Book Review: The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager

From the descriptive material announcing this book, I thought it would be different than it is. I imagined each author elaborating on one book that changed their life. I supposed I would read in-depth evaluations of particular books that would help me determine whether I was interested in reading them. Instead, the authors interview writers on their general reading habits and a range of books that appealed to them at various stages of maturation. Some germinal books are mentioned only in single sentences or long lists in passing. It took me awhile to adjust from my expectations to the book’s format. When I did, I realized that The Writer’s Library is as much about the background, literary aspirations, and writing habits of the interviewed authors as it is about books that influenced them. With that insight, I abandoned my expectations and enjoyed this book as a series of light author interviews on a variety of subjects.

The subtitle is also somewhat disconcerting. The interviews promise to be with Authors You Love, but in fact I have never heard of some of the authors and have read works by only a few. I have read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, and volume two of Charles Johnson’s writing memoirs. That’s about it. I recognized some of the other names but have not gotten around to reading their works. That’s all right. You don’t need to have read these writers to benefit from the interviews. Short introductions at the beginning of each chapter provide some background of the various authors.

Although a few of the interviewed authors express their opposition to the partitioning of fiction into genre and literary works, others obviously express prejudice against so-called genre fiction. The editors who compiled the interviews in this book too seem to have ignored the influential writers of popular fiction. It would have been great to read interviews with Samuel Delaney, Stephen King, Greg Bear, Neil Gaiman, Ted Chiang, and Nalo Hopkinson, the latest author to have been named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Still, no one book can be all-inclusive; even a series would be unable to encompass all the authors that I would be fascinated to hear from. Despite its limitations, this book is light, easy, and fun to read. It is much less ponderous and ostentatious than the volume of interviews from The Paris Review I once read. That was a long time ago, but as I remember, that book was not easy to get through. Of course, part of its difficulty could have had to do with what I was experiencing emotionally at the time.

All in all, I recommend this book as a lightweight read if you enjoy learning about what literary influences have been important to a range of writers. One of its strengths is the diversity of the interviewees. There is a fairly even mix of women and men and also of authors from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds.

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