Fiction addiction: A few of my favorite reads

Prompted by the Great American Read on PBS, I thought it might be amusing to rerun a Panorama column from 30 years ago. The cover story for the magazine was summer reading.


               I do not remember when books first became my friends.

               My parents are readers. I know that encouraged my literary relationships. And members of my family have always been library patrons.

               Early on there was Dr. Seuss. Then someone gave us the complete works of Walter Farley (his Black Stallion series) and Albert Payson Terhune (The Lad, A Dog books). Then The Chronicles of Narnia. All these were interspersed with weekly trips to the library, where I would check out my quota and finish the books in two or three days.

               I had a favorite green chair and I would sit for hours and hours, immersed in words.

               I became an addict.

               For days, now, I’ve tried to develop a list of my 10 favorite books. It’s a formidable task. Maybe I should call these my 10 most influential books (not necessarily in order of importance):

               Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins. A wonderful tale of strong women and great adventures. Robbins is ultimately quotable, a good friend.

               Catch 22, Joseph Heller. An early lesson is how the system doesn’t work and why war is not a means to an end.

               The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. It is also a story of love, and love lost.

               The World According to Garp, John Irving. I read this book the summer I was pregnant with my first child. This novel says many things, but that summer, it spoke to me of parenting.

               The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Atwood is my favorite writer. I have devoured every novel she has written. Lady Oracle is great fun, The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful, powerful look into the future.

               Storming Heaven, Denise Giardina. This is for me THE novel of West Virginia, the story of the tragic Battle of Blair Mountain, when the United States Army bombed and gassed pro-union miners. But it is much more than history. This is a story of human lives.

               Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. Another tale from a favorite state. I consider myself blessed to have grown up in Missouri, the same state that hosted Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as they came of age. This is America’s story.

               The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Bradley tells the story of King Arthur from a woman’s point of view. I read this book as a history of when religion began usurping the power of matriarchy.

               The Awakening, Kate Chopin. Another tale of women, beautifully written. A book that is a joy to read aloud. This is an old book whose power will never diminish.

               Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan. Actually I should not narrow this choice to just one Brautigan book. I have read each of his works, starting in my adolescence. He is gentle, wise, witty and fun, with a strong undercurrent of irony. My favorite Brautigan book is The Hawkline Monster; it is about women and chemicals, which appeals since I was buried in a photographic darkroom for many years.

               So there is my list. But there’s more. I am surprised that I’ve included so many male writers. In the past few years, I’ve almost exclusively read women.

               But I have favorite writers who are not on that list:

               Ann Beattie, Ellen Gilchrist, Gail Godwin, Marilyn French, Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Morris, Louise Erdrich, Rita Mae Brown, Susan Kelley, Jayne Anne Phillips, Marge Piercy. These are names I check in the library, searching for new releases. I have also recently discovered a writer named Lorrie Moore, whose books Anagrams and Self-Help nearly made it to the top 10. This woman is incredibly witty with words. Another new writer for me is Maria Thomas, whose Antonia Saw the Oryx First is splendidly written.

               I’ve left out Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Isabel Allende, Anne Morrow Lindberg. And some men: Pat Conroy, William Kennedy, Peter DeVries, John Updike, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Savage, Saul Bellow and John D. MacDonald, whom I am just now reading.

               I hope to soon read these authors, who were recommended: Orson Scott Card, Robert Anton Wilson, Annie Dillard, Marguerite Duras, Italo Calvino, Marguerite Yourcenar, Muriel Spanier, Alice Kahn and Jamaica Kincaid.

               Actually, the most influential book in my life was the autobiography of Margaret Bourke White, which was given to me when I was about 12 by my maternal grandmother. That book absolutely steered my life.

               I have also left out the classics, even though most are “must reads” and have provided a foundation for my passion. I admit a prejudice toward contemporary fiction. I am especially addicted to short story collections.

               I am not happy unless I am reading. If you do not share my addiction, then you just may not like this issue of Panorama. Since you’ve made it this far, though, read on.


I'm a little embarrassed by some of my choices, just as I'm embarrassed by some of my non-literary choices over the past three decades. I should update this column to add my new favorites, but it's summertime and I'd rather read than write.


The title of this photograph is "Julie's Vacation"

Abrams Nancy