American novelist John Irving went from obscure, academic writer to household name on the release of his breakthrough work The World According to Garp back in 1978. Since its success, nearly everything Irving’s touched has been a bestseller – the most enduring of which are 1985’s The Cider House Rules and 1989’s A Prayer For Owen Meany.
And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it – perhaps your favorite sentence – to memory. That way you won’t forget the language of the story that moved you to tears.
In a reading list for The Week, Irving shared six classic books that stoked his desire to write fiction. From Shakespeare to Melville, find his favorites below. Complement with the bookshelves of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.
“I consider the plays of Shakespeare just as formative of my desire to write fiction as any novels I’ve read. He was a novelist before there were novels, a screenwriter-director before there were films. He is funny; he is tragic; he believes in developing characters; he is masterful at plot. He does everything, and he makes it all — even his glorious language — look easy.” -JI
“That Pip imagines the cruel Miss Havisham is his benefactor, when all the while it is the good-hearted escaped convict Magwitch, is absolutely convincing, yet stunning. A salient point of the novel is how disappointing Pip is. He does not live up to his own expectations or ours.” -JI
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
“The most daunting opening of any novel: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.'” -JI
“Sexual condemnation, declaring sexual differences weird or wrong — will it never end? Why is the most private of human passions subjected to public scorn? In the U.S., the uptightness of the Puritans still emanates like a poisonous gas. This is the first novel that served as a sexual beacon for me, that illuminated the hateful fountain of sexual disapproval.” -JI
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
“The best first chapter in any novel, ever. You think, how can this man ever atone for what he’s done? The answer is, he can’t — the abiding theme of the novel is that he will never atone for what he has done.” -JI
“The greatness is in the ending, which manages to be both inevitable and surprising. And the power of the ending relies on the foreshadowing. Why does Ishmael meet a “cannibal” harpooner at the Spouter-Inn before the Pequod sets sail? Why is Queequeg from the South Seas? Why is he not a Christian but an “abominable savage”? You’ll see — when Queequeg’s coffin is all that will keep Ishmael afloat. For me, Moby-Dick is the greatest of novels.” -JI
(via The Week)