Arts + Design

Elizabeth Gilbert: The 7 books that shaped me as a writer

Jun 30, 2014

“The only thing I have ever wanted to be for my whole life was a writer. I wrote all through childhood, all through adolescence, by the time I was a teenager I was sending my very bad stories to The New Yorker, hoping to be discovered. After college, I got a job as a diner waitress, kept working, kept writing, kept trying really hard to get published, and failing at it. I failed at getting published for almost six years.” In her second TED Talk, Success, failure and the drive to keep creating, Elizabeth Gilbert came clean about the often unglamorous life of a writer. The one thing that never wavered: her love of the written word. Here, she shares seven books that have sustained her through it all:

1. The Wizard of Oz series
L. Frank Baum
Aladdin, 2013
“This is my origin story. I feel like most people are either a Dorothy or an Alice; I’m a Dorothy. I grew up with well-worn copies of these books — books that had been handed down through my family for several generations, complete with the stunning Art Deco illustrations. The Oz stories were tales of a farm girl (which I was) who went on otherworldly adventures (which I always wanted to do) and who was incredibly brave (which I still want to be). I always credit these books with making me into a traveler and a writer. If you have an especially dreamy little girl in your house, forget about Disney videos; just get her a box set of these books — with the original, magical illustrations.”

2. Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Penguin Classics, 2006
“I am never very far from a copy of this book. I find something incredibly soothing about the notion of a long-dead Roman emperor worrying about the same stuff I worry about — namely, how are we to be? What makes a good person? What is honor? What is duty? How do we endure disappointment? How do we endure contradiction and suffering? How do we find comfort despite chaos and impermanence? He does not necessarily always have the answers, but the eternity of the questions themselves always calms me.”

3. Hyperbole and a Half
Allie Brosh
Touchstone, 2013
“The funniest, most touching, most winningly ridiculous of graphic memoirs. I bought this book in bulk in 2013 and basically stood on street corners for several months, handing it out to strangers. I desperately want everyone to read this.”

4. Mixing Minds
Pilar Jennings
Wisdom Publications, 2010
“I discovered this book two years ago and it’s become supremely important to me. Jennings is both a psychotherapist and a Buddhist practitioner. As someone with a foot in both camps, she writes intelligently about the merits and pitfalls of both Western and Eastern philosophy. Western thought, for instance, teaches us that the path to happiness involves strengthening up the Self, while Eastern practices suggest that we would be far better off discarding the Self altogether — so what is a confused Self to do? Jennings unthreads both paths with remarkable, compassionate (and always fair) perspective.”

5. Refusing Heaven
Jack Gilbert
Knopf, 2005
“Jack Gilbert (no relation to me, sadly) was a beautiful man and a grand poet who could have been one of the great literary rock stars of our age, except that he didn’t care a bit about fame, fortune or reputation. All he cared about was writing exquisite poems and living the most private, unencumbered and uncompromising creative life imaginable. This collection is his grand, twilight-of-life rumination on what he always referred to as ‘the mysteries’: death, passion and beauty. It includes a line that I strive to live by: ‘We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.'”

6. Want Not
Jonathan Miles
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
“Every generation or so, an American novel appears that holds up a mirror to our lives and shows us exactly who we are right at this very moment. Want Not is that book right now — a searing but compassionate look at modern Americans and their stuff. A book about garbage and consumption and accumulation and disposal, but most of all about humanity in all its stubborn, flawed glory.”

7. Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Picador, 2010
“They didn’t give her the Booker Prize (twice!) for nothing, people. This is the best contemporary novel about 16th-century political intrigue you’ll ever read, with the most powerful and compelling antihero (Thomas Cromwell) of recent memory. I’ve read it three times — not only for pleasure, but for a supreme education in mad writing chops. It’s like literary Breaking Bad. I can’t stay away from it.”

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