So, what are you reading?

Philip Lawrence
7 min readDec 1, 2022

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

That’s a question I get pretty often. Usually, I’ll rattle off two or three familiar titles and that’s the end of it. Most people are just being polite.

But every so often someone wants to drill down. Why read him? Why her? Why that book? That’s when things get interesting and, I’m afraid, long-winded on my end.

So, without fear of buttonholing a too-polite victim, for you are free to click away, I’ve decided to lay my authors and their titles on the table.

As with any list of favorites, I’m sure to piss people off by excluding their heroes. It’s not intentional, for the following authors/titles don’t even begin to include all of my favorites. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. The idea is that you may come across an author you want to try for the first time. Or maybe rekindle an interest in an old literary love.

I’ve limited the mentions to fiction, mostly, spiced with a little non-fiction here and there for context and flavor. The order is neither alphabetical nor chronological. It is certainly not in order of preference. Just those favorites that come to mind, perhaps winking at me from atop the pile of my night table.

The New York Public Library has their lions (I forget their names), and we have two literary lions in Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitgerald. Both careers born out of the 1920’s, I read and admire both writers for vastly different reasons.

Scott for the way he wrote, encasing American passions in the beautiful lyricism of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Hemingway for the beauty of the pristine. Cold, hard sentences that hint at much in that iceberg’s tip. Look to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for his best writing — the stories are unsurpassed - although Farewell to Arms is well worth the read.

When I think of Hemingway, I can’t help but think of Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) and his crisp, clear prose, and how he helped E.H., only to be thrown under the bus along with Fitzgerald and others who helped him early on, like the venerable Gertrude Stein. Stein’s, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is a fine piece of writing.

If you’re really interested in Hemingway, take a look at Lesley Blume’s, Everybody Behaves Badly, for an interesting read of Hem’s early days in Europe and the events forming the basis for The Sun Also Rises.

James Joyce, another gargantuan personality, this time from across the pond, has always been a favorite. But not for Ulysses, which I, like most every other writer, stand in awe of. Nor Finnegan’s Wake, a humbling experience. No, it’s Dubliners that I love. Find me a short story better than “The Dead.”

And if it’s short story writers that you love, as I do, I have found favorites from the original master, Anton Chekhov, to mid-century and present-day masters such as the three Johns — Cheever, with his big orange book of stories, Updike, so many stories and novels of stellar prose, best to get the Library of America collections, and The Collected Stories of John O’Hara, who also happened to write a damn good novel in Appointment in Samarra.

Jorge Luis Borges (Collected Fictions), The Stories of J.F. Powers, and the deliciously brief and startling work of Thomas Bernhard in The Voice Imitator, are also go-to favorites.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the unforgettable talent of James Salter (Dusk and Other Stories), who also wrote the stunningly erotic novel, A Sport and a Pastime, and who may have been one of the finest pure writers America has produced. Oh yes, I almost forgot. He also wrote the screenplay for Robert Redford’s, Downhill Racer.

Of course, if I’m talking short stories, I must include Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral), and Richard Yates (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness — a stunning story collection) who is one of my all-time favorite writers and who also happened to write a couple of outstanding novels, Easter Parade, and his masterpiece, Revolutionary Road.

And there’s Ann Beattie (The New Yorker Stories), the chilling Shirley Jackson (The Lottery and Other Stories), Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man is Hard to Find), and guys named Dostoevsky (everything he wrote), Kafka (him, too) and Salinger (Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Franny and Zooey beat Holden every time for me), who aren’t exactly unworthy of second, third, or tenth reads.

Among today’s crowd of short story scriveners, I marvel at Amy Bloom (Come to Me, Lucky Us), Lorrie Moore (Bark), Deborah Eisenberg (The Collected Stories), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, not to mention her wonderful novel, My Name is Lucy Barton), Junot Diaz (Drown), Jennifer Egan (Emerald City, which I enjoyed even more than her amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad — I’ve yet to get to Manhattan Beach).

Not to leave out The Selected Stories of Andre Dubus, Marisa Silver (Alone With You), the wonderful Amy Hempel (Tumble Home, Sing to It), the one and only Lydia Davis (The Collected Stories), as well as the incomparable Alice Munro (Dear Life, Runaway, anything she’s put a pen to), and the marvelous George Saunders (Tenth of December), who might have also written a novel or two worthy of attention, that is aside from the attention of the Booker Prize committee — as well as penning A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an eye-opening book on the craft of writing which happens to be even better than John Gardner’s wonderful classic, The Art of Fiction, just to name a few more.

Among novels and their authors, there are the legendary. There is Tolstoy. I tried and failed at War and Peace, my shame, but I succeeded in reading the superior Anna Karenina, to my infinite pleasure. There is Twain (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), whom I haven’t read in decades, but to whom I still mean to return. And there is Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, as well as her Mrs. Dalloway.

And then there’s Henry James (all works sublime), and Ford Maddox Ford (I prefer Parade’s End), and Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence) if you’re in the mood for old New York.

Also, I’ve enjoyed Sinclair Lewis (Elmer Gantry), Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy), the brilliant and much-awarded Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March, Humboldt’s Gift), Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, enough already), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood, the delightful novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, never did read The Executioner’s Song), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Kurt Vonnegut (proud of my dilapidated copies of Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions) the elegant and brutal writing of Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridien, The Border Trilogy, The Road), David Foster Wallace with his footnoted and imposing Infinite Jest, and those thoughtful, scintillating essays in Consider the Lobster, Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, V), the recently departed Joan Didion (Play It As It Lays), and on and on.

Not to shun the merely famous who never cease to dazzle me, there is the ever-enjoyable Ian McEwan (Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach), Rachel Cusk and her Outline Trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go, and the unforgettable Remains of the Day), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Zoe Heller (Everything You Know), Colm Toibin (the wistful Brooklyn), Jose Saramago (Blindness), Gore Vidal (Burr), Richard Wright (Native Son), and the two-time Pulitzer fiction winner, Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys). I’m looking forward to reading Harlem Shuffle.

There’s an old college favorite I read every five years or so, Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall), and there is Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and yes, Daniel Day Lewis was great in the film), John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Purity), Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn), the underappreciated Los Angelean, John Fante (Ask the Dust), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Toni Morrison (Beloved), Primo Levi (If Not Now, When?), Somerset Maugham (The Razor’s Edge), and yes, there are others.

The very talented Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour), Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay), the so young and so talented Sally Rooney (Normal People), and Phil Klay (Redeployment) scream for rereading.

All stare at me from the shelves, waiting to be raised in hand again.

If I need help sorting through, or if I’m interested in another (more erudite) perspective, as I often am, I turn to Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, and much else), and James Wood (How Fiction Works, Serious Noticing) who’s joy in reading is infectious, and who’s breadth of literary knowledge takes me aback.

Well, that’s it for now.

If you’re still with me, you see that I do tend to get carried away. And so, with apologies to all of the supremely worthy but ultimately unmentioned, I’ll just get a little reading done before bedtime.