Go Tell It On The Mountain
By James Baldwin
The background: This is one of the great debut novels in American literature. It's the story of family, movement, and change, and it follows a number of Southern blacks who migrate to the North. A lot of the books that touch me have been autobiographical fiction. I was shattered by the section in the church when the narrative suddenly shifts among the characters' minds, showing how they each see the family's history differently.
Why he chose it: The great power of literature is to expand our vision. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a case in point. You feel as if Baldwin bled over this book, that this book hurt to write. It's not a memoir; it's somebody taking very real feelings and turning them into art. He writes evocatively, but you don't need to have a graduate degree to understand his books—you just need to have a heart.
Hawke's love affair with Danny Deck
By Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry wrote this novel when he was still figuring out who he was going to be. It's about a young man, Danny Deck, trying to become an author, trying to find his voice, literally and figuratively, and trying to figure out who he is as a man.
Why he chose it:
I've always related to Danny Deck. I've probably read this book more than any other. I love how it just drifts along, and its characters make me laugh.
Hawke's praise of playwright Sam Shepard's short stories
By Sam Shepard
Shepard gets a lot of credit for being one of the greatest playwrights of his generation, but, like Chekhov's, his short stories are just as vibrant and illuminating as his plays—sometimes more so. He writes about a part of America that lives in all our heads. It's an America you see in an old Coke bottle.
Why he chose it:
Like all great short-story writers, he cuts to the essence of the thing. Some of his stories are ten pages long, and some are two pages. They all penetrate. There's a great line in "Gary Cooper, or The Landscape": A woman asks the narrator whether he avoids highways to take the more authentic roads. And he says, "They're all authentic." That line really struck a chord with me.
"He turned his blindness into an enlightening experience"
By Jacques Lusseyran
This is a memoir written years after World War II by a man who, as a 16-year-old boy, started a Resistance group made up mainly of teenagers in Nazi-occupied Paris. That alone is incredible, but he was also blind. He was particularly valuable to the movement because he could almost always tell when people were lying. He couldn't see, but he felt "light" coming from people. I find it amazing that he turned his blindness into an enlightening experience.
Why he chose it:
A lot of people don't know about this memoir, and it gives such a unique perspective on one of the most dramatic periods of human history. Also, Lusseyran had a very clear moral compass; he risked his life for the benefit of other people.
"I don't believe in God. I believe in G-O-W"
By John Steinbeck
This is all I have to say about The Grapes of Wrath: The girl who gave it to me said, "I don't believe in God. I believe in G-O-W. Grapes of Wrath."
Hawke gets surprised by a Melville classic
By Herman Melville
I found this novel so surprising. I thought it would be a deep, interesting tale like Anna Karenina; instead it's a giant prose poem that, paragraph by paragraph, has some of the most beautiful writing in the English language. But I won't lie; it's homework.
Hawke calls Dostoevsky a "punk rocker"