Since delving into the world of pet cemetery proprietors in his debut feature Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris has been a trailblazing force in documentary filmmaking, celebrated for his insightful examinations of truth, perception, and the human condition. Born in New York in 1948, his work is marked by an insatiable curiosity and unyielding pursuit of unearthing the profound in the seemingly ordinary.

With a career spanning more than four decades, Morris has turned his inquisitive lens to all manner of unusual subjects, from the eccentric inhabitants of a small Florida town to the Mormon sex in chains case. His seminal work, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, redefined the possibilities of non-fiction storytelling, exposing flaws in the justice system and leading to the exoneration of a wrongfully convicted man.

Beyond moviemaking, Morris’ literary pursuits have been equally compelling. 2011’s Believing Is Seeing questions the concept of authenticity in photography, while 2012’s A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald scrutinizes a controversial murder case. His 2018 book, The Ashtray – centered around philosopher Thomas Kuhn‘s denial of an ashtray at a conference – interrogates the relativism of truth and our shared construction of reality.

On his personal site, Morris proclaims that “the perfect work of art has to have three basic ingredients – sick, sad, and funny.” An avid reader, he takes inspiration from Jorge Luis Borges’ book list in thinking of his own ideal library:

“I have often dreamed of my own version of the Great Books. No Plato, no Aristotle… Borges in his collection of non-fiction essays describes his ‘perfect’ library – a library of many, many books I had never heard of, but subsequently, I have tried to read. Would I have read William Beckford’s Vathek without the encouragement of Borges?

Years ago, I was rummaging around in the University of Wisconsin library. As I walked into the stacks, immediately on the left, there was a case of books by Eden Phillpots. Maybe a hundred or more novels. Eden Phillpots? Who in hell is Eden Phillpots? (This was before ‘Google.’) I asked quite a number of people. No one had heard of him. I checked out The Red Redmaynes, among other works in the Phillpots canon. It was fabulous. Thirty years later, I found The Red Redmaynes on Borges’s list. It is no. 39.”

Going on to list the most important and influential books of his life, Morris muses on the work of Ambrose Bierce, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Dale Carnegie. Find his favorites below, and check out the reading recommendations of other iconic directors here.

Errol Morris’ Reading List

Letters to Strongheart by J. Allen Boone

“Forty some letters written to a dead dog. Strongheart was one of the first animal movie stars. Pre-Rin-Tin-Tin. He was a screen legend. In Brawn of the North there is a close-up in which Strongheart cries following the death of his master. Woe to the one who believes those weren’t real tears. I thought that no one else knew about this book, and then in a conversation with my friend Susan Orlean (who is writing the definitive work on Rin-Tin-Tin – I think it’s part of an American Masters series), we realized that we both know and love – love, love, love – this book. What deeper or more satisfying relationship can you imagine than one with a dead dog? Particularly a dead dog that you never met in real life? (I like dog stories, but please Mr. Steinbeck, no more travelogues with the poodle.)” -EM

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians by Ambrose Bierce

“The greatest American writer, with the possible exception of Poe and Nathanael West. Bierce had a simple idea: Life is a grotesque dream, interrupted by death. Irony, fatality, and an implacable sense of the futility of it all. What’s there not to like? (Chickamauga may be only a couple of pages in length, but it is the greatest American short-story.)” -EM

Semmelweis by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

“Supposedly, this was Céline’s doctoral dissertation. And in my opinion his greatest work. Greater than Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. And it’s fact-based. Or so it seems. Semmelweis was a pre-Pasteur ob-gyn guy. He angered the medical establishment by suggesting surgeons should wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining pregnant women. At the end Semmelweis, who is barred from practicing medicine – in effect, from saving lives – gashes himself with a scalpel and dips his arms in the purulence of a corpse. He proves his point – disease is transmitted by direct contact with ‘germs’ – and dies in agony. Céline helpfully points out, ‘He died because he loved mankind too much.’ It’s Christianity without the hope.” -EM

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie

“Ha, ha. I bet you thought I was going to mention the other one. A pale comparison to this work of genius. I dare anyone to read it without an immediate and overwhelming desire to open up your veins in the tub. It has perhaps my favorite poem, although I have to confess a fondness for the poetry of Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson and Blake.”

Self-fulfilling Prophecies by Russell A. Jones

“I have found that self-fulfilling prophecies are the only kind of prophecy that is really reliable. The book occupies a position of respect on my shelves. I knew years ago that some day I would have a book with that title in my library.” -EM

Short Stories for Study by Richard B. Sewall

“Richard Sewall was a professor at Yale. He was an Emily Dickinson expert, and the author of several books about Dickinson and her poetry, as well as a remarkable book, The Vision of Tragedy. We used his collection of short stories in my senior-year English class. It changed my life. Bartleby the Scrivener, Gooseberries, The Great Wall of China, Mario and the Magician, The Bear… His son was a friend of mine at the Putney School. We’re still friends.” -EM

(via Errol Morris; photo by Kathya Maria Landeros)

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Categories: Directors