We tend to think of William Styron as a novelist—and rightly so, given the enduring power of such works at The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. Yet Styron, who would have been 90 years old on June 11, was also a prolific and gifted writer of nonfiction, as the doorstop-sized new collection, My Generation, makes plain. This gathering of essays, journalism, book reviews, memoirs and occasional pieces, written over 50 years, offers a congenial glimpse into this eminent American writer’s life and mind.
While they are often roped together as Western or regional writers (narrow classifications they both loathed), and their prime writing years and geographic terrain overlapped to a degree, there could not have been two more different writers—or men—than Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey.
Each April, National Poetry Month promotes the enduring art form in the classroom and beyond, celebrating the integral role that poetry has played in our literary tradition. Yet, this once-a-year focus on poetry also reminds us of how few readers still make poetry a regular part of their reading diet. We encounter poetry every day, of course, in its most populist forms—song lyrics, advertising—but the meager sales of poetry collections would indicate that few of us are curling up by the fire with a volume of verse. If asked, many readers might cite their lack of interest as growing out of intimidation—they just don’t “get” poetry, its language is hard to crack, its subject matter arcane.
Unlike her prolific husband, E.B. White, Katharine S. White wrote only one book, yet she left a decisive and enduring mark over the course of her 34 years as an editor at The New Yorker, shaping the distinctive voice of the magazine and shepherding the work of many of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Her one book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, was not published until two years after her death in 1977, and is edited and introduced by her husband. Comprising 14 gardening columns written between 1958 and 1970, it is a charming, idiosyncratic, opinionated, informative and, at times, humorous paean to the amateur pursuit of horticulture. It returns this month in a new edition after a decade out of print.
Many readers first encounter the work of Langston Hughes in school but may not revisit it much beyond that early exposure. A seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lives on in a handful of widely anthologized poems, but the vast majority of his prolific output goes unread. His literary light has waxed and waned since his death in 1967, but the publication of the Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, as well as a new edition of his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, could help spur renewed interest in Hughes and his work.
Novelist Gail Godwin has chosen an unusual conceit for her new book, Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir. As the title suggests, Godwin—best known, perhaps, for the National Book Award finalist A Mother and Two Daughters—has shaped her memories not so much around her personal life or even the writing life, but largely around her experiences within the world of publishing. It is an industry that has changed dramatically since Godwin brought out her first book in 1970, and she has ridden its ups and downs, not always suffering fools gladly.
Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with its intriguing and evocative title, was an international bestseller that fed Western readers’ appetite for learning about life under a fundamentalist regime. Her new book, The Republic of Imagination, bears some of the hallmarks of that success—literary criticism blended with personal history—but it flips the equation, offering an assessment of Nafisi’s adopted country (she became an American citizen in 2008) through the lens of her passion for literature.
In our media-saturated Age of Celebrity, it can be hard to fathom that there was once a time when people were not famous merely for being famous. While today we think of Oscar Wilde as an eminent playwright and novelist, he was one of the first self-made public figures, who crafted his persona and gained widespread renown long before he had done anything of much note. An early impetus behind his fame was a lecture tour he made to the United States in 1882, when he was only 27 years old and the author of one tepidly reviewed, self-published volume of verse.
Millions of readers love The Great Gatsby, but perhaps none more than Maureen Corrigan. In her enthusiastic new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, the NPR book reviewer and Georgetown University lecturer makes an impassioned case that Fitzgerald’s novel should be a strong contender for the “Great American Novel.” Fair enough. She also argues that while most educated readers have read the book, few have given it the consideration it deserves. In view of its enduring stature and sales, this is a hard claim to disprove, but, certainly, few of us have spent as much time with the novel as Corrigan, who, by her own estimate, has read Gatsby some 50 times.
I once belonged to a reading group where one member, no matter what book we were discussing, would invariably ask, “Who would you cast as . . . ?” In all fairness, he was a screenwriter, but his perennial need to graft the face of some Hollywood star onto a given character in a novel could be irritating. As I read Peter Mendelsund’s quirky and fascinating What We See When We Read, I came to the realization that this casting device may have been this reader’s imperfect way of visualizing what he was reading.