WHAT & WHY I READ
An Essay by Erica Jong
I don’t know if this is true for most writers but I read principally for inspiration. I love biographies of women writers like Hermoine Lee’s books on Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald. It comforts me to know that I am not the only woman writer who finds it a tough slog. I also read biographies of men writers and currently, I’m reading Jay Parini’s marvelous bookEmpire of the Self, a biography of Gore Vidal, whom I knew. What a character he was: brilliant, witty and a total narcissist.
I also read novels hungrily – particularly novels that help me improve my craft or show me new ways that the novel can be written. I love historical novels and have written three of them. Some of my favorite historical novels are set in the ancient world. I love Mary Renault’s books, Margueritte Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and in many ways, my own Sappho’s Leap is a tribute to those two extraordinary writers of historical novels.
I always read poetry for inspiration. Some of my favorite poets are: Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Rumi – the Persian philosopher poet. Sometimes I read philosophy -- Thomas Merton and Heraclitis.
It seems that I am totally promiscuous about genre and I am. As long as a book enriches my life, I don’t care if it’s called fiction, non-fiction or poetry. I don’t really believe that the genres can be separated. Writing is writing. Poetry may be more imagistic and carefully worded than fiction or non-fiction but all writing needs similar ingredients: clarity, anecdotes that amaze, language that creates something new. In many of my books, I combine fiction and poetry because on any given day, I may be reading poetry, fiction and non-fiction.
I love to read books on paper so I can underline and annotate but when I travel I read e-books. Without books, I don’t know what I’d do with my life. Often when I read, I’m looking for the answer to questions about my future. I think other people read that way too. We want to be amused, entertained and also enlightened. We all know it’s not easy to be a human being. In many ways, we’re too smart and in other ways, not smart enough. We look to literature for wisdom. When I’m most perplexed about my life, I go to a book.
I’m thrilled that my daughter and grandchildren are all avid readers. Bette and Win, my 7 year old twins know the Harry Potter books by heart. They are forever correcting me if I get a name wrong. I took them to Harry Potter land and they both have magic wands. My oldest grandson, Max, reads and reads and reads. He’s out of Harry Potter now and into Game of Thrones. My daughter, who’s a writer, is forever reading to them – as am I. Molly adores research, as I do and has just written a novel set during the Depression, her grandparents’ era. I’ve always loved writing historical novels so I could get lost in research but my readers seem to love my take on contemporary life the best. I write for the same reasons that I read. I want to help people understand their contradictory impulses. I want to make their lives better. I want them to understand themselves because I have always lived by the rule that without self understanding, life is limited. I use books and books use me.
Meet Erica Jong on September 16 at Books Inc. in Berkeley discussing her new book, Fear of Dying