In her captivating ’60s essay collection Slouching Towards BethlehemJoan Didion muses on what it is that draws us to certain stories. She writes, “Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.” We’re not interested in Howard Hughes simply for his money or power, she argues, but for his personal freedom.

She expands on this notion in 1979’s The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

As a teenager, Didion was deeply attracted to the words of Ernest Hemingway, and would “type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked.” When she herself began to write in the late ’50s, she noted the societal implications of writing as a woman in a man’s world: “There was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it…Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids.”

Perhaps she found a kind of freedom in Hemingway’s work and hyper-masculine persona – she taught A Farewell to Arms at Berkeley and included it in a handwritten list of her favorite titles. Read on for the rest.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (also rec’d by Ernest HemingwayPatti Smith)

“I think that the Brontës probably encouraged my own delusions of theatricality.” -JD

Victory by Joseph Conrad (also rec’d by Bob Dylan)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (also rec’d by David LynchPhilip Roth)

The Complete Works by George Eliot

“Something about George Eliot attracted me a great deal.” -JD

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (also rec’d by Philip Roth)

“A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” -JD

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

The Complete Collection by Henry James

“He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.” -JD

From Here to Eternity by James Jones

“The incredible amount of description. When Prewitt tries to get from the part of town where he’s been wounded out to Alma’s house, every street is named. Every street is described. You could take that passage and draw a map of Honolulu.” -JD

Collected Poems by Robert Lowell

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

“I think no one but Mailer could have dared this book. The authentic Western voice, the voice heard in “The Executioner’s Song,” is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down. The very subject of “The Executioner’s Song” is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fadeout, trail off, like skywriting.” -JD

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Guerrillas by V.S. Naipaul

Wonderland by Joyce Carol Oates

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

The Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens

(via Brain Pickings & The Paris Review)

Books by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Play It As It Lays (1970)

The White Album (1979 – rec’d by Kim Gordon)

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Categories: Journalists Writers

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