Hailed as one of the great British writers of his generation, Ian McEwan started off writing sparse, Gothic pieces that showcased his dark humor and predilection for the perverse. He won the Somerset Maugham Award for his debut short story collection, First Love, Last Rites, and has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times since, taking it home for the 1998 psychological thriller Amsterdam.
In 2001, McEwan released the metafictional tour de force Atonement to worldwide acclaim. A symphonic story of truth and consequence set over six decades, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan. His 17th novel, Lessons, which chronicles one man’s life over generations of historical upheavals – from the Berlin Wall to Brexit – was published this year.
Speaking with Five Books on the most influential literature of his life, McEwan shared his penchant for writing that evokes “a peculiar kind of mental freedom.” From Walter Isaacson’s Einstein biography to the profound poetry of Philip Larkin, find his favorite books below.
Ian McEwan’s Reading List
What Science Offers the Humanities by Edward Slingerland
“It’s a rather extraordinary and unusual book. It addresses some fundamental matters of interest to those of us whose education has been in the humanities. It’s a book that has received very little attention as far as I know, and deserves a lot more. Edward Slingerland’s own background is in Sinology. Most of us in the humanities carry about us a set of assumptions about what the mind is, or what the nature of knowledge is, without any regard to the discoveries and speculations within the biological sciences in the past 30 or 40 years. In part the book is an assault on the various assumptions and presumptions of postmodernism – and its constructivist notions of the mind.” -IM
“I have a careless theory that the poetry of Larkin has had a profound effect on the prose writing of my generation. There are many writers of my age who are steeped in Larkin and, like me, incorporate the cadences of his lines, often without being aware of it. His poems are part of my mental furniture. Yesterday I slipped outside to get a sandwich at lunchtime, the sun was out, I looked at some rowan trees across the street, and I thought – ah yes! – ‘The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said’. That’s Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees’. It has some almost Shakespearian lines: ‘Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May’.” -IM
Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
“A great chronicler, in the Rabbit tetralogy, of American social change in the 40 years spanned by those books. Ruthless about women, ruthless about men. (Feminists are wrong to complain. There’s a hilarious streak of misanthropy in Updike). He reminds us that all good writing, good observation contains a seed of comedy. A wonderful maker of similes. His gift was to render for us the fine print, the minute detail of consciousness, of what it’s like in a certain moment to be another person, to inhabit another mind. In that respect, Angstrom will be his monument.” -IM
The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn
“This celebrated book has been in print for over half a century. It’s a historical account of the fanatical millenarian sects that swept across Europe from the 11th to 15th centuries: sects that were driven by certainty of the world coming to an end. Clearly, it has relevance for our times.” -IM
“This is a biography that happens to be a treatise on creativity. I was about to say scientific creativity, but I think I mean creativity itself. It shows us the creative exuberance of a man with an extraordinary visual imagination, able to recast certain problems in surprising ways. During two particular episodes in his life he fundamentally rewrote our understanding of the physical world. During four months in 1905, his annus mirabilis, Einstein wrote four papers – on light quanta, size of molecules, Brownian motion and special relativity, and started a revolution in physics. Again, in 1915, in a matter of weeks, he formulated in his general theory of relativity what Max Born called ‘the greatest human thinking about nature’. Paul Dirac said it was the greatest discovery ever made.” -IM
(via Five Books)