College Week

My First Literary Crush

The books famous people loved in college.

Click hereto read more from Slate’s “College Week.”

In celebration of College Week, Slate asked journalists, cable-news personalities, novelists, Hollywood types, and other great thinkers a question: What’s the most influential book you read in college? What made you slam down your café au lait and set out to conquer the world? The answers are below. 

Eric Alterman, media columnist, The Nation

I’d like to say Thucydides or Wittgenstein, or something fancy like that, but I guess it’d have to be Ronald Steel’s biography of Walter Lippmann, not only because it taught me a great deal about how power worked in American politics, but also—and more important—because it gave me a model of what I might do with my life.

Judd Apatow, writer-director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Having only gone to college for a year and a half, I didn’t read enough books to remember an impactful one. The books I read while I was a dropout that inspired me are A Death in the Family, by James Agee, and A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley.

Nicholson Baker, author, Checkpoint

During a junior year in Paris, I was supposed to be reading Samuel Beckett’s l’Innommable for a lit class, but I couldn’t face it. Dark, dark, dark. I took the subway to the Centre Pompidou library, where, browsing through a low shelf of philosophy books, I discovered Personal Knowledge, by chemist-epistemologist Michael Polanyi. What a fine, thought-twirling dufflebag of a book, full of odd anecdotes from the history of science and engineering—more helpful, it seemed to me, than Thomas Kuhn’s windswept paradigm shifts or even Karl Popper’s falsifiability. Polanyi’s gist was that we know more than we know we know, and that without this connoisseurial, “unsayable” knowledge, science and society can’t function. But the entertainment, as I remember it, was in the examples.

Harold Bloom, professor, Yale

It would have to be Shakespeare, and if one play only, Henry IV, Part I, because in Falstaff I found myself more truly and more strange. 

Mark Bowden, national correspondent, the Atlantic

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which was not part of any course; in fact, I no longer recall how or why I picked it up, but to me it was incendiary. I was an English major, so I was reading a lot, but this was something entirely new and different. Here was a writer clearly having fun … no, the time of his life, with words, ideas, observation, storytelling. I was already interested in writing, but Wolfe made me crazy about writing.  

David Brooks, columnist, the New York Times

This is going to sound awfully pompous (but hey, I went to the University of Chicago), but the two most important books I read in college were Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Hobbes’Leviathan. I loathed both books at first reading, but they both explained how little we can rationally know about the world around us and how much we have to rely on habits, traditions, and intuition. I’ve been exemplifying our ignorance on a daily basis ever since.  

Mark Cuban, owner, Dallas Mavericks The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It was incredibly motivating to me. It encouraged me to think as an individual, take risks to reach my goals, and responsibility for my successes and failures. I loved it. I don’t know how many times I have read it, but it got to the point where I had to stop because I would get too fired up.

Anne Fadiman, Francis writer-in-residence, Yale The most influential textbook was Criticism: The Major Texts, an anthology in which pre-theoretical literary criticism wheezed its last heroic gasp. I read it during the first term of my freshman year in a class taught by its editor, Walter Jackson Bate, and it made me start thinking about the question, “What is literature for?” I’m still thinking about that question. The most influential extracurricular work was John McPhee’s Encounters With the Archdruid, which I read in installments in The New Yorker. I’d previously thought fiction was a higher calling than nonfiction, but midway through the first installment I said to myself, “This is what I want to do.” I knew I’d never be as good as McPhee, but he was the lodestar that set my course.

James Fallows, national correspondent, the Atlantic

There are only a few books I can remember actually reading in college. The high-toned one was American Renaissance, by F.O. Matthiesen, which in retrospect was useful for understanding 19th-century literary America (Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, et al.) but at the time seemed to tie me down for most evenings through an entire year. But the ones that made the biggest difference to me were these three: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans; Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, whose most famous section described a murder in my hometown; and Nixon Agonistes, by Garry Wills. I am cheating a little on Agonistes, which came out while I was in graduate school. But I still remember reading each of them and thinking: There are some interesting possibilities in journalism.

Christopher Hitchens, columnist, Vanity Fair

He who hesitates is lost. If I gave myself any time to reflect, I might come up with Peter Sedgwick’s edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. But to answer the question about “most influential” is really to choose the indelible, and the book I most remember reading between 1967 and 1970 is The Mill on the Floss, borrowed well away from Oxford in a “youth” camp in Cuba. Only Shakespeare and Proust are superior to George Eliot in guessing at the real springs of human motive and in describing the mammalian underlay of social forces. At the time, I may have believed that literature was of less importance than politics, but when I shook off this fatuous illusion I went straight to the Eliot shelf and didn’t stop until I had read it all, which I suppose will serve as a paltry definition of influence.

Gish Jen, author, The Love Wife

Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey changed my life—as did, I should say, Fitzgerald himself, my favorite professor. I couldn’t believe how different his Homer was from Lattimore’s—so much more lithe and live. Could translation really make that much difference? And did Homer really come to us through normal humans who played tennis and cracked jokes and wore berets? Suddenly literature was much less remote; suddenly it was something that involved, in one way or another, writers. What an idea!

Sam Lipsyte, author, Home Land

Simulations by Jean Baudrillard. It was the mid-1980s and this book could get you laid. Plus, reading about hyperreality was a great hangover cure.

Chris Matthews, host, Hardball

A Thousand Days by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Kennedy was assassinated in November of my freshman year at Holy Cross. I watched Walter Cronkite declare him dead on a dormitory television. I rarely read a book in those years that I didn’t have to. I studied most of the time. I would read the Schlesinger book at evening’s end. He is a beautiful, sweeping, and grand writer of the William Manchester sort.

Peter Mehlman, writer, Seinfeld

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong blew me away. Yes, it was well-written, funny, and very instructive about the lives of wealthy people. But the observations on sex kept me from reading the books I was assigned. With absolutely no attribution to Ms. Jong, I quoted lines to girls and sounded so evolved. One of those lines gave me a collegiate philosophy (paraphrase): A little phony feminism can get any man laid.

Daphne Merkin, author, Enchantment

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. I read it for a class taught by Catherine Stimpson in my senior year at Barnard, and if I were grateful to her for nothing else, I would be grateful to her for introducing me to that novel. I was immediately riveted by its casual yet urgent style, as though there were a secret message running through the book that you would be able to detect only if you paid careful attention to what appeared to be its many inconclusive scenes and exchanges of throwaway dialogue. It remains for me an unutterably prescient book about so many things: the impact of celebrity on earthlings; the yearning for some kind of transcendental meaning in the midst of a secularly ordained universe; the possibility of romantic love even for the inveterately cynical (Binx); the limitations of romantic love, even for the nuttily hopeful (his cousin Kate); the temptations and arrogance of outsiderism; the pathos of emotional illness (Kate) and physical illness (Lonnie, Binx’s half-brother).

Daniel Okrent, author, Great Fortune

I didn’t read many books of lasting influence in college—I was in college from 1965 until 1969, so I actually thought Cleaver and Mao were philosophers. But Jim Bouton’s Ball Four got me interested in baseball again (I had moved away from it so I could fight the revolution), and you could certainly do worse than that.

Charles P. Pierce, writer, Boston Globe Magazine The first problem I had with the book is that I was sitting in a great lost place called the Avalanche Bar on Wells Street in Milwaukee and it was 10:30 in the morning and I was laughing out loud to myself. It was not unusual at any hour in the ‘Lanche to find someone engaged in a long, involved dialogue with the apparently empty air. But undifferentiated guffaws from deep in the cracked vinyl of the booth seemed to set my fellow patrons somewhat on edge. It was my first time through At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, and the novel had wound its way into the mad scene in which an author’s characters put him on trial before the bar—and I do mean bar. In the place of gavels, the judges wield imperial pints—and when one of them accuses the author of forcing him to act “at all times contrary to the best instincts of a gentleman,” I pretty much lost it, my laughter drowning out Dylan’s “Gates Of Eden” which, for some reason, was one of the more popular tunes on the old Seeburg that sat under the ‘Lanche’s front window. Mysteries unfathomable danced all around in the smoky air, like the snow off the big lake.

Neal Pollack, author, Never Mind the Pollacks

I probably should have been into Bukowski in college, or Burroughs, or either of the Thompsons, Jim or Hunter S. All the fashionable lowlifes at Northwestern read them. But my favorite book in those days was Middlemarch. George Eliot didn’t speak to me in any particular way. It’s just a great novel.

Jonathan Raban, author, My Holy War

My first summer vacation from the University of Hull in England, I had a job as a bus conductor on an unbusy country run between Bournemouth and Southampton. When I wasn’t issuing tickets, I was reading William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity with a sort of jaw-dropping, Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus sense of being granted revelation. The book taught me how to read. Thereafter, every essay I wrote was an attempt to answer the question, “What would Empson say about this?” and I’m still proud to call myself a devout Empsonian. Just read the section early in the book where he discusses the covert meanings in Shakespeare’s “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang …” It’s as near to pure magic as lit crit has ever come.

George Saunders, author, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil The book I was obsessed with in college was You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe, a six-foot-five raving romantic of a writer, who supposedly wrote the book on the top of his refrigerator, and would just toss the pages on to the floor, dozens of pages a night, to be gathered up by the cleaning lady next day. But that’s not why I liked him. I liked him because he was epic and broken-hearted and sloppy and emotional and in love with the world and wrote sentence after sentence beginning with the word “O,” as in “O Brooklyn, harbinger of cruel autumn,” or “O mourned and never-to-be-regained Time” (though I’m pretty sure I just now made those two up). I loved his big-heartedness and the way, apparently, he had just taken his life and made a huge book out of it. But damn, his life was so much bigger and romantic than mine! He felt things so much more deeply, knew so many more Tragic Figures! So, soon I had developed the habit of pacing tragically around and phrasing my life in his terms: “O bitter Seven-Eleven of broken love, which, mourning, how many times have I paced by you, mad visions trumpeting my ravening brain, because of the lovely (FILL IN NAME OF GIRL) lost, no more to be Regained?” Finally I realized that my life didn’t GO in that voice, and left the book behind, but sadly, with an affection I still feel. O Wolfe!

Bill Simmons, columnist, During the summer after my freshman year in college, I bought a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories— Where I’m Calling From—that ended up impacting me more than anything I ever read. At that point in my life, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to attend law school or become a writer, and that book literally made the decision for me. I can’t even tell you how many times I read it—in fact, I have the exact same copy from college, only it looks like somebody pounded it with a bloody baseball bat or something. I don’t know what’s holding it together. Aside from the obvious classics (“Cathedral,” “A Small Good Thing”), my favorite Carver story was “The Calm”—structurally perfect, layers to everything, quirky as hell—which had one of those classic Carver endings that made you just shake your head and think, “I will never be as good of a writer as that guy.” Not only did he inspire the hell out of me in college, he completely discouraged me in every way. Now that is an influential book.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor, New York Times Book Review

When I was a sophomore in college I decided to read Bellow. I had dragged myself through Seize the Day, an assignment in high school AP English, but hadn’t liked it much. The story was so dreary, and the hero so pathetic and doomed. But all the culture signals were beaming Bellow, Bellow, so I tried again. I started with Herzog, which, frankly, I didn’t get. The letters interspersed with the narrative confused me. Also, Bellow manipulates time—back and forth, past and present—quite as complexly as Proust, and if you’re not ready for it, you can easily get thrown. Still, I stuck with it. I admired individual scenes, and the prose appealed to me, its intelligence and erudition, plus the wit and contemporaneity. To paraphrase Dylan, I knew something was happening, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I read Mr. Sammler’s Planet and was simply overwhelmed—the philosophical depth and brilliance on every page, the way the streets and living rooms of New York were so pulsatingly alive. I liked a lot of contemporary fiction—Mailer, Roth, Updike, in particular—but Bellow was the first contemporary who made me realize the age I was living in could be evoked with the same rich dense saturation of Balzac’s Paris, Tolstoy’s St. Petersburg, or Joyce’s Dublin. Also, I was very big on the romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Keats, and it was clear Bellow descended from them in some way. At any rate, I was blown away and reported all this in babbling ecstasy to my English professors, who plainly thought I was out of my mind. To them, I think, Bellow was a kind of freak—not a literary writer at all.

Ricky Van Veen, editor, High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess by Charles Fleming. This glimpse into the ridiculous world of Hollywood pushed me in the “entertainment-career-after-college” direction more than any guidance counselor or computerized survey ever could. I’d find myself stopping every few pages and reading passages aloud to my roommate. “Wait, he paid a hooker just to watch TV with him?” “Yeah, dude.”

Andrew Wylie, literary agent

The most influential book I read in college was The Odyssey, which I was taught to sing in the original by the legendary professor Albert Lord, author of The Singer of Tales. Lord’s presentation of the text, the extraordinary beauty of the verses intoned, the logic and history of the oral tradition—all pushed the dirt of a good education under my nails.