The star of Mad Men (and a self-professed science guy) is happy to log off YouTube and delve into a primer on string theory, a play about the history of physics, or a novel by one of his generation's finest writers.
I know that reading isn't as easy to do as turning on a television or getting on the Internet or twittering or whatever else you have to do in this modern society, but it's way more rewarding. It's calming. It's edifying, and even as it has become less popular as the options have grown for instant-gratification entertainment, most of the books that appeal to me—the ones I've chosen for this list—take a while to have their effect. Once you give them that time, it's paid back times a million.
I really like my generation of novelists—Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Franzen—and the way they can tell a story and make it interesting, make it deep, make it funny and yet incredibly touching.
I read a lot of nonfiction, too. I'm a big math and science person. It's fascinating to me to think, "How do things work? Why does this do that?" And when you've got 500 pages to explore something, you're going to go deeper into it than if you've got 23 minutes and commercial breaks.
—As told to M Healey
By Tom Stoppard
I love reading plays. Part of the reason I became an actor was that I would read one and think, "Ah, it'd be fun to be in that." Arcadia is about the discovery of certain theories of physics and math, but it's also a love story—a sad love story—infused with ideas of early feminism and the Industrial Revolution. The action bounces back and forth between the early 1800s and modern times stylistically and smoothly. And the words are just beautiful. Stoppard has an amazing command of the English language. He moves the plot along in such a way that if you're not paying close attention, you won't catch the five or six things that are going on. This is probably my favorite play—it's got this weird combination of excellent dramatic writing and math and science. It sounds kind of nerdy, but there you go.
By Steve Martin
I was a kid when this book came out in the '70s. I had a bunch of Steve Martin and George Carlin records, and the absurd humor that these guys presented, especially Martin, was incredibly appealing to me. The title story, "Cruel Shoes," is about an unwearable pair of shoes a woman has to own. Another, called "The Smokers," which is very funny, is about how much people enjoy their smoking. He uses the word smoke probably 50 times in a two-page piece, and the final sentence is: "And then his lips fell off." As a child, I found it funny in a completely different way than I do now. Martin is appealing to kids, in a goofy way—and he's appealing to adults, because he's intellectual in what he's writing about. I'll always buy whatever he's selling.
By Michael Chabon
The first work of Chabon's that I read was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He writes intricate novels that are funny and touching and heartbreaking, but they're not simple. His characters tend to be creative types—which obviously resonates with me, given what I do—who are also conflicted. In this novel, a writer and college professor is endlessly working on a book and trying to live up to the success he had early in his career. Anybody who's had that experience, especially in an artistic endeavor, can identify: They think, "Was the first one a fluke?" That's much in the consciousness of the main character. He's also having issues with his relationships, his college, and the politics of his job. But the book isn't a downer. It's funny and interesting at the same time. And it was a great movie, too.
The Elegant Universe
By Brian Greene
This book is, essentially, a look at the universe and what sorts of laws govern it. For the past 80 years, there's been an attempt to unify all these laws into one theory. The problem is, the more scientists figure out, the more difficult it becomes. They've come up with incredibly futuristic solutions like string theory and alternate universes—ideas that 30 years ago you would have thought were strictly the domain of science fiction, like flying cars and thinking robots. Greene describes the theories in ways that make them more understandable. I think the fact that much of this is still a mystery to most people is pretty cool. It's why these scientists get up in the morning.
By Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum isn't an easy read, but it's a super-satisfying one. It's an incredibly complicated mystery about art and religion. The story is told in an interesting style of two twisting narratives (one about the main character and the other about the people following him). I read The Da Vinci Code in three days; this novel took a few weeks, because it works on a deeper level and Eco creates this dense web of intrigue. His style is self-referential—he is a big fan of the writer Jorge Luis Borges and has a lot of his sensibilities, where things reflect upon themselves and you have to really pay attention. Those are the kinds of books I like.
More Books That Made a Difference
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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