Michelle Herman is professor and director of Creative Writing in the Department of English. She is the author of two collections of personal essays, Stories We Tell Ourselves and The Middle of Everything, the novels Missing and Dog, and the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life.
What are your five favorite books and why?
With the exception of the first one — my all-time favorite novel — the answer to this question changes all the time, but right now I’ll answer it this way:
My never-changing favorite novel: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. My second-favorite: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Why Tolstoy? Because no one understands characters — or understands character—better. And when it comes to reading novels, I am a people person. What can I tell you?
Oh, and I feel I should add this note here: I don’t know anything about the recent movie version of Anna Karenina — or movieization, as I prefer to call it. I generally don’t like to see movie versions of the novels I most love — and the ones I love most, like Anna Karenina (or for that matter The Great Gatsby, or any of Jane Austen’s novels) I just can’t bear to see movie versions of.
I do very often like movie versions of bad novels, however — which are usually much, much better than the novels — and I can think of a small handful of exceptions to my rule about good books: Movie versions of novels I like a lot that were actually pretty good, even very good, movies. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson), Tell Me A Riddle (Tillie Olsen), Away from Her (which is actually from a short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro, our greatest living short story writer), and High Fidelity (Nick Hornby), and…oh, so it’s not that short a list. But it’s short relative to the number of movies made based on fiction I’ve loved.
My favorite contemporary memoir: Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home — the best book I have ever read about friendship — and that’s only one of the many things this wonderful book is about. Line by line, it’s one of the loveliest books I have ever read.
The biography I have enjoyed most: Hands down, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White (see “understanding of character,” above).
My favorite contemporary novel: I have to cheat here. I can’t choose between the best novels of J.M. Coetzee (though if pressed I might offer up Diary of a Bad Year), Philip Roth (too hard to choose from among them, too, but Zuckerman Bound is as good a place to start as any), Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers. I could go on, but I won’t. I’ve cheated quite enough.
What is the last book you’ve bought?
I buy books every single day, sometimes more than one in a day, thanks to my recent acquisition of a Kindle (I still buy real, hold-in-your hands books, too — but the Kindle has me buying on impulse, sometimes in the middle of the night. It’s going to be the death of me).
In the last few days, I’ve bought, either virtually or palpably, the following: David Gilbert’s novel And Sons; Stacy Horn’s Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others (because I sing, very happily, in a 2,000-voice choir, the Harmony Project); The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (because I am nearly finished with Andrew Solomon’s most recent book, Far from the Tree — which should be on my list of favorite books but I ran out of room; it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read — and I felt a burning need to read more of Solomon, immediately); Gail Godwin’s newest novel, Flora; Marc Maron’s hilarious Attempting Normal; two copies of Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar and a copy of Wild, both by Cheryl Strayed, to give as gifts; and (also to give as gifts, this last batch to a young friend) Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy (I give all of Eager’s and Lovelace’s books, sooner or later, to all the children I love most).