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Off the Shelf: Jennifer Egan

The author of the new novel The Keep on five books in her library that have influenced her—and why Henry James is so hard to read in New York.

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'The funny thing about these books,” says Jennifer Egan as we pick through the bookshelves at her Fort Greene house, “is that so often it just depends on when you read them and what you’re inspired to hear at a particular moment.” She spoke with us about five titles, chosen not quite at random, below.

The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum
I probably got this in the late eighties. I had already written a version of what became The Invisible Circus, but I was rethinking it. One idea that fascinates me is the metaphor of Emerald City, the place you can’t reach because it has to glitter at some distance. I grew up in San Francisco in the seventies, feeling very much like this fantastical period had gone around a corner just as I was old enough to know what was going on. Then as I was working on stories for my collection Emerald City, I noticed again that there was a sense of reaching for this distant thing. In the title story, that place is New York.

The Beauty Myth
by Naomi Wolf
Naomi and I were really good friends in high school, so I read this the minute it came out. I remember that she wrote movingly about plastic surgery and what a desperate act that was. There was one point where she said surgery hurts, it hurts. And I ended up thinking about it in a scene in The Invisible Circus where Phoebe is on acid. She looks in a window, and she thinks she sees her sister [who committed suicide]. She imagines her sister saying that she needs to cross through the glass. And she says crossing hurts, it hurts. I was consciously repeating Naomi in that moment—a little wink to myself.

Underworld
By Don Delillo
DeLillo was someone I was thinking about a lot when I was working on Look at Me, which tries to have a fairly broad scope. He’s a great person to look at and ask, “How did he do it?” White Noise seemed different from anything else I had read, and then I really, really loved Libra. But this one is a masterpiece. It really is about the Cold War, but I remember things like the protagonist’s Italian mom hauling tomatoes to their apartment, or how it felt to him to wonder where his [vanished] dad was. DeLillo’s ability to straddle ideas while not sacrificing any humanity is something I really aspire to.


The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
I got this book at a benefit—the shorter collection I had is falling apart. I love the sense of loose, almost flexible writing that is tremendously crafted but doesn’t feel like it’s been honed endlessly. When I lived in England after college, I read a lot of poetry—Yeats, Pound, Auden, even Hardy. When I wrote the first version of The Invisible Circus, I called it Inland Souls. Terrible title, but inspired by this poem, “Exultation is the going.” In New York doing a million different things, I let poetry slip through the cracks. I sometimes feel like I’m not allowed to read. It’s such an indulgence—and here I am, a writer! Certain books are easier to fit into New York life. I find it very hard to read Henry James here. There’s something about the multiple clauses, the almost archaeological quality of his observations, that requires really full attention. And when I can’t give it that attention, I find it hard to understand. Looking at this just makes me want to sit and read it the rest of the afternoon.

White Teeth
by Zadie Smith
I don’t think I got it right away. It was hard for me to pick it up when there was so much publicity about her. Later, I did, And it seemed unlikely that I would be impressed. But she just made me forget all that. The way that she set the story up was amazing to me. There was this moment when she says, “What else?” about the character. And then she tells a little more. It’s just so easily done. Another thing that really amazed me was her writing about war and army life didn’t feel dutiful; it felt masterful. When you factor in her age, it becomes really mind-boggling. I mean, my work was horrible at that age. The next one, I read an excerpt that didn’t feel like what I was in the mood for. I do have On Beauty, and that’s on my must-read-immediately shelf, which probably means I’ll get to it in a year.


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