Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded. Here’s what 12 of them had to say. (Copies of the survey responses can be found at the Paris Review.)

McAllister's Letter

“My definition of symbolism as used in this questionnaire is represented by this example: In The Scarlet Letter there are four major characters. Some say that Hawthorne meant those four to be Nature, Religion, Science or other similar symbols in disguise. They apply the actions of the four in the story to what is presently happening or will happen to Nature, Religion, Science, etc.”

Ayn Rand: “This is not a ‘definition,’ it is not true—and therefore, your questions do not make sense.”

MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”

Question 1

“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?... If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: "No."

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural."

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

Richard Hughes: “[Consciously?] No. [Subconsciously?] Probably yes. After all, to a lesser extent, the same is true of our daily conversation—in fact, of everything we think and say and do.”

Question 2

“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ray Bradbury:

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”

Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

Jack Kerouac: “Both, depending how busy I am.”

Questions 3

“Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? ... Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”

John Updike:

[“Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”]

Ray Bradbury: “This is a question you must research yourself.”

Joseph Heller: “The more sophisticated the writer, I would guess, the smaller the use of symbols in the strictest sense and the greater the attempt to achieve the effects of symbolism in more subtle ways. “

Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and –using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.”

Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”

Question 4

"Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?"

Richard Hughes:

[“Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”]

Jack Kerouac: “Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.”

John Updike: “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Iris Murdoch: “There is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.”

Ray Bradbury: “Not much to say except to warn you not to get too serious about all this, if you want to become a writer of fiction in the future. If you intend to become a critic, that is a Whale of another color…Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

* * *

In case you were wondering, McAllister eventually became an English professor.

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25 Famous Authors' Favorite Books

David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images
David Cheskin-Pool/Getty Images

One key to being a good writer is to always keep reading—and that doesn't stop after you've been published. Here are 25 authors' favorite reads. Who knows, one of these books might become your new favorite.

1. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

American writer Ernest Hemingway
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Papa Hemingway once said "there is no friend as loyal as a book," and in a 1935 piece published in Esquire, he laid out a list of a few friends he said he would "rather read again for the first time ... than have an assured income of a million dollars a year." They included, he wrote, "Anna Karenina, Far Away and Long Ago, Buddenbrooks, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, A Sportsman's Sketches, The Brothers Karamazov, Hail and Farewell, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Winesburg, Ohio, La Reine Margot, The Maison Tellier, Le Rouge et le Noir, La Chartreuse de Parme, Dubliners, Yeats's Autobiographies, and a few others."

It wasn't the first reading list he'd made; just a year earlier, Hemingway had dashed off a list of 14 books for an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked to Florida to meet him. It included a few of the same books above, plus two short stories by Stephen Crane.

2. JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion
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In an interview with The Paris Review in 2006, novelist and creative nonfiction scribe Joan Didion called Joseph Conrad's Victory "maybe my favorite book in the world ... I have never started a novel ... without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing."

3. RAY BRADBURY

US science fiction writer Ray Bradbury
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Sci-fi author Ray Bradbury's favorite books, which he discussed during a 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble when he was 83, are somewhat unexpected. Among them, Bradbury said, were "The collected essays of George Bernard Shaw, which contain all of the intelligence of humanity during the last hundred years and perhaps more," books written by Loren Eisley, "who is our greatest poet/essayist of the last 40 years," and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "Quite obviously its impact on my life has lasted for more than 50 years."

The books that most influenced his career—and are presumably favorites as well—were those in Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter: Warlord of Mars series. "[They] entered my life when I was 10 and caused me to go out on the lawns of summer, put up my hands, and ask for Mars to take me home," Bradbury said. "Within a short time I began to write and have continued that process ever since, all because of Mr. Burroughs."

4. GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

George R.R. Martin
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It's probably not surprising that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has said that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which he first read in junior high, is "still a book I admire vastly." But he recently found inspiration in a newer book, which he recommended in a Live Journal entry: "I won't soon forget Station Eleven," he wrote. Emily St. John Mandel's book about a group of actors in a recently post-apocalyptic society, he said, is "a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac … a book that I will long remember, and return to."

5. AYN RAND

The Atlas statue in New York City seen from below
Sean P. Anderson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

"The very best I've ever read, my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet K by Merwin-Webster," Rand wrote in 1945. The book was famous then, but if you haven't heard of it, allow Chicago magazine to outline the plot: "Calumet K is a quaint, endearingly Midwestern novel about the building of a grain elevator ... It's a procedural about large-scale agricultural production." If that sounds like something you'd want to check out, you can read it for free here.

6. GILLIAN FLYNN

Author Gillian Flynn
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When Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn was asked about her favorite books in a 2014 Reddit AMA, she called out her "comfort food" books—the kind "you grab when you're feeling cranky and nothing sounds good to read"—which included Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

7. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov
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During an interview with a French television station in the 1950s, the Lolita author—who wrote all of his own books on note cards, which were "gradually copied, expanded, and rearranged until they [became his novels]," according to The Paris Review—shared a list of what he considered to be great literature: James Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Andrei Bely's Petersburg, and "the first half of Proust's fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time."

8. JANE AUSTEN

English novelist Jane Austen
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The author of classics like Pride and Prejudice and Emma was herself a voracious reader of books, poetry, and plays, including The Corsair by Lord Byron, Madame de Genlis's Olimpe and Theophile, and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. A clear favorite, though, was Samuel Richardson's book Sir Charles Grandison.

9. MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain
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In 1887, Twain responded to a letter from Reverend Charles D. Crane, a pastor in Maine, which likely asked for Twain's recommendations for both young boys and girls as well as the authors' favorite books (Crane's letter, unfortunately, is lost). Among his favorites, Twain said, were Thomas Carlyle "(The French Revolution only)," Sir Thomas Malory's King Arthur, and Arabian Nights, among others. He also included his own B.B., which he said was "a book which I wrote some years ago, not for publication but just for my own private reading."

10. MEG WOLITZER

Meg Wolitzer
Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment

The Interestings author loves the novel Old Filth by Jane Gardam. "It's a thrilling, bold and witty book by a British writer whom I discovered rather late," she told Elle in 2014. "I can't say I've read anything else like Old Filth, which stands out for me as a singular, opalescent novel, a thing of beauty that gives immense gratification to its lucky readers."

11. ERIK LARSON

Author Erik Larson
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The acclaimed author of The Devil in the White City calls The Maltese Falcon his "all-time personal favorite":

"I love this book, all of it: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, much of which was lifted verbatim by John Huston for his screenplay for the beloved movie of the same name. The single best monologue in fiction appears toward the end, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy why he's giving her to the police."

12. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

A studio portrait of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1936—four years before his death—Fitzgerald was living at the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina. After he fired a gun as a suicide threat, the inn insisted that he be supervised by a nurse. While under Dorothy Richardson's care, he provided her with a list of 22 books that he deemed "essential reading." It included Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, The Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

13. EDWIDGE DANTICAT

Award winning writer Edwidge Danticat visits Capitol Hill, October 21, 2015.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of Claire of the Sea Light, The Dew Breaker, and Brother, I'm Dying told Time.com that her favorite summer read is Love, Anger, Madness, by the Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet. "I have read and reread that book, both in French and in its English translation, for many years now," she said. "And each time I stumble into something new and eye-opening that makes me want to keep reading it over and over again."

14. SAMUEL BECKETT

Irish playwright and author Samuel Beckett
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Winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and author of Waiting for Godot, Beckett was always a private individual, even after garnering acclaim for his writing. In 2011, a volume of the author's letters from 1941 to 1956 was published, giving the world a glimpse into his friendships and reading habits. Beckett wrote about many books in his correspondence: He described Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne as "lively stuff," wrote that his fourth reading of Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane caused "the same old tears in the same old places," and that he liked The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger "more than anything for a long time."

15. R.L. STINE

R.L. Stine
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In a 2012 piece for The Washington Post, Goosebumps and Fear Street author R.L. Stine praised Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, calling it "one of the most underrated books ever. Bradbury's lyrical depiction of growing up in the Midwest in a long-ago time, a time that probably never even existed, is the kind of beautiful nostalgia few authors have achieved."

16. AMY TAN

Author Amy Tan
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The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan's favorite piece of classic Chinese literature is Jing Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), penned by an anonymous scribe. "I would describe it as a book of manners for the debauched," she said in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. "Its readers in the late Ming period likely hid it under their bedcovers, because it was banned as pornographic. It has a fairly modern, naturalistic style—'Show, don't tell'—and there are a lot of sex scenes shown. For years, I didn't know I had the expurgated edition that provided only elliptical hints of what went on between falling into bed and waking up refreshed. The unexpurgated edition is instructional."

17. J.K. ROWLING

Author J.K. Rowling
John Phillips/Getty Images

For her favorite book, Harry Potter and The Silkworm author J.K. Rowling (she wrote the latter under a pseudonym) went with a classic: Jane Austen's Emma. "Virginia Woolf said of Austen, 'For a great writer, she was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness,' which is a fantastic line," Rowling said, according to Oprah.com. "You're drawn into the story, and you come out the other end, and you know you've seen something great in action. But you can't see the pyrotechnics; there's nothing flashy."

One of her favorite books as a child was The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, whom Rowling called "the children's writer with whom I most identify … The Story of the Treasure Seekers was a breakthrough children's book. Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children."

18. MAYA ANGELOU

Maya Angelou
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The poet and author had a number of favorite books, including Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, the Bible, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. "When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white," Angelou told The Week in 2013. "But they were nice girls and I understood them. I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen."

19. LYDIA DAVIS

US author Lydia Davis
Will Oliver/AFP/Getty Images

Reading John Dos Passos's Orient Express was "a turning point for me," award winning novelist Lydia Davis said in 1997. "That was one of the first 'grown up' books that made me excited about the language."

20. HENRY MILLER

HENRY MILLER
Central Press/Getty Images

The Tropic of Cancer author wrote an entire book that, he explained in the preface, "[dealt] with books as a vital experience." The Books in My Life included an appendix titled "100 Books Which Influenced Me Most." Classics like Wuthering Heights, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Les Miserables, and Leaves of Grass all made the cut.

21. JOHN STEINBECK

US novelist John Steinbeck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden author's favorite books later in life was Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but his first favorite book was Le Morte d'Arthur, a collection of Arthurian tales by Sir Thomas Malory, which Steinbeck received as a gift when he was 9. It was a major influence on the author's writing, and ultimately led to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which Steinbeck hoped would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." He had completed just seven chapters of the book when he died in 1968; it was published posthumously eight years later.

22. CHERYL STRAYED

Wild author Cheryl Strayed
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for American Lung Association

When the author of the bestselling memoir Wild set off on her journey up the Pacific Coast Trail, she only had room to take two books. One was a book of Adrienne Rich's poetry, The Dream of a Common Language. She had already read it enough times to almost memorize it in its entirety. Explaining in Wild the choice to bring along the extra weight in her pack, she writes:

"In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I'd chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion. That book was a consolation, an old friend, and when I held it in my hands on my first night on the trail, I didn't regret carrying it one iota—even though carrying it meant that I could do no more than hunch beneath its weight. It was true that The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California was now my bible, but The Dream of a Common Language was my religion."

At one point during her arduous hike, she considers burning the book to save weight in her pack, as she did with other books she read along the trail. "There was no reason not to burn this book too," she writes. "Instead, I only hugged it to my chest."

23. JOYCE CAROL OATES

Author Joyce Carol Oates speaks onstage
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center

In a 2013 interview with The Boston Globe, the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates revealed Dostoevsky as one of her favorite authors. When asked for her all-time favorite book, she said:

"I would say Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which had an enormous effect on me. I think young people today might not realize how readable that novel is. The other book that I worry no one reads anymore is James Joyce's Ulysses. It's not easy, but every page is wonderful and repays the effort."

In honor of the publication of her latest book, Dis Mem Ber in June 2017, Oates also shared her current reading list with The Week. It included Anthony Marra's books A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno, Atticus Lish's award-winning Preparation for the Next Life, Whitney Terrell's Iraq War novel The Good Lieutenant, T. Geronimo Johnson's satirical Welcome to Braggsville, and the time-travel sci-fi novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer.

24. GEORGE SAUNDERS

George Saunders speaks at The 2009 New Yorker Festival
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The New Yorker

In 2014, Saunders—one of the most famous short story writers of our time—detailed some of his favorite books for Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. On the favorites list for the author of bestsellers like Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Tobias Wolff's In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (a book that convinced Saunders to study with Wolff at Syracuse University, where Saunders still works today), Michael Herr's Vietnam memoir Dispatches, Stuart Dybek's short story collection The Coast of Chicago, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and several classics of Russian literature—Isaac Babel's The Red Calvary, The Portable Chekhov, and Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

25. JUDY BLUME

Author/activist Judy Blume
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

In 2016, beloved author Judy Bloom shared some of her favorite books with The Strand, a bookstore in New York City. Madeline, the classic children's book by Ludwig Bemelmans, she explained, was "the first book I fell in love with at the Elizabeth [New Jersey] public library." She wrote:

"I loved it so much I hid it so my mother would not be able to return it to the library. I thought it was the only copy in the world. To this day I feel guilty. It was the first book I bought for my daughter's library when she was born."

For professional inspiration, she turns to Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral. "It never fails to amaze me," she writes.

This article first ran in 2015.

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Library of Congress Has Digitized 100 Rare and Classic Children’s Books

iStock.com/ra2studio
iStock.com/ra2studio

One hundred rare and vintage children’s books can now be read online for free via the Library of Congress’s website, according to The New York Times. The titles, all of which were published at least a century ago, were digitized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first national Children’s Book Week.

“Some of these books are hundreds of years old and no child will ever see them except through a glass case, so it is a way to get these books into the hands of children,” Jacqueline Coleburn, the library’s rare book cataloger, told the newspaper.

There are plenty of recognizable titles, including early versions of Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose in Prose, Grimm’s Animal Stories, Red Riding Hood, The Secret Garden, Stories from Hans Andersen, The Story of the Three Little Pigs, and more. All of the books can be viewed as downloadable PDFs or in a text-only format.

The oldest one in the digital collection is A Little Pretty Pocket Book, which was imported from Britain and printed in the U.S. in 1787. According to the British Library, the book is “generally considered to be the first book specifically directed at children.” Of course, it was a product of its time, and the gender roles represented therein will likely seem outdated by today’s standards. The book came with a free ball for boys and a pin cushion for girls to demonstrate that these objects would help make the characters—Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly—a “good boy” and a “good girl.”

Other books in the collection are exceedingly rare. One book from 1824, titled The Juvenile National Calendar, or, A Familiar Description of the U.S. Government, is one of just three copies in the world. In poem format, the book describes the different roles of state leaders. Of the president, the book states:

"He, Ambassadors sends to the Nations afar;
He is chief of the soldiers who fight in the war;
He may pardon the convict, of hanging in fear;
And he gets Twenty five thousand dollars a year."

[h/t The New York Times]

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