I've often—very often, in fact—been at the other end of a suggestion for a good read, and I'm not shy about listing my favorites. I can't say for certain which works of fiction I cherish because they were important to me as an author (in the sense that I learned how to write from them or they helped to shape my sensibility) and which I cherish because they were superb reading experiences. My guess is that the two are so entwined that it would be impossible to separate them.
I have a penchant for short, spare works (as well as for Irish writers), but my favorite novel of all time is not short, not spare, and is written by an Australian expat: Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus . Hazzard, who recently won a National Book Award for The Great Fire , wrote this novel more than 20 years ago. A friend recommended it, and I read it at once. I called my friend the minute I was finished. "I can't believe it," I said, nearly speechless. "Neither can I," she said. Since then, the book has become our litmus test for novels. "I read a great book last week," I will say. "Is it Transit ?" she will ask. "Well…no…" I'll have to reluctantly confess, "…but close." A love story embedded within an ingenious plot, Hazzard's book is one that must be savored slowly. I have read this masterpiece half a dozen times, and during each reading I discover something new in its gorgeous prose.
These books have been with me for years; they have their own special shelf in my office. I take them down from time to time, like someone going to the well, but simply seeing their titles can reawaken the thrill of discovery, the sense of escape into a literate and absorbing universe very different from my own. I should point out here that my shelf isn't filled yet and that there's room for a few more volumes—which is why I'll be overjoyed the next time I'm at the dry cleaners and run into a friend who will lean over, touch me on the arm, and utter that most welcome of all sentences.
What's on Anita Shreve's Bookshelf? Read more!