The best novels for finding inspiration

Kenneth Womack Author Of John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life
By Kenneth Womack

The Books I Picked & Why

The Good Soldier

By Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier

Why this book?

In his tragicomic novel The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford’s thickheaded narrator John Dowell trolls, over and over again, through the detritus of his life, searching vainly for the origins of his predicament—namely, that he has been duped by his wife and her lover, his supposedly best friend and the “good soldier” of the novel’s title. When Dowell finally succumbs to the utter hopelessness of his situation, he turns away from his audience in a brash attempt to bargain with a misbegotten universe, and his dreams of an impossible reconciliation with the world become our own: “Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?” In his greatest moment of anguish and uncertainty, Dowell grasps for the poetry of language to sate his weary soul.


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The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Why this book?

In her acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood depicts her narrator, Offred, as she parses through the memories of an increasingly idealized past in relation to a dystopian present in which her own sense of identity has become dispersed and uncertain. Yet as she digs ever deeper, Offred slowly but surely reclaims the threads of her lost self, rebuilding and reinvigorating her selfhood in the process. For Atwood’s narrator, the journey of the self is a transfixing and, at times, soul-destroying mission. Yet for Offred, these very same voices from the past allow her to rediscover herself and usurp the great darkness of her present. As the novel comes to an uncertain close, she is left to ponder the possibilities of an unknown future. But Offred is ready—her sense of self reinvigorated and impatient, even—for the new life that awaits her.


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Du côté de chez Swann

By Marcel Proust

Du côté de chez Swann

Why this book?

When it comes to finding inspiration in our memories, Marcel Proust is literature’s gold standard. The French novelist devoted the balance of his life to the art of refracting his memories through the lens of his writerly self. Proust understood implicitly that our memories are triggered by sensory experiences—sights, sounds, smells, and touch, to be sure—but most especially through the pleasures of the text. In Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of his epic À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust interrogates the ways in which memory is catalyzed by the senses, while comprehending, at the same time, the manner in which the reality of our memories becomes shaped by the ruinous work of nostalgia, of a sentimentality that exists beyond our ken.


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The Sheltering Sky

By Paul Bowles

The Sheltering Sky

Why this book?

It is a notion that Paul Bowles realizes intuitively in his deeply philosophical novel The Sheltering Sky. For Bowles, it is our memories, not simply our flesh, that render life so precious, so fleeting. “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood,” Bowles writes, “some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”


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Lolita

By Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita

Why this book?

In his controversial novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s eccentric narrator Humbert Humbert laments the fleeting qualities of life by reciting a couplet from an “old poet,” who characterizes our mortality as a kind of corporeal tax—or duty—that must be paid for striving for an ethical life and enjoying the simple beauty of human existence: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty / We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.” While he may be one of literature’s all-time detestable characters, Humbert Humbert recognizes the effortless splendor inherent in the merest of poetic phrases.


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