chromicles of Prydain was also beloved. I read it as an adult and would never have touched it as a child. Tobias Wolff was also mentioned to death but to be fair, I’ve barely read him (yet). Childhood favorites and childhood reading habits brought up an interesting side to their lives–Dave Eggers loved Corduroy while TC Boyle loved Lad A Dog and Lassie.

Some of My Favorites Mentioned

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Jeff: We were talking before…about two we both love. This Boy’s Life

Dave [Eggers] Well, [Tobias] Wolff was the one for me.

Jeff: And the other was Stop-Time.

Nancy: Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.

Dave: Yeah, never read it. Is it good?

Nancy: Yeah, it is good. Really, really good.

Jeff: It’s great. When I read This Boy’s Life, I thought he’s obviously reading Stop-Time because there’s a direct line there from Stop-Time to This Boy’s Life.”

That was a fascinating exchange.

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One of the few books at home was Marjorie Morningstar [by Herman Wouk]…I saved Herman Wouk’s obituary, because, I thought, You started me, Herman, you started me.”

That quote is from Louise Erdrich, but it sums up my reading and writing life as well. After all, Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book and while I’ve read that one, flaws and all, too many times to count, Herman Wouk was the first author I devoured.

I did love hearing some of my favorites come up though. Marjorie Morningstar got one mention. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, Anna Karenina, and a few others.

Dave Eggers being put on the spot about Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, mattered so much to me becuase it was one of my favorite books read at Indiana University. Susan Choi couldn’t read John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, the only book I stayed up all night reading at Indiana University. Anna Burns’, Millkman, a rare current-day award winner that stunned me with it’s excellence won a mention. Andrew Sean Greer shared my sense of terror in reading Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Amazingly, I don’t think anyone mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, but Catcher in the Rye and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as well as a few other “stalwarts” were not really praised. No one brought up The Awakening by Kate Chopin–that truly surprised me. Lolita got a new look from a few in light of #MeToo. There was a good discussion of authors whose work is largely forgotten, like John O’Hara. The entire set of interviews was shockingly NOT-p.c., only a tiny nod to the woke, too.

I was pleased to hear how they all approached reading while writing their own books and how various books had influenced (or “informed” in today-speak) their writing. Their use (or non-use) of public libraries, college or school libraries and friendships or mentorships with other authors was another topic that I found fascinating.

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The final surprises were Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King (which I have stalled on reading due to laziness or quarantine brain–take your pick) and author Charles (Chuck) Johnson’s views on Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very enlightening.  Johnson and author Russell Banks were brand new names to me. I will check out their work this year. I may or may not read their books.

While I should do some research, Dave Eggers’ claim that today all great books must be about 600 pages seemed wrong. It’s hard to find big books today. That was the only thing that stood out as odd in the entire book.

While listening, I was suddenly struck by how amusing it was that several authors use a first initial. W. Somerset Maugham, T. Coraghesaon Boyle (or TC Boyle), and F. Scott Fitzgerald were/are known to their friends as “Bill,” “Tom,” and “Scott.” Like finding out all over again that Ed Murrow was baptized “Egbert Roscoe.” That tickled me. Probably it is senility or quarantine brain.

My Verdict

4.0

6 thoughts on “Review: The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager

  1. This sounds interesting for sure. I have listened to some books that I had to abandon, but enjoyed reading them, so I hope that is the issue for you, Lisa.

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  2. I have the Nancy Pearl action toy! The re-recording edited words sounds weird. I worked on the autobiography of the group Madness, transcribing their interviews – the writer edited them then the audio book is them reading it all out again – similarly odd!

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  3. This is such an interesting blog for me. You are so knowledgeable when it comes to books! I read A Gentleman in Moscow and loved it. I don’t do audio books so don’t know how I’d feel about it if I tried to listen to it.

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