No need to browse: four (five) writers on auto-buy

Two minutes, $25-$30, one hardcover book and a thrilled heart overflowing with impatience and happiness. What’s the book about? Damned if I know; I don’t even know what the title is if I’m to be completely honest.

Some authors are just that good, and you’ll read anything they write.

I winnowed my own list of auto-buy authors to include living writers only lest it become merely another list of favorites (though I may have cheated a little with numbers 3 and 4).

1. Robert Caro

I know absolutely nothing about – had never heard of – Robert Moses and yet a large book on him and 1930s New York is waiting in the wings. Robert Caro’s research, of course. It all started with LBJ though.Caro LBJ

Caro has me invested two volumes and 33 pages into the life of Lyndon Johnson. His research and sourcing is exhaustive (read the interview in the Paris Review where he talks about his writing process). This is a man with a hell of a lot of journalistic integrity.

His writing is simultaneously fluid and focused, covering every facet of LBJ’s life and teasing out his personality and motives to not just write about him but to understand him and to understand the people around him.

2. David McCullough

McCullough can distill complex subjects down to their pith. His ability to take a feat of engineering as he did in The Great Bridge and dismantle it to its origins scientific, political and personal is the mark of a writer who knows his subject inside and out. His books have both breadth and brevity. His histories, biographies and compilations have a very human element to them. The Great Bridge was just as much a history of the Roeblings who built the Brooklyn Bridge as it was a history of the city and of the Bridge itself.

McCullough also put me on course to read a biography of every U.S. president. John Adams and Truman eventually led me to Caro’s work, and much as Caro ushered me irretrievably into reading about LBJ, McCullough gave me reason to read just more than 1000 pages on Truman – twice over.

3. (and 4.) Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

After I finished Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina I never could choose otherwise. They’ve disappointed me only once with Doctor Zhivago (The Hayward-Hariri translation is a more emphatic read of Pasternak), and if I see a new effort from them – most recently I picked up the hardback for their work on Pushkin’s prose – I will buy without perusal.

I’ve come across too many Russian-to-English translations of the major authors that leave their prose reading exactly like an Englishman’s, and it’s as if, apart from the names of people and places and the references to Orthodox Christianity, the books had been written in English from the start. They translated the words only.

Pevear and VolokhonskyPevear and Volokhonsky seem to have struck that balance that makes these classic Russian authors still very Russian even as the English reads naturally. The way they’ve translated atmospheric or artistic prose is the biggest difference I’ve seen when compared to other translations. It isn’t just words they’ve translated but whole emotions and characters and authors’ own personalities. My copies of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky especially are Post-It noted all the way through for the beautiful things this duo has done with language.

This photo shows only a portion of their translations I’ve collected. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Leskov, Pushkin, Chekhov…I want to see them do Turgenev, too! And Chekhov’s plays; they’ve only done his prose.

5. Salman Rushdie

I can forgive Rushdie his Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, his most recent novel, because of his oeuvre of past work. A good friend and I read his three major novels of “not quite Pakistan” (The Moor’s Last Sigh, Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses) one after the other a couple of summers ago. Each novel prodded us on to the next until, finally, as a two-person book club, we admitted we needed to expand our bookshelves if ever we were to expand our minds.

Rushdie’s style and themes in those novels are each time refreshing and never do turn stale. He carried them through in the lesser known Shame (which I reviewed earlier this year) as well. Rushdie’s style is distinctive, even among others who write in the style of magical realism. His particular brand of satire is destructive, his novels so often tragedies. Rushdie writes politics into his stories without it becoming overbearing; the satire is just as comic on the most basic level as it is while lampooning divers public notables. To borrow a theme from the Moor, his novels are true palimpsests – layered works of art.

I’ve gotten acquainted with two contemporary authors this year whose work I want to continue reading: Margaret Atwood (read my review of Oryx and Crake) and Michael Chabon (a review of whose Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is forthcoming). I’m trying to read more from living authors this year. I miss the anticipation of a promised book, and I want that excitement of seeing a beloved author’s new book propped up on the front tables.  I love you, Tolstoy, but that’s one thing you can’t give me.

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