From Tim Winton to Michael Robotham and Sarah Krasnostein, celebrated writers share their favourite re-reads
Writers re-read for much the same reasons but also to study the masters at work; they may admire these peers for their turns of phrase, their politics or their insights into the human condition but the books they re-read also reveal something about the kinds of writers they are themselves.
We asked authors appearing at ABC RN’s Big Weekend of Books on August 6–7 to share the books they go back to time and again.
Colum McCann: Ulysses by James Joyce
Every year on June 16, the Irish writer Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin; Apeirogon) marks Bloomsday – a day fans around the world celebrate Irish writer James Joyce – by sitting down with a copy of Joyce’s seminal novel, Ulysses (1922).
Ulysses is set on June 16; the year is 1904 and the city is Dublin. We follow protagonist Leopold Bloom and several other characters over the course of the day. Constructed as a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey – with Bloom as our wandering Odysseus – Ulysses is widely hailed as one of the most important modernist texts.
Stylistically invigorating, dense and famously hard to parse, it also tops Goodreads’ list of the most difficult novels to read. Ulysses didn’t claim McCann in one sitting: he read bits and pieces of it in his 20s, but it wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he sat down and read it in its entirety: “I was in hospital, on morphine. Maybe the drugs helped, but at least I got addicted to Ulysses and not the morphine!” he recalls.
Today, Ulysses is a favourite with the author. “It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s poignant, it’s irreverent, it’s deep, it’s heartbreaking and brilliant in every sense. It’s a compendium of human experience.”
Sarah Krasnostein: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
American Australian writer Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner; The Believer) returns regularly to Elizabeth Strout’s deceptively slim novel My Name Is Lucy Barton.
In the novel, the eponymous heroine is lying in a hospital bed, recovering from an undiagnosed illness, when she receives an unexpected visitor – her mother. The two women haven’t spoken in years, and the conversation that follows evokes Lucy’s memories of a childhood scarred by poverty, abuse and alienation, both from family and society.
“Strout manages the near-impossible feat of writing lyrically, sparingly and comprehensively about our most complex traumas and triumphs. Here, she is superb at tracing the quiet hero’s journey of a writer born after wrenching herself away from a deeply dysfunctional family system,” says Krasnostein.
Strout, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was already famous for Olive Kitteridge (2008) and The Burgess Boys (2013) when she published My Name Is Lucy Barton in 2016; the novel climbed to the top of New York Times bestseller list, was shortlisted for the €100,000 ($146,000) International Dublin Literary Award, and adapted as a one-woman show starring Laura Linney.
Krasnostein says Strout’s novel is “a masterclass” in what W.G. Sebald referred to as “lightness”, which he explained was “not that the narrator is carefree or lighthearted; but instead of talking about his burdens, he turns to his senses in order to produce something that could help him and his reader – who may also be in need of comfort – to resist the temptation of melancholy”.
Mykaela Saunders: Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
Koori and Lebanese writer Mykaela Saunders, editor of First Nations speculative fiction anthology This All Come Back Now, has found herself reaching for Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria again and again.
Wright’s sprawling novel takes us to a town in crisis, where the influential Phantom family, leaders of the Westend Pricklebush people, is locked in conflict on two fronts: on one, old Joseph Midnight’s Eastend mob and on the other, the white officials of Uptown, intent on mining sacred land.
Carpentaria was published in 2006 to great acclaim, winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal, a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.
Saunders first encountered the book two years later, when her lecturer set chapter one as a reading for an undergrad class introducing Aboriginal literature. Saunders wasn’t focused on literature at the time – she was pursuing a Bachelor of Education with a major in Aboriginal Studies – but Carpentaria made her wish she was.
“I went out and bought the book immediately and read the whole thing and was so in love with the voice, the story and the politics of the novel. It’s so dense and the language is so beautiful and interesting. I love that the story meanders around and around before getting to the ‘main events’ – much like the way a lot of my old relatives talk,” says Saunders.
“And I really love that the Aboriginal community destroys the mine that is destroying their country.”
Michael Robotham: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Michael Robotham, the Australian author of crime novels such as When She Was Good and When You Are Mine, doesn’t turn to a thriller for comfort but to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, published in 1964.
“It is a posthumous memoir that reveals Hemingway’s early career when he was a struggling expat journalist and writer living in Paris in the 1920s, penniless half the time, married to his first wife, but mingling with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and so many others,” says Robotham.
It was a fertile period in Hemingway’s writing life – in 1926 he published The Sun Also Rises, his first novel, which is considered by some to be the Nobel Prize winner’s greatest work.
On his first visit to Paris, in his mid-20s, Robotham packed A Moveable Feast in his suitcase: “[I] used it as my tour guide, visiting the same bars, bookshops and restaurants, trying to channel the great writer, hoping a little might rub off on me,” he recalls.
“I wanted to be Hemingway when I read this book. It is full of wonderful anecdotes, but also pieces of writerly advice that I still follow today.”
Among the latter, says Robotham, is a cure for writer’s block: “Always leave a scene or chapter unfinished at the end of each writing day. Next morning, you will have something to finish instead of staring at a blank page, wondering what to write next.”
Elif Batuman: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
American author and journalist Elif Batuman (The Idiot) first read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) at age 20, on a night bus in Turkey, in the summer after her second year at Harvard. She was completely captivated by the main character, Isabel Archer, who was also in her 20s.
The Portrait of a Lady, often considered James’s masterpiece, follows Isabel as she comes into a large fortune; longing for independence and agency, she struggles with the “potential dishonour of not putting [her fortune] to good use,” says Batuman. And as she navigates love and marriage, Isabel is drawn into the schemes of a sophisticated older woman – Madame Merle.
Batuman last re-read the book while writing her most recent novel, Either/Or. She was inspired by Isabel’s experience when she created her protagonist Selin (who appeared for the first time in The Idiot) – the first person in her family to be born in the United States and to attend Harvard.
“She [Selin] lives in terror that she might not live the right kind of life — might not live generously or adventurously or artistically enough to deserve her own good fortune,” Batuman explains.
Upon re-reading James’s book, Batuman’s understanding of the characters shifted. Madame Merle was no longer purely bad, but a middle-aged version of Isabel.
“[Merle] is a woman desperate to make her personal accomplishments – her gifts, her life – count for something, in the absence of any clear way for women’s lives to count. Of course, I could still tap into my earlier identification with Isabel; it was still there. I could see both identifications at the same time, which gave the book a new depth, like a Magic Eye painting.”
Siang Lu: Reality Hunger by David Shields
Ask Malaysian Australian author Siang Lu (The Whitewash) to pick a novel he keeps returning to and he’ll tell you it’s David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010).
“I first read it, jaw open, in basically one sitting, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, en route to Manilla. I’ve returned to it various times since,” says Lu.
Reality Hunger consists of a series of 617 short, sharp provocations divided into chapters with intriguing titles like “mimesis” and “books for people who find television too slow”. Shields drew on myriad sources, adopting the style of a collage. He chose this experimental structure in part because he was bored with contemporary novels – he told The Guardian these books are too focused on entertainment, whereas he was interested in writing “where the gesture is towards existential investigation on every page”.
The idea resonated for Lu: “The way Reality Hunger plays with form and voice is entertaining, and highly thought-provoking. I don’t share Shields’s boredom with novels as an art form, but it makes some seductive points that in retrospect I realise have absolutely informed The Whitewash.”
Sarah Holland-Batt: Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit
“Poetry is designed to be re-read, so in a sense, my entire poetry library is full of books I re-read,” says poet Sarah Holland-Batt (The Hazards; The Jaguar).
Recently, she has found herself returning to “the image-rich, wild psycho-geography” of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica (2017). This collection of poetry, which won the inaugural Laurel Prize in 2020 and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in 2018, is set in a psychiatric ward and in the Amazon rainforest.
“[The book is] focused on the poet’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother, who suffered from mental illness and lived a deeply troubled life beset by trauma, but transposed into the perilous landscape of the Amazon rainforest,” explains Holland-Batt.
Holland-Batt admires how, in Mama Amazonica, Petit is able to “transform suffering and violence into indelible images of beauty and sorrow” as “hummingbirds, water lilies, wolverines, and a rainforest ecosystem on the brink of extinction become figures for the mother’s precarious existence in a psychiatric ward, and her tenuous grip on the tangible world”.
“Petit’s poems resonate with brilliant metaphors and images, and collectively form a bestiary of animals as well as a powerful narrative of survival and familial love.”
Yumna Kassab: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien
Yumna Kassab (The House of Youssef; Australiana) came to The Lord of the Rings not through author J.R.R Tolkien but filmmaker Peter Jackson. Perhaps that’s why she faltered on a section that never made it into the movies: “There were two failed readings where I gave up somewhere in the forest of Tom Bombadil,” she confesses.
She’s referring to an excursive section early in the book, in which the young hobbit Frodo Baggins and his friends spend some days in the Withywindle valley, close to the borders of the Shire. Tucked into Frodo’s pocket is the “one ring”, which he has sworn to keep from Sauron, the dark lord who made it and who now seeks it to complete his dominion of the world.
The future of Middle-earth rests on Frodo succeeding in his quest to destroy the ring, and the adventure that follows spans three parts – The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955) – and sees a fellowship of hobbits, elves, dwarves, Ents and men unite against evil.
Kassab re-reads the book every December. “This story unfolds at the pace of a walk, and the rhythm of the sentences puts me in a frame of mind for reflecting upon the closing of yet another year.
“That pace, along with the epic scale of the novel, lulls one into reading, and it deserves its frequent nominations as the best-ever fantasy.”
Tim Winton: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Four-time Miles Franklin winner Tim Winton (Cloudstreet; Dirt Music) is a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway’s work, which he discovered as a teen in Western Australia. In particular, Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), is the book he most often re-reads.
Drawing on the author’s own life, the novel follows Jake Barnes — a wounded World War I veteran turned journalist — and his ‘impossible’ love, the stylish, damaged femme fatale Lady Brett Ashley, as they journey from 1920s Paris to Spain, in the company of expat pals.
A favourite of many writers, the novel introduced Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose style, and preoccupation with booze, brawling and bullfights.
“It really knocked my socks off when I was a young person, and I re-read it pretty regularly,” says Winton.
“It’s always the same book and yet a different book. And as I get older, there are things that don’t impress me about it, things that appal me about it — and then things that impress me about it that I didn’t notice before.”
The Big Weekend of Books – ABC RN’s on-air writers’ festival – is back for its third year August 6–7. Check out the full schedule.