John Irving: TOP TEN BOOKS


For the American novelist, John Irving, international success arrived in 1978 with The World According to Garp, now published as a Modern Library edition, along with three of his other celebrated works–The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year. This November he publishes his 15th novel, Avenue of Mysteries.

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


The Scarlett Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, those churchwomen gossiping about what they would do to Hester - not mark her clothes but brand her forehead, or kill her - would later drive me to make sexual explicitness and sexual minorities features of many of my novels.
Add to cart

Moby Dick

Herman Melville
Melville's Moby-Dick - particularly, Queequeg and his coffin/life buoy - taught me that foreshadow is the storytelling companion to fate.
Add to cart

The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy (1886)
As for fate, and how you can't escape yours: Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is pretty harsh. A guy sells his wife and daughter to a sailor in the first chapter; he can never atone for that. And Hardy's critics wanted him to write more uplifting endings!
Add to cart

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert
When I first read Flaubert's Madame Bovary, I was some years away from being married, and still a few years away from imagining I ever would be. What did the adulteries and suicide of a doctor's wife in provincial France matter to me? A lot. As my first editor once said to me, "I've known a number of adulterous women." (I didn't doubt that he had.) "But the one I know best, and will never forget, is Emma Bovary."
Add to cart

David Copperfield

As for Dickens - well, yes, Great Expectations is his best novel. But, for sheer drama, nothing tops the "Tempest" chapter in David Copperfield - Steerforth's body washing ashore, and Copperfield saying "I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school".
Add to cart

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann
In Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, a great writer is as endangered by his repressed passions as he is by the cholera plague. I was a young fiction writer who wanted to be an artist at what I did. Why wouldn't I be interested, as Mann was, in the nature of the artist?
Add to cart

Giovanni's Room

James Baldwin
I was still too young to drive a car when I read James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. The concept of a devastating and doomed love story - one that was also modern ' hadn't occurred to me. I thought nothing would ever compare to Romeo and Juliet, but Baldwin's story of "the night that is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life" became the saddest love story I know.
Add to cart

The Tin Drum

Gunther Grass
I was older - a college student - when I read the Gunter Grass novel The Tin Drum. The 19-century novel was the model of the form, for me; here was 19th-century storytelling about 20th-century social behavior, sexuality, and politics.
Add to cart

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I had a similar experience with the Garcia Marquez novel A Hundred Years of Solitude. In miraculous Macondo, the ordinary and supernatural are entwined; incest and intermarriage give many generations of the Buendia family a classically Greek and predestined future.
Add to cart

Fifth Business

Robertson Davies
In the Robertson Davies novel Fifth Business, that first-chapter snowball gave me the idea for the baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany, whose initials (O.M.) are modeled on the Grass hero of The Tin Drum (Oskar Matzerath). When I was married in Toronto, Davies read from the Bible at the wedding. "There is something of Byron about John Irving," Davies once wrote about me. Yes, I suppose so, and something of Dickens about Robertson Davies.
Add to cart