To read Lore Segal, the most autobiographical of writers, is to appreciate that comedy and tragedy are co-conspirators of everyday life. In The Journal I Did Not Keep, a collection of her work that reads like a literary retrospective, the condition of being old is examined in a series of new pieces that avoid sentimentality, while reveling in the blackly comic. One of thousands of mainly Jewish children to escape Nazi Europe for Britain on the Kindertransport, an experience she later immortalized in Other People’s Houses, Segal’s best-known and most widely admired novel is Her First American, published in 1985, in which she tackles race relations with an outsider’s bravura. In 2008, at the age of 80, she was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize for her collection of 13 interlinked stories, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which included her O. Henry Prize–winning “The Reverse Bug.” She considers Jane Austen—included in her list of ten favorite books—to be her greatest influence. “My mother and I passed Jane Austen to and fro,” she recalls. “Without being boring about it at all, Austen cares about how honest you are.”

Below are Lore Segal’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set.


Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov
The sheer moxie of situating the story of the story in the end notes. This is the eternal tale of the heartbreak of the homely girl’s humiliation in love, and her parents who have to watch. All seen from the best of all unreliable narrators who may or may not be nuts or a Russian royal.
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A Passage to India

E.M. Forster
The best novel, surely, of a writer we love because he makes us question our favorite beliefs. His Aziz, Fielding, Adela, and the Anglo-Indian lot are the superb metaphors in the moral drama as well as people I seem to remember as if I had known and interacted with them.
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Jane Austen
Most of my recent essays include a reference to Jane Austen and to my mum. I read and reread "Persuasion" for its painful rendering of love that continues in the absence of an object, and for the delicacy of its heroine’s goodness. Anne, in the sadness of what she believes to be her ruined life, can be concerned to prevent a country walk from being spoiled by her sister Mary-- a marvelous depiction of obnoxiousness. And the happy ending is delicious.
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Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm
What turns the frog into a prince? If you say the princess’s kiss you have been misinformed. Read what the story says: “She picked him up and she threw him against the wall as hard as she could, ‘Now will you be satisfied you nasty frog?’ As he fell to the ground he was no longer a frog but a prince with kind and beautiful eyes.” “It makes no sense!” complained Maurice Sendak. He refused to believe it. I had the happiness of translating the stories in The Juniper Tree and Other Tales for Grimm for Sendak’s illustrations.
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So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell
A gentle, profound and merciful meditation on what humans owe one another. The little book traces a boy’s regret for having failed a friend in his trouble.
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The Spoils of Poynton

Henry James
“Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” James’s story pits the passion for superb objects against the operations of love and the laws of honor. In case you have not read it, I won’t be the spoiler and tell what happens to the beautiful things on the last page.
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Michael Kohlhaus

Heinrich Von Kleist
A landowner who must move his horses across another man’s property gets into a minor altercation. The hassle which would seem to be easy enough to settle escalates beyond the possibility of repair. We read on with a horrified recognition: This is how one set of humans gets into war with another.
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The Castle

Franz Kafka
There comes the night when K is invited into a room in the Castle where he is repeatedly offered the answer to the quest which the narrative has set out to deny him, but this Is the moment in which he is overcome by the need to close his eyes and go to sleep, which he does. If this strikes you as not only true but inevitable in the world as you know it, Kafka is your man.
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The Puttermesser Papers

Cynthia Ozick
Ozick’s furious, fearless, merciless invention is reminiscent of Marquez. To create a Golem in New York, Puttermesser uses the available earth in her flowerpot. The reader is present when she is murdered and then raped by a robber.
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There was a period in the eighties when it seemed a good idea to ask Hebraists and biblical scholars to make room for the common reader—particularly the woman reader—to write about the bible. I am an atheist awed by this grandest of literatures that deals with our ur-themes, and where I meet lives lived so very long ago, in such a different clime and circumstance, that are types of ourselves.
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