I draw a (possibly pedantic) distinction between my favorite authors and the authors of my favorite books. Some authors in the latter category are Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Catherine Jinks (the Pagan Chronicles), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart), and Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events). I like each of them for a particular book or series they wrote, but I haven’t necessarily sought out their other works. When I count someone among my favorite authors, though, it means I will read anything they write and I have gone out of my way to try to read their entire oeuvre. By this definition, I have just three favorite authors. I actually discovered all of them thanks to required high school reading, so hooray for our curriculum, without which I might never have stumbled upon them! In chronological order, I give you…
Our summer reading book before 10th grade was Davita’s Harp, by Chaim Potok. This novel tells the story of Ilana Davita Chandal, a girl growing up in New York City in the 1930s and 40s. Her Jewish mother and Gentile father are radical activists. After her father is killed in Spain during the Civil War, Ilana becomes deeply drawn to Jewish practice. The book chronicles her political, religious, and literary explorations as well as the changes in her family life. I loved Davita’s Harp. It was one of only a handful of books I brought with me when I first went away to college. I’ve read about eight of Potok’s books now. His most famous novel is The Chosen, about a Hasidic boy and an Orthodox boy in Brooklyn who meet after the former hits the other in the eye with a baseball during a heated game. Their relationship is one of the most beautiful friendships I have ever read. Potok’s novels opened my eyes to the richness of Judaism, especially it’s tradition of study. (I guess this shows I like my religion academic?) He makes textual interpretation so exciting. I’m not sure anyone else could make a rabbinical ordination exam (in The Promise) so riveting and suspenseful.
One of the books I had to read the summer before my senior year of high school was José Saramago’s All The Names, translated from the Portuguese. I remember liking it, and my copy has copious margin notes I made in it that summer, but I don’t quite remember when or why I sought out more Saramago. I’ve now read sixteen of his books (mostly translated by either Margaret Jull Costa or Giovanni Pontiero), and he died in 2010, so his body of work is complete. Some of my favorite novels of his are The Stone Raft (in which Iberia breaks off of Europe), Blindness (which was made into a movie not that long ago, though I haven’t seen it), and Baltasar and Blimunda. And The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a powerful and subversive book which I’ve reread once and would eagerly reread again. I can’t quite describe what I find so compelling about Saramago’s fiction. He has a distinctive and unmistakable voice (even in translation), but that’s true of all three of these authors. He often starts from a bizarre or fantastical premise (like Iberia breaking off of Europe or an election in which most of the populace casts blank ballots) and then plumbs the lives of ordinary people caught up in these events. I don’t know, his books are just addicting.
During my senior year of high school, we read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely) in World Literature. I remember reading way ahead of the class schedule because the book was so good I couldn’t put it down. (It didn’t hurt that it was about, well, snow; I’ve already mentioned this novel as one of my favorite snow books.) Snow remains my favorite Pamuk novel, but I’ve read all his other novels which have been translated into English, as well as his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, which I read while visiting Istanbul in February 2013. A lot of Pamuk’s characters have an almost painful level of self-awareness that I find appealing for some reason.
Pamuk is the only writer on this list whom I’ve seen in real life. In October 2009, I visited my friend in Boston during my fall break. At the time, Pamuk was the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, and he was giving the Norton Lectures, one of which occurred during my visit. I heard him talk in a theater on Harvard’s campus. I really wanted his autograph, but I was afraid to approach him, and I also didn’t have anything (like a book) for him to sign. So I just kind of hovered as he talked to other people, and then when he left the theater I sort of followed him and whoever he was with across Harvard Yard for a ways… I mean, that’s not creepy at all, right? The funny thing is, a day or two later, walking around Cambridge, I came upon one of those used book sales where someone leaves a table of books out on the sidewalk and a box for you to put your money in. There was a copy of Snow in the collection, so I bought it (the copy I’d read in high school belonged to the school). Too late for the author’s autograph, alas! But it’s still special because I acquired it more or less on the same occasion that I saw Orhan Pamuk speak.
By now, you might be thinking, Hmmm, her favorite authors are all men. That has not escaped my notice. I take it as a sign that I have more reading to do!