Life is too short to read bad books. On the actress's don't-miss list: stories of a girl standing up to her teacher, an immigrant family almost swallowed up by their new country, evil—and the possibility of redemption—lurking in the next cubicle, and a pair of patriots led tragically astray.
I've been reading the classics over the past few years: things I didn't read in high school for one reason or another, or that I read and have no memory of because I was too focused on boys. The decision was probably influenced by my being married to a guy who came thisclose to finishing his PhD in English literature. He has the greatest knowledge of literature of anybody else I'm close to. Over the years, I've noticed a lot of Penguin Classics piling up on the bookshelves. It reminded me that there are works of literature I might want to read before I die. I've had a very good education, but I didn't recognize the gold I was being given then. I'm only partly joking when I say I wish I could go back to Brearley or Sarah Lawrence at 40.

I think you can come to great books too soon. I know I read Moby Dick too young; to me, it was just a story about a whale. I don't know if you can come to a book too late, though I know I'd avoided A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because I thought it was juvenile. I was prepared to read it quickly, just to have it as a notch in my bedpost, but I was stunned by it. There are reasons that they're classics, reasons you will float when you read them. They're not art first—I think they're life first.

— As told to M Healey


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