There's nothing quite like getting a thoughtful book recommendation from a good friend whose taste you really respect. And what are your favorite writers if not very good friends you've never had a chance to meet? Below, we've rounded up some book endorsements from some of the biggest names in literature. Happy reading!
In an 1887 letter to a New England minister, Twain listed his top literary picks for boys, girls, and adults. His recommendations for children include (among others) Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Arabian Nights. For grown-ups, Twain dithered a bit, saying,
"When one is going to choose twelve authors, for better for worse, forsaking fathers & mothers to cling unto them & unto them alone, until death shall them part, there is an awfulness about the responsibility that makes marriage with one mere individual & divorcible woman a sacrament sodden with levity by comparison."
Still, he managed to come up with a few suggestions, including the works of Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and—repeating one of his picks for kids—Arabian Nights.
"The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading."
The voice of the Harlem Renaissance took inspiration from a wide range of American poets, from Walt Whitman to Paul Laurence Dunbar. But his favorite by far was Carl Sandburg, the poet and Lincoln biographer about whom President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America." Hughes agreed, calling Sandburg "my guiding star" and writing a touching poem about him.
Carl Sandburg’s poems
Fall on the white pages of his books
Like blood-clots of song
From the wounds of humanity.
I know a lover of life sings
When Carl Sandburg sings.
I know a lover of all the living
When a young superfan named Arnold Samuelson hitchhiked all the way from Minnesota to Key West to meet Ernest Hemingway, the then 35-year-old author responded with aplomb.
"He asked Samuelson what writers he liked. Samuelson said he enjoyed Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. 'Ever read War and Peace?' Hemingway asked. Samuelson said he had not. 'That’s a damned good book. You ought to read it. We’ll go up to my workshop and I’ll make out a list you ought to read.'"
Aside from War and Peace, the list included Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, James Joyce's Dubliners, H. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, among others.
We have no doubt that poet and novelist Sylvia Plath was a big reader of more highbrow fare, but in a letter to her mother, Plath expressed her love for a more practical kind of book: “If you have a chance, could you send over my Joy of Cooking? It’s the one book I really miss!”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 1936, a desperate, alcoholic Fitzgerald was put on suicide watch by the managers of a North Carolina hotel he'd been staying at after he attempted to shoot himself. He ended up becoming friends with the nurse assigned to keep an eye on him, and recommended a number of books for her to read. His picks cover a diverse array of genres, including Oscar Wilde's and Henrik Ibsen's plays, Tolstoy's epic War and Peace, the poetry of Keats and Shelley, and even Dashiel Hammett's pulp detective novel The Maltese Falcon.