Betty Fussell: TOP TEN BOOKS

Betty Fussell photo credit A. Dickerson

Photo courtesy of Amy Dickerson

Married in 1949 at the age of 21 to the historian and writer Paul Fussell, Betty Fussell was self-taught in Latin and German and applied similar rigor to teaching herself to cook because (in her own words for Vogue in 2005) “housewifery wasn’t enough.” A self-education in cooking led to 12 books, a mix of memoir and essay, biography and history, and a 2009 win of the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Award. Fussell released her latest, a book of essays titled “Eat, Live, Love, Die,” in November, 2016.

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


King James Old Testament Bible, Book of Genesis

Our family bible was the only book we had in the house I grew up in, and by the time I was ten I could recite the first 32 verses of the Protestant OT in under five minutes, and list its 39 books in under one. But in Genesis, somehow I got glimpses of a great creation story that I wanted to explore forever.
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William Shakespeare
It was love at first sight when I met this man in high school and despite his garbled language, we’ve been bedmates ever since. When I think of love, I’m Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when of death, I’m Hamlet. Ariel and Caliban on my Tempest isle are pals I play with everyday.
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“Of shapes transformed to bodies strange” — Ovid’s theme is Shakespeare in a nutshell. As a theater fanatic, I discovered Ovid in my 40s when I wrote my PhD thesis on Renaissance Tragicomedy. For me, the root of drama and language is the invisible made visible in the shape-changing of sex, love, life and death. Not to mention food.
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Oedipus Rex

In my 30s when I taught college English, freshmen had to take a Great Books course, so I got to teach Oedipus and Aristotle — a real disconnect for Americans whose gods were Reason and Progress. For years I kept a black and white photo of a stone-carved head of blind Oedipus next to a photo of Ezra Pound just before his death.
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The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats
Until age eroded memory, I could recite “Sailing to Byzantium” at any hour in any pub in the world. When I first went to Ireland in the 1950s, I toured all the sacred sites as pilgrim: Sligo, Innisfree, Drumcliff, Ben Bulben, Galway, Thor Ballylee, Coole Park. I get goose bumps still just by saying the names.
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A Tramp Abroad

Mark Twain
Of course I was Becky Thatcher from age five to 10 and switched to Huckleberry at 13 because he had all the fun. And before I ever set foot in Heidelberg in the 1950s, Twain’s Tramp held my hand when our American twangs were ridiculed by speakers of that awful German language.
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Brecht Collected Plays

Bertolt Brecht 
I worked hard at German so that I could read Brecht, but was saved by watching his plays performed live at Mannheim by an excellent company. However, it was Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 translation of Threepenny Opera in a tiny theater off-Broadway that electrified me with “Mack the Knife” and “Pimp’s Ballad.”
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Complete Poems and Plays

T. S. Eliot
As an aspiring intellectual in my early 20s, I was ruled by King Eliot, a Missouri boy who built an English castle of poetry, plays and criticism and gave all us English Lit majors a way to think and feel about life and art. We crowned him with cheers when he appeared at Harvard’s Memorial Hall in 1950, with students pounding on the door to get in. I know. I was there.
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The Odyssey

In my 30s I tried to teach myself classical Greek so I could read Homer and Sophocles. Of course I failed because their words were mouthed not read. But the stories Homer retold of the fall of empires and the longing for home are as vivid today as a thousand years ago. From him I learned why I love grilled meats.
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Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky
If every story is in one way or another a mystery, so too every story is a crime of pretend that ends with the punishment of the actual. Raskolnikov is more terrifyingly real to me than almost anyone I’ve known. No surprise that when I visited St. Petersburg, I headed straight for the writer’s museum on Kuznechny Lane, but Raskolnikov was nowhere there. He was in my gut.
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