The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School

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Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
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It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
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There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,/Or being hated, don't give way to hating."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
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Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

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A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

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When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

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Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

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The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
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"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
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Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
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In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
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Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

25 Famous Authors' Favorite Books

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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
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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
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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
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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 (
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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.
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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