Inevitably, every writer is eventually asked what they like to read. Who are the favorite authors? The most beloved books? What would they suggest other writers read?
It’s a fine opportunity to lie.
Having spent a fair amount of my life around writers and English majors, I can attest to the desire to want to appear learned, erudite, and well-read. There’s something particularly appealing (to English majors anyway) to admitting that yes, you read War and Peace. Every word. Even the sections in French.
But it is also my experience that there is a fair bit of distance between the books a writer admits to reading and the books resting neatly (or haphazardly, in most cases) on their private bookshelves. The New York Times Book Review has a fun question it poses to authors during interviews: what books are currently on your nightstand? If only a Nightstand Selfie were required, we could be sure the answers weren’t more lies.
Ernest Hemingway was a voracious reader by all accounts. For all his hunting and fishing and skiing and traveling, it is often forgotten that the man spent the vast majority of his life in solitary, reading and writing.
Consider briefly the number of readers scattered throughout his works: Jake Barnes reads Turgenev amongst the drunken revelries of The Sun Also Rises; the Hemingway character in Green Hills of Africa reads Tolstoy; Frederic Henry enjoys Andrew Marvell; Robert Jordan recalls lines from Quevedo even while fighting in the Spanish Civil War; Colonel Cantwell repeats from memory Walt Whitman.
In Hemingway, readers are everywhere.
When asked what books were truly worth the time, Hemingway was perfectly willing to make a list, as he did for one young reporter who came knocking upon his door.
But how are we to know if the books Hemingway suggested to others are the books he actually read, the books he paid honest money for and kept on his shelves?
Turns out, we can.
After Hemingway’s death, the contents of his Cuban home, Finca Vigia, were entirely cataloged, including the inventory of his substantial library. When he moved from Cuba to Idaho, he left somewhere between 4000 and 6000 books on the shelves. In addition, the incredibly thorough Hemingway scholar Michael Reynolds–who wrote a brilliant five-volume biography of Papa–spent years valiantly tracking down Hemingway’s reading, scouring letters, public library check-out histories, high school English syllabuses, and more.
The resulting book, Hemingway’s Reading: 1910 – 1940, though truly only for the hardcore fan, reveals a fascinating picture of what books truly passed through Hemingway’s hands.
And what do we find?
Some authors stand out and are no surprise. Hemingway owned multiple copies of works from Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Ivan Turgenev, Stendhal, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, all authors he regularly praised.
But he also owned swaths of writers not generally associated with the manly Papa mythology, such as Henry James, Georges Simenon, WH Hudson, and TS Eliot.
When broken out categorically, over half of Hemingway’s reading in fiction is British, twenty-five percent are continental, and another quarter American. The Americans are almost entirely contemporary, many of them friends. Given that Hemingway spent most of his life outside of America, this is not a big surprise, but it is fascinating to note that one of the nation’s most quintessentially American writers read very little literature from his home country.
When it comes to non-fiction, Hemingway read heavily of biographies, more than any other category. Next came literary history and criticism, followed by travel writing, military history and espionage, and general history.
The non-fiction really spans the gamut:
- Los Toros de Bonaparte by Ciria y Nassare
- The Complete Ski Runner by Arnold Henry Moore Lunn
- The Life of Johnson by Thomas MacCaulay
- The Happy Traveller: a Book for Poor Men by Frank Tatchell
- The Guillotine and Its Servants by G. Lenotre
- Life Histories of Northern Animals by Ernest Thompson Seton
Within the fiction, one finds much of what one would expect, and yet much that illuminates other facets of Hemingway: such as an abiding love for the crime/suspense writer Georges Simenon, which Hemingway read in their original French; stacks of DH Lawrence, whose sexually explicit novels of love and romance seem almost the anti-Hemingway; a smattering of Charles Dickens, whose endless verbosity is on the other end of the spectrum from Hemingway’s sparse prose; most of the works of Andre Gide, also in their original French; nearly every book by Aldous Huxley; and a goodly pile of Owen Wister.
It is also worth noting that Hemingway read a good deal of poetry. Volume upon volume of verse resides in Hemingway’s library, and Reynolds calculated that (discounting novels), poetry fifth in Hemingway’s overall reading, just after biographies, literary history and criticism, travel writing, and short stories.
What to make of all this material, all these books?
Perhaps Faulkner put it best:
Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad…
Advice Hemingway apparently took to heart.