Top Ten Writers — Friends and family, part two
We all have different tastes. We all cherish different writers. And this is what I love about life – its differences, and its similarities.
What do my personal friends and sometimes acquaintances think about their top-10 writers?
The Daily Pooper
10. Conan O’Brien
My favorite late night host. Wrote for the Simpsons, wrote for SNL when it was still pretty good.
9. Philip K. Dick
Me likey future, me likey this. Yeah Total Recall, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, tons of other great books that weren’t turned into movies.
8. Charles Bukowski
Corey once said something like this about a Bukowski story: “I woke up and took a shot of whiskey. then, I farted. I took another shot of whiskey and farted again.” Hey! Sounds like me! Thanks Chuck!
(Eds. Note: I believe the quote also involved leaning against an empty bookshelf and eventually having sex with a dirty woman with no teeth. Amazingly, I forgot to add “betting on horses.”)
7. Quentin Tarantino
Remember the dialogue in Pulp Fiction? How ’bout Reservoir Dogs? How ’bout Natural Born Killers? How ’bout True Romance? How ’bout…well you get the idea.
6. Chuck Palahniuk
More than just Fight Club. Those other books are pretty damn good. There icky, and funny and weird and unpredictable. Kewl.
5. Richard Pryor
His stand up movies are the funniest, by far. On top of writing all that great stuff, he also helped to write Blazing Saddles. Yup, he did.
4. Mitchell Hurwitz
GOLDEN GIRLS! Well, yeah, but really I put him on here because of my favorite television program, Arrested Development. Gob rulez!
3. Kurt Vonnegut
Do I need to write why Vonnegut is sweet. If you don’t know why, find out. If you don’t think he’s sweet, you’re wrong.
2. Hunter S. Thompson
Umm, yeah again do I need to say why? No probably not. Hell, I named my damn cat after him.
1. Bill Hicks
If you listen to Hicks now, it’s weird how much of it is still just as true today as it was when he said it almost 15 years ago. I often find myself thinking, what would Bill do? What would he say now? Mostly the same thing, but I’d love to hear it. We always seem to agree. Is that maybe because ol’ Bill helped to form my young mind so many years ago? Probably. Fuck. I miss ya Bill. DAMN YOU BILL! DAMN YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In Jean Nicholson’s book club.
Each and every person on my Top 10 is a treasure, someone I love to spend time with. I think I’ve read everything each of them has written, many of them several times. Each is a reliable Good Time, even though each for a different reason. (in alphabetical order)
1. Karen Armstrong
History and, really, anthropology of religion.
2. Willa Cather
Through her fiction making our shared pioneer history accessible and meaningful.
3. Robert McCloskey
Kids’ books that are so utterly charming that even thinking about them gives me a glow.
4. Alan Furst
Historical fiction that is almost a guilty pleasure.
5. Jon Hassler
Fiction so firmly rooted in the upper Midwest that I feel I must know his characters in real life.
6. Georgette Heyer
Regency Romances that are unabashedly guilty pleasures and completely addictive.
7. Dorothy Sayers
The creator of Peter Wimsey MUST make my list.
8. Dylan Thomas
Poetry that I can actually memorize so he is often in my thoughts.
9. Barbara Tuchman
History that is fascinating and relevant to today.
10. W. B. Yeats
Poetry that is melodic, thematically meaty, engaging, compelling – I just love his poetry.
Co-worker, basement dweller
1. Louise Erdrich
She’s my absolute and complete favorite. Not only does she write beautiful, soul-splitting novels, but she owns an awesome independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, where I have spent many hours and far too much of my income. Not only does she live by Lake of the Isles, where my mom grew up, but she writes about historic and contemporary Indigenous American experience, which is of the utmost relevance in my own life. Her language is beautiful, her mixture of myth and reality is delightful and her affection for her characters is contagious. I’ve read all her novels and taught her fiction, which stands up to the deepest scrutiny. About 20 years ago, I saw her read, and she was riveting. Last year, while in her store, I had the opportunity to shake her hand. I still haven’t recovered. If you haven’t read her work, start immediately, with Love Medicine or Tracks.
2. Toni Morrison
One of the true masters, Morrison is unparalleled. The beauty, density, detail and force of her writing are astonishing, over and over again. She doesn’t just tell a story – she plumbs the depths of that story until the lucky reader is ten miles below the surface and has traveled through space, time, memory, dirt, rock, lava, flesh, good and evil. Reading her work is for me a little like reading Faulkner, who I also worship. However, I feel as though her novels are becoming more dense and harder to understand. I’d stand by earlier works — Song of Solomon and Beloved — until the end of time.
3. Paul Bowles
Bowles isn’t a cult writer, but isn’t really mainstream, either. He went off to live in Morocco in his 20s and entertained all sorts of famous artists and writers. His wife, Jane Bowles, also wrote, although she died young. Paul ended up staying in Morocco for life, and he just died in the last few years. He’s best known for The Sheltering Sky, a novel, and his excellent short stories. I discovered his work entirely by accident, became obsessed with his work, and then had the opportunity to study with him for six weeks one summer. It was an amazing experience.
Sorry to be conventional, but he’s the god of the English language. And the more time that elapses since he walked our planet, the more mythical baggage he accumulates. Today, scholars speculate he was actually someone else – or that several people together wrote under his name. If you ask me, it’s just a short step from being three different people to being a trinity. Anyway, I do worship Shakespeare. He simply has no equal in inventive use of language and depth of meaning. Plus, he forces the reader into emotional multi-tasking, making us laugh, cry, hope and cringe simultaneously.
5. Seymour Hersh
Beautiful language isn’t the point here. This is all about using writing to reveal hidden truths. Hersh has been doing this since I was a teenager reading Rolling Stone magazine, breathless over his articles about corruption and politics. Now he’s moved up – or over – to The New Yorker and is still kicking ass. I really respect him! For me, Hersh represents a time when America – and my young brain – became very cynical. After Watergate, which was exposed by investigative reporters, nobody trusted elected officials. And we still don’t, partly because Seymour Hersh continuously exposes their lies.
6. Aaron McGruder
OK, I know somebody is going to object to having McGruder and Shakespeare on the any list together. But who knows? For example, Crazy Horse was a terrorist in his time. Today he’s a heroic leader. And someday, when they’re wiping up the remains of North America, they’ll see Crazy Horse Mountain and say he was our god. What I love about McGruder, author of Boondocks and other sharp-edged comics, is that he tells the truth. People who tell the truth have my greatest admiration. And people who can serve it up with humor deserve even more. Along with McGruder in this category I’d include Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Molly Ivins, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Matt Groening, the guys who do South Park, and Eddie Izzard. Delivering humor is a very important task of language.
7. T. S. Eliot
I know this selection clearly marks me as Old School. But I can’t help it. Eliot’s poetry sounds familiar the first time you read it. And sound is a key word here, because you must read poetry aloud. It’s as though he captured the sound of our hearts – something we all know and feel, but usually don’t share. I even have a book of his poems in my car door, in case I’m stuck waiting in traffic (as though that ever really happens where I live!). From reading about him, I don’t think I would have liked him at all. When I read his poetry, however, all differences among men and women, upper and lower class, hero and jackass fall away, and we become painfully fragile and mortal. My favorite is “The Four Quartets.”
8. Samuel Beckett
I had a serious love affair with Mr. Beckett. His plays and short prose are simple yet incredibly weighty. To me, he’s the ultimate existentialist. He breaks writing down into the smallest possible pieces, finding the lowest common denominators. As a writer, I learned a great deal from his work. But I have to give props to other outstanding playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, David Mamet and Suzan-Lori Parks.
9. Joy Harjo
We need a blogger on this list. Harjo is not only an incredible poet, but a journalist, blogger, podcaster and musician. I love her poetry. It’s filled with beauty, truth, magic and ritual. Hearing her read aloud is even better. I like her blog because it demystifies her life – yes, she’s a famous writer, but she still breathes and eats and gets bored and deals with her family, just like the rest of us. Harjo is Mvskoke, which is misrepresented as Muscogee, which is misrepresented as Creek and is an Indigenous rights activist. Check out her blog at http://www.joyharjo.com/news/.
10. Jorge Luis Borges
I was going to put Gabriel Garcia Marquez on this list, because I’ve read and adored much of his work. But I’m disappointed in him right now, so I’ll go with Borges, who is the true father of Latin American magical realism. I really hesitate to choose authors who don’t write in English, because we’re at the mercy of the translators. Borges lets his imagination loose in his short pieces, which are true gems. I also have to brag that I saw Borges read. He was frail and blind by then and he recited his work from memory, in English. It was very moving.
Now, I’m at 10, but there are a few more I need to mention: Poets Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds and fiction writers Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago, Leslie Marmon Silko, Flannery O’Connor…for starters.
Frequent BMOWP commenter
1. Ken Kesey
The greatest American writer, bar none. There’s nothing like it. Too bad he only wrote a few books, but he did more with those few than most do with dozens. Kesey is an enormously influential cultural figure. As a corollary to Kesey, I’d recommend Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which is sort of a biography of Kesey and his gang of Merry Pranksters.
2. John Steinbeck
Needs no explanation. His stories bring tears to my eyes.
3. Tom Robbins
Perhaps a bit obscure, and definitely out there, but deep, profound, hilarious, and superbly entertaining.
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
If you want to learn how to *write*, read Dostoyevsky. Rich and deep and complex, but amusing and fun as well.
5. Jack Kerouac
There are some writers you just identify with, regardless of the writing itself. That’s sort of how I feel about Kerouac. Nothing special about Kerouac’s writing itself, but what’s behind it is what’s important.
6. Robert Heinlein
I’ve read only one of his books (Stranger in a Strange Land) but it was enough to get him on this list. Heinlein is a sci fi writer, but he uses sci fi to communicate some truly revolutionary ideas. It’s the ideas that make Heinlein worth reading.
7. Richard Bach
Of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame. Simple books which communicate a great way to look at life. They’re all worth reading. Particularly Illusions.
8. Robert Pirsig
Wrote the cult favorite Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book which is sort of like a pencil sharpener for your mind. I think it makes you a little smarter to read that book. He wrote another one too, Lila, which is just as good. Pirsig isn’t for everybody (like most of the authors on this list) but if you have an interest in Eastern philosophies, this is a good book.
I’m sure I’m forgetting many, but this is what comes to mind. I’m intentionally leaving off non-fiction and the great philosophers, like Plato, Rousseau, Locke, and Nietzsche.
Ahhh … so many books, so little time to read them.