Carson McCullers' undiagnosed childhood bout with rheumatic fever plagued her throughout her life and often sent her to bed for long periods of convalescence. Unable to pursue her mother's dreams of her becoming a concert pianist, Carson found a new profession waiting in the pages of Tolstoy, E.M. Forster, Dostoevsky and Proust just to name a few.
In her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare, which was dictated to a host of faithful "secretaries" as she was recovering from a stroke, McCullers jokes, "I read everything; books on house decorations; catalogues on flowers; cookbooks which I especially enjoy, and like the [New York Times,] everything that's fit to print."
What are McCullers's favorite books from a lifetime of reading?
War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy
"Tolstoy is considered by almost everyone as the greatest novelist that ever lived, and I can only say, me too. From his first beautiful book on [war] and [Sebastopol,] all through his long and marvelously productive life he stands alone as a writer."
"It is interesting to me to think of the seeds of his stories, 'his illuminations.' Anna Karenina was evolved because he had heard of a woman who had jumped in front of a moving train and died. The grandeur of [War and Peace], a historical novel, which must have brought Tolstoy almost daily illuminations. He was fastidious as Proust in his realism of the styles and fashions of the times, and like Proust he was working on an immense canvas." — Carson McCullers
By Fyodor Dostoevsky
"The next and possible one of the strongest influences in my reading life is [Dostoevsky]—Tolstoy, of course, is at the top. ... One is just swept away from one incredible scene to another incredible scene. The scene when [Nastasya] lights a fire to burn up the bank notes in front of [Ganya] is almost like a [True Story] fiction, but in spite of it, the emotions of the scene make it so real." — Carson McCullers
By Isadora Duncan
"When I was fourteen years old, the great love of my life, which influenced the whole family, was Isadora Duncan. I read [My Life,] not only read it but preached it. My daddy, who believed with my mother, that a child should read without censorship, could not help but be amazed by my preaching of 'free love' to the family at large, and anyone else who would listen. One nosy neighbor criticized my parents for letting me speak so precociously about [Isadora] Duncan and her love life." — Carson McCullers
By James Joyce
"This week I've been reading [Dubliners.] How such a spasm of poetry could have come out of the grimy Dublin streets of that time is miraculous to me. [A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,] I also read every year or so. ... Whenever I think of artists having a hard time I think of James Joyce. He had one hell of a time to earn a living for himself and his family. [Dubliners] was suppressed, and at one time burnt, I believe [Ulysses] was suppressed and pirated all over the world, and of course James Joyce did not receive any of the pirated money. He earned only the fame and the grandeur of a noble spirit." — Carson McCullers
Tender Is the Night
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
"...Another lesser writer who is also dear to me. Scott Fitzgerald, always in debt to his agent; with a wife that was mad and confined to institutions. Scott, extravagant, [lovable,] playful and impossible. His genius flourished, and he wrote [Tender is the Night,] in the most appalling psychological situation." — Carson McCullers
Beast in the Jungle
By Henry James
"It's a bleak white January day, and I've been drinking cup after cup of hot tea and reading Henry James. I'd never realized how really good he is. One is quite willing to stumble through pages of ambiguities for those sudden, exquisite lines, those almost unexpected revelations. I'd never realized how deeply he has influenced the present poets—Eliot, Auden, etc. I want us to read the Beast in the Jungle together." — Carson McCullers
Out of Africa
By Isak Dinesen
"[Edwin Peacock and John Ziegler] insisted that I read a book called [Out of Africa,] and since I thought it was about big game hunting, I insisted just as firmly I didn't want to read it. In the end they got their way, for when Reeves and I were in the car on our way to Fayetteville, they slipped two books in my lap; they were [Out of Africa] and [Seven Gothic Tales.] I started [Out of Africa] in the car and read until sundown. Never had I felt such enchantment. After years of reading this book, and I have read it many times, I still have a sense of both solace and freedom whenever I start it again. I have naturally read all of her books, but these particular two are my favorites." — Carson McCullers
By Richard Wright
"Another writer who was particularly dear to me is Richard Wright. ... Dick and I often discussed the South, and his book, [Black Boy,] is one of the finest books by a Southern [Negro.]" — Carson McCullers
By Marcel Proust
"After the postman comes this afternoon I'll read Proust. Today I was thinking of the immense debt I owe to Proust. It's not a matter of his "influencing my style" or anything like that—it's the rare good fortune of having always something to turn to, and great book that never tarnishes, never become[s] dull from familiarity." — Carson McCullers
Where Angels Fear to Tread
By E.M. Forster
"Another author whom I read constantly is E.M. Forster. One of the most enjoyable times I've ever had was when Mary Mercer read aloud [Where Angels Fear to Tread.] We both went into fits of laughter." — Carson McCullers
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
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