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Esquire: Books Every Man Should Read

Date: Jun 19 2014

What one book should every man read?

Rather than pressing a single book on my whole gender, I'd say this: Men — who often shun fiction — ought to read intelligent novels with hunger. This might mean War and Peace. Or Revolutionary Road. Or Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Books like those enlarge your life; after, you can't imagine not having them in you. There's lousy fiction too, and perhaps that has put you off. But don't abandon the form, any more than you'd quit admiring architecture just because some buildings are ugly.

If you could have a drink with any writer (living or dead), who would it be, where would you go, what would you order, and what would you talk about?

The great Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: "If Tolstoy would live across the street, I wouldn't go to see him. I would rather read what he writes." Well, I'd cross the street to meet Tolstoy or Singer. But would I select either as my drinking buddy? The classic answer to this question is usually Shakespeare, given how vivid he was in print and how little is known of him beyond. But maybe I'd prefer someone modern like, say, Virginia Woolf, whose brilliance amazes me — yet whose flashes of snobbery might nudge me elsewhere. Okay, a decision: I'd go drinking with George Orwell. We'd head to his favorite London pub, a place of uncompromisingly Victorian décor, where we'd drink draught stout and debate politics and writing, then sober up over cups of strong black tea.

Men need guidance. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned from a book?

Lessons?! I wouldn't want to blame a book for teaching me any. Books allow you to sneak out of yourself, into other bedrooms, other countries, other eras. I want to see all I can while I'm alive, and books are among the finest means — not for lessons, but illumination.

What book were you surprised you loved? What book were you surprised you hated? And what book are you most ashamed you've never read?

There's little time and lots to read, so I'm ruthless. If a book is artificial or trite, I quit. Now and then, I encounter one that's sublime. A recent case is the novel Stoner, by John Williams, published in 1965 but only recently acclaimed. Its storyline — the unspectacular life of a Midwestern college professor — lacks promise. But this novel contains an entire vibrant life. Superb. As for disappointments, I've always found Henry James mannered and self-conscious. But his proponents are so fervent that I'll try him again someday. As for great books I've not read, there are plenty. Moby-Dick is one. Also Don Quixote. And I've never gotten far with Proust. But not having read important works isn't cause for disgrace. Consider it with optimism: more pleasures await.

What are you reading next?

I've been enjoying Vasari's Lives of the Artists lately, and am about to start Elena Ferrante's novel My Brilliant Friend. I'm not the fastest reader, and often fantasize about being able to insert books directly into my head. One day, they'll work that out — at which point I'll probably say: "But wait! Remember how great it used to be, lying there on the couch, legs up, book in hand, hours vanishing there!"


Tom Rachman is the New York Times bestselling author of The Imperfectionists and The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, out this month.

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