'Eat Pray Love' author Elizabeth Gilbert on the books of her life
To celebrate the paperback publication of her triumphant return to fiction, The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert, author or Eat, Pray, Love, talked to us about the books she loves, her literary blind spots, and the works that have shaped her as a writer and as a person.
My favorite childhood books
The Wizard of Oz series. Those stories are such a wild and unpredictable protofeminist mythological fever dream. What’s not to love? Also, as a restless farm girl myself, I identified, big-time.
The book I enjoyed most in school
In third grade, a thoughtful teacher introduced us to The Phantom Tollbooth. I think school reading pretty much peaked right there.
A book I read in secret
I am a child of the 1970s, so my secret reading was—and could only ever have been—that thrillingly wicked mixed classic cocktail of Forever and Flowers in the Attic.
The book that cemented me as a writer
I love that you think I’m cemented as a writer.
The books I’ve read over and over
The only things I can go back to forever and ever, without tiring, are certain poems. Walt Whitman will always be there. Also, Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, Hafiz, Tennyson, good old Mary Oliver. I suppose this is because reading poetry is like listening to music, and you never get tired of your favorite songs.
A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
God help me, but it’s Ulysses. I’ve tried a dozen times, but I’ve never gotten past the opening pages. I feel like I’m being punk’d whenever I try to read post-Dubliners James Joyce. I always want to look up from the book and ask everyone in the world, “Seriously?! You guys are seriously following this?”
A book I’ve pretended to have read
The Bible. (I have skimmed it, though. I really like the Psalms part.)
A book I consider to be grossly overrated
Having written a book that many people consider grossly overrated, I feel the only polite thing for me to do here is to gently dodge the question. (I am deeply sympathetic to authors who get pegged as overrated. We are a brotherhood of the apologetic and the abashed.)
The books I wish I’d written
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Also, its follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies. Also, everything Hilary Mantel ever wrote before she turned her attention to the 16th century. But I would have as much luck building the great pyramids as writing books like that. All you can do in the presence of such singular genius is to bow down in wonder.
The novels people might be surprised to learn I love
I don’t think people would necessarily peg me as a Martin Amis fan, but oh, how I adore that beautiful, savage, brilliant misanthrope. I’ve read London Fields several times, and also The Information. I thought Lionel Asbo was so nasty and delicious that I would sometimes look up from the page and say aloud with a happy grin, “Oh, no, Martin—no, you didn’t! How dare you? I love you!” I’ll take Martin Amis in any form, at any time.
What I’d read if I were restricted to one genre for the rest of my life
Action-adventure gardening guidebooks. But if those are too difficult to come by, just feed me a steady diet of 19th-century British novels. If you want to get really specific about it, just stuff me full of all the Trollope I can eat.
The last book that made me laugh…and the last one that made me cry
In an efficient masterstroke, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half managed to make me do both. A friend had promised me I would laugh my head off with this book, and I thought, “We shall see about that”—because laughing your head off is not very easily achieved when you’re all alone in a hotel room. But I laughed my head off. Then, in an even more surprising move, I wept.
The time I bought my own book
I recently tried to buy a copy of The Signature of All Things in an Atlanta bookstore, only 10 minutes after I had just finished a big event there. I asked the salesclerk where I could find a copy of the novel, but she’d never heard of it. She’d never heard of me, either. I was like, “But I’m the one who was just speaking right over there … oh, jeez … never mind …”
The eternal question: Do I read my own books post-publication?
In the first few months after publication, I will pick up my new book often and read sections of it to myself. I take a lot of pleasure in that. I can never really believe that my project — born years earlier in a vague dream — finally exists in a real and tangible form. It makes me so satisfied to hold the book, to feel its weight in my hands. Happily, though, I am eventually able to put the book down and move on with my life. After that point, I’ll never go back to it again.
My favorite movie versions of books
Good manners and basic human gratitude make me have to say Eat Pray Love. But more recently I thought Moneyball was great. Going back in time, Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility is the best Jane Austen adaptation ever, and Fight Club (to swing in another direction completely) is just plain horrifically terrific, or terrifically horrible.
What I’m reading right now
Moss Hart’s memoir, Act One. It’s a beautiful, entertaining, and intimate coming-of-age story about the New York City theater world during the 1920s. He’s the most likable narrator you could ever imagine, and his careful descriptions of the creative and collaborative process are both edifying and inspiring.
The things I’ve written that make me cringe… and the things I’ve written that make me proud
I feel cringey whenever I read passionate old essays of mine. There’s something about having had a strong opinion about an ultimately inconsequential subject that always makes me feel a bit embarrassed later. (Righteous indignation doesn’t have legs, is another way to say this.) I am sincerely proud of all my books, though. If you’ve worked at something with all your heart, then you should feel free to love it with all your heart—no matter how it holds up or doesn’t hold up over time.