Michael Ondaatje, the acclaimed Sri Lankan-Canadian author, has been a literary force for over five decades. Born in Colombo in 1943, Ondaatje joined his mother in England in 1954 before settling in Quebec in 1962. It was in Canada that Ondaatje began his illustrious career as a poet, later moving on to write novels that have garnered widespread critical acclaim.
Ondaatje’s breakthrough 1992 novel, The English Patient – along with other notable works, Running in the Family, Divisadero, and In the Skin of a Lion – cemented his reputation as a master of storytelling. His writing is characterized by a lyrical style that seamlessly weaves together elements of history, geography, and personal memory.
Over the course of his career, Ondaatje has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. He continues to write and publish to this day, releasing work that remains as relevant and thought-provoking as ever. His latest novel, Warlight, which explores the aftermath of World War II through the eyes of a young boy, was hailed by critics and longlisted for the Booker Prize.
In a 2018 reading list for Lit Hub, Ondaatje reflected on the books he’s returned to throughout his life:
“These are books I have read more than twice, and will again. (It is impossible of course to select only a handful of books. I could just as easily have picked others). One intent was to keep the books short, so that left out The Transylvanian Trilogy—it is tough sometimes to push a 2,000 page epic, as great as it is. In any case it is a pleasure to share the following.”
Find his 10 rereading recommendations below, and explore the bookshelves of other celebrated writers here.
Michael Ondaatje’s Reading List
The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
“A young boy not wanting to eat a meal his sister has made climbs a tree to avoid it. The father says that whenever the boy comes down, he will have to eat it. He never does and spends the rest of his life in the trees. Beginning with this seeming fantasy, the story in fact becomes utterly believable and convincing, for it is a moment in history when he can travel from tree to tree for miles, even into other countries. Throughout his long life he will have affairs, be involved with politics of the era, meet great thinkers. And in fact keeps his promise and never comes down for the rest of his life. A joyous novel, full of life, and magnificent.” -MO
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
“The book begins in Illinois and follows the story of how the past—a mother’s death, a love affair that takes place between two neighboring couples—devastates a boy who is the central character for the rest of his life. Stunningly written, it is a great American novel. One you will never forget and will return to.” -MO
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
“Walter Tevis is famous for writing The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but this is my favorite book of his. It is about a girl who, guided by her somewhat unreliable mother, becomes a child prodigy at chess. Even if you do not know how to play chess, it is a great thriller.” -MO
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
“About two men who return to a small town in England after the First World War, emotionally damaged. The central character is hired to reveal an old medieval mural in a church, and as the plot of the two men unfolds and the ancient mural becomes visible, the stories are suggestively interconnected. There is a film of it. But read the book.” -MO
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“This is a book I read in my teens, a ‘swashbuckler,’ and it introduced me to historical fiction as well as politics before the French Revolution, the art of fencing, the skill of a duelist, love affairs, and commedia dell’arte theater in which the character of a ‘scaramouche’ exists. Sabatini’s book was hugely popular in the 1920s, and it is wonderful. I read it as a boy and read it recently, amazed at how good it still is.” -MO
Selected Translations by W.S. Merwin
“A book of W.S. Merwin’s translations of poems from around the world. As great as he is as a poet, Merwin’s translations opened up the literary landscape of the world for me.” -MO
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
“The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which is simultaneously the funniest and saddest book I have read. She is one of the great English writers of the 20th century.” -MO
Solo Faces by James Salter
“There is a wonderful mountaineering novel by James Salter called Solo Faces, which he originally wrote as a screenplay and then, when it did not get made, he rewrote as a novel that in no way resembled a screenplay.” -MO
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
“The short stories of Mavis Gallant. There are three volumes of them published by NYRB Books. She is one of my favorite writers, sadly overlooked.” -MO
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
“An unforgettable historical novel about three generations of the Trotta family during the Austro-Hungarian wars at the turn of the last century. This one is unforgettable.” -MO
(via Lit Hub)
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