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A Reading List from Jeffrey Eugenides

In 2002, we asked Jeffrey Eugenides to name his ten favorite books. He answered as follows: It's impossible to choose only ten books, of course, but these would be among my favorites:
  • The Aeneid, Virgil. I read this in Latin class, line by line, during my senior year of high school. The slow pace of translating the book had the benefit of making me aware for the first time of the complexity and patterning of a great literary work. Our teacher used to test us by giving us snippets of text and making us identify who the speakers were and which part of the poem they came from. We had to memorize The Aeneid almost, and so it has stayed with me. It's also a great story, of course, complete with a burning city, a love gone wrong, and a trip down into the underworld.

  • Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. An astounding compendium not only of the different shades of belief but of the varieties of human character.

  • Middlemarch, George Eliot. A very witty and super intelligent book. The character of Casaubon, the scholar who can never finish the book he is working on, was an frightening example to me of what might happen if I never finished Middlesex. So I finished it.

  • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy. Simply the best novel ever written.

  • The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James. I've discussed my affection for this book before and refer the interested reader to the Salon archives. [Eugenides wrote, in part: "The Ciceronian sweep of James' sentences got me on a musical, emotional level; and the information they so beautifully delivered gave me a sentimental education, as well as a lesson in subtlety and restraint." -ed.]

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov said he wanted to put the reader in a state of "aesthetic bliss" and Lolita has always done that to me.

  • Herzog, Saul Bellow. A great, funny, wise, big-hearted novel about a professor writing letters "endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead." A novel with a strict form that remains fluid and volcanic. Bellow's prose is in my mind one of the great achievements in modern American literature.

  • Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth. The funniest book ever written. I am a great fan of all of Roth's books and admire the range of his fiction, unrivaled by any other American author today.

  • The Boys of my Youth, JoAnne Beard. A touching and exacting reclamation of the joys and tribulations of adolescence and girlhood.

Read more of our Jeffrey Eugenides Interview.

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