We Are What We Read?

This evening I was watching an old Charlie Rose interview with the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.  Lane happens to be my favorite critic and is a wonderful writer for the magazine on his off weeks—he shares the film critic role with David Denby—when he writes articles and profiles of people who interest him.  Somewhere in my files I’ve kept his profiles of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and P. G. Wodehouse.  Who can resist anyone who writes, about Wodehouse, “There is one short story, “Uncle Fred Flits By,” that I try not to study in depth more than once a fortnight.”

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Lane talks about the need for a film critic to know history and art and literature and popular culture; to be involved in the world; to have perspective.  Lane possesses such a breadth of knowledge.  It’s one reason his reviews are so much more than film reviews.

Sometimes I daydream about the fun I would have being someone else for a day or two.  Anthony Lane is decidedly on my list.  Mayor Bloomberg.  Or, imagine the thrill being Tobias Meyer—worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s—conducting an evening sale in London.  He has the distinction of selling the world’s most costly painting, a $104.2 million Picasso.  When asked what he does, he answered, “I make art expensive.”

Now, what does any of this have to do with marketing?  Nothing and everything.  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur about anything other than his latest idea?  Hopeless.  This is undoubtedly a generalization, but the very idea of “knowing things” in the broadest sense is a unknown concept.  A former friend once reported that she overheard three young employees at Google wondering where Tonga was and deciding it was somewhere in the Caribbean.  I know very intelligent Stanford grads who couldn’t identify a Californian field of columbine.  Most surprising to me was one of my MBA students at USF who, on the day of the star’s death, asked, “Who’s Elizabeth Taylor?”

Maybe none of this matters.  I wonder, though.  I’ve worked with many companies on the development of brand campaigns.  Brand campaigns are always driven by one person at a company.  (I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that I believe all marketing begins with one person.)  The most successful are people with broad experience and an all-encompassing worldview.  People who know psychology and history and music and symbols; who have a cultural frame of reference in which to think about themselves and the brand they want to establish.  Brands don’t live in isolation of the world around them. Clients who believe that a brand is its advertising miss the point entirely.

The top branding experience I’ve had was working with the management at Philips on a new global brand campaign, based, ironically, on their dull as dishwater tagline “Let’s Make Things Better.” The reason it was great was because the initiative was led by two exceptionally intelligent, well read, cultured individuals: Gerard Dufour and Kevin Greene.  When Kevin, head of global advertising, came to brief the agency he had no deck, no PowerPoint, no strategy hand-out (that came later once the higher goal was communicated.)  What he had was a reel of TV commercials: ten of the world’s best commercials in his opinion.  They were from many different categories and times.  Each was outstanding.  He simply said, “I want that.  I want a commercial on that reel.  I want you to make Philips famous.”  The process to get there was the most informed, intellectual route imaginable—interspersed with dinner conversation about Mikhail Bulgakov’s great novel The Master and Margarita, or a detailed history of Scottish single malt makers.  Kevin’s colorful, half-Spanish-half-French boss Gerald Dufour, head of global marketing at Philips, only added to this unconventional route to produce an advertising campaign.  At the time, Gerald’s best friend was the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, the director of the Mariinsky Theatre and the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Gerald and Valery took us to a production of Boris Godunov at the Met.  When Gerald evaluated music for a commercial, he knew what he was doing.  Too often, I hear clients say things like, “I’m not loving it…”  Gee, that’s helpful: as though it has anything to do with an assistant brand manager’s personal taste.

Speaking of music and advertising, when I led global brand advertising for Fujitsu, our senior client, the head of Corporate Advertising, was Yasuo Sangu.  Sangu-san was a remarkable man, not least because he was also the founder and president of the Frank Sinatra Society of Japan!   Not only did he know every imaginable detail about Sinatra and his music—he had an entire room in his house devoted to Sinatra with thousands of recordings—but he was a world expert on jazz.  When recording music for a commercial, Sangu-san would request specific musicians for each instrumental role.  Many, many times he would call from Tokyo saying, “I see there’s going to be a special on PBS tomorrow night in New York of a 1950’s Sinatra/Garland concert.  Could you tape it and send it to me please.”

We learn things by way of many pathways.  Our parents and families; school; travel; museums; work.  Being in the street.  Listening to music. Looking at everything with a sense of wonder.  Being open to all that’s new, that’s different.  And reading.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in all of the above, both in having so many advantages presented and taking advantage of all of them.  Reading, however, is available to everyone.

Among the very well read, I’m in the minor leagues.  (You might say Susan Sontag headed the Majors.)  Yet, reading has been a constant in my life since a small child.  How I look at the world largely has been informed by what I’ve read.  The single most moving and consequential course I had at Bowdoin was Literature as Philosophy, taught by the eccentric and brilliant philosopher C. Douglas McGee.  (Doug and his wife Phoebe became life-long friends.)  What the course and Professor McGee gave me was the profound understanding that a novel could be more than a novel: it could be a framework for living, for viewing the world in a larger way, for deeper insight into the human soul.  The books we read and discussed are the touchstones to the way I think and the foundation to the idea I have that there are certain books that help to make us civilized.

So I’ve created a list of the books that have been most meaningful to me. This is obviously a highly personal list.  It reflects my own preferences and life experience.  It’s clearly the list of an American.   There are “great” books on the list, as well as not so great but wonderful to me.  I’ve read all of them–some many times.  A Confederacy of Dunces I’ve read more than ten times, to date–every time I feel sad and low. It cheers me up immensely.   (Based on the number of times I’ve read it, I guess those feelings have been too frequent.)   Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is maybe my favorite book.  The Iliad is the start of it all for me.  I’m reading two new translations right now.  There are parts that no matter how many times I read them I always cry: Priam’s plea to Achilles for the body of his son Hector; Hector’s farewell to his wife and son. What father could not be brought to tears by these passages?

Jules Henry’s Pathways to Madness is perhaps the most important book–for me–that I’ve read.  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita my favorite novel (although that’s a hard one…Henry James’s The Ambassadors is a very close second.)  Over this past summer I reread Brideshead Revisited four times because it’s the saddest, most nostalgic novel I know and it suited my heart-broken mood, unfortunately.  (Even though a crusty Bowdoin English professor called it the best of 2nd rate novels.)  Haruki Murakami is my favorite contemporary novelist…no, wait, that would be W. G. Sebald, but he died in a car accident ten years ago so maybe he doesn’t count as contemporary.

Then there are also terrific one-off reads that pop up—but don’t make the list– like last year’s biography of Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff.  Or best sellers I refused to read, and then did, and was happily surprised by how good they were, like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Or Stephen King (everyone should read his On Writing.)

Clearly no one else on earth would select this list of books.  I used to think if anyone else ever read all these books they would be a civilized person, just like me.  But then I realized they would simply be a lot like me, and who would want to be that.  No equation with civilized.  Maybe well-read, but hardly civilized.  One can be illiterate and civilized.

So here they are.  My plan was to select 100, but as usual that too-limited plan was abandoned, so now I label the list 100+ Books.

100+ Books

A Personal Selection

Niland Mortimer



Euripides-Medea, The Trojan Women

Plato-The Republic, The Symposium


Aristophanes-The Frogs

Sophocles-Oedipus the King

Virgil-The Aeneid


William Shakespeare-Plays, Sonnets

John Milton—Paradise Lost

W.B.Yeats—Collected Poems

Henry Fielding—Tom Jones

James Boswell—Life of Samuel Johnson

Virginia Woolf-To the Lighthouse

Samuel Beckett-Waiting for Godot

Dante-Divine Comedy

Chaucer-The Canterbury Tales

Walt Whitman—Leaves of Grass

Henry James-The Ambassadors

Henry James-The Golden Bowl

William James-Varieties of Religious Experience

E. M. Forster-A Passage to India, Howards End

Patrick Leigh-Fermor-A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and Water, Mani

Charles Dickens-Bleak House, Pickwick Papers

Jane Austen-Pride and Prejudice

Emily Bronte-Wuthering Heights

William Wordsworth; John Keats; S. T. Coleridge—all of it.

Thomas Mann-The Magic Mountain

Thomas Mann-Dr. Faustus

Joseph Conrad-Heart of Darkness, Victory

George Santayana-The Last Puritan

Herman Melville-Moby Dick

Melville-Billy Budd

Nathaniel Hawthorne-The Scarlet Letter, stories

T. Nansen-Farthest North

Bible-Old Testament (only)

Fernand Braudel—The Mediterranean

Ivan Turgenev-Home of the Gentry, Fathers and Sons

D.H. Lawrence -Women in Love

Gustav Flaubert-Madame Bovary

Leo Tolstoy-War and Peace

Dostoyevsky-Crime and Punishment

Dostoyevsky-The Brothers Karamazov


H. D. Thoreau–Walden

R. W. Emerson–Essays

T.S. Elliott-The Waste Land, Four Quartets

George Meredith-The Egoist, Modern Love

Cervantes-Don Quixote

Yukio Mishima-The Sea of Fertility

Colin Thubron-Shadow of the Silk Road

Lawrence Durrell-Bitter Lemons, The Alexandria Quartet

Marcel Proust-Remembrance of Things Past

John Swain-River of Time

James Joyce-Ulysses, Dubliners

DeToqueville-Democracy in America, The Old Regime and the Revolution

W.G. Sebald-Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn

George Elliott-Middlemarch

Jan Morris—Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Venice

H.V.Morton, In Search of London

Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

Stephen Hawking-A Brief History of Time

Flannery O’Connor—Collected Stories

Eudora Welty-Collected Stories, Losing Battles

George Orwell-1984

Mary Lavin—Collected Stories

William Faulkner-The Sound and the Fury

Haruki Murakami—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84

Yasunari Kawabata—The Master of Go

Charles Darwin-The Origin of Species

Sigmund Freud-Civilization and its Discontents

James Fraser-The Golden Bough

F. Scott Fitzgerald-The Great Gatsby

V.S. Naipaul—In A Free State

Harold Acton—The Bourbons of Naples

Balzac—The Human Comedy—yes, all of it.

J.R.R.Tolkien-The Lord of the Rings

Mikhail Bulgakov-The Master and Margarita

Lampedusa-The Leopard

Marquez-One Hundred Years of Solitude

Antoine de Saint-Exupery-Wind, Sand and Stars

Ernest Hemingway-A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Thomas Wolfe-Look Homeward, Angel

Descartes-Meditations on First Philosophy

Hume-A Treatise of Human Nature

Jung-Psychological Types

Locke-An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


Jules Henry-Pathways to Madness

Willa Cather-The Song of the Lark, My Antonia

John Updike-Rabbit Angstrom novels

M.F.K. Fisher-Two Towns in Provence

Iris Origo-War in the Val D’Orcia

Albert Camus-The Stranger

Jules Henry-Pathways to Madness

Marguerite Yourcenar-Memoirs of Hadrian

Mark Twain-Huckleberry Finn, Innocents Abroad

Robert Byron-The Road to Oxiana

Tatiana Metternich-Tatiana

Marie Vassilchikov-Berlin Diaries

Gunter Grass—The Tim Drum

Waverly Root, The Food of Italy, The Food of France

Toole, J.K.-The Confederacy of Dunces

V. Nabokov-Speak, Memory, Lolita

Maurice O’Sullivan—Twenty Years A-Growing

Norman Lewis—Voices of the Old Sea

Rebecca West-Black Lamb and Gray Falcon

Wallace Stevens—Collected Poems

Barbara Grizutti Harrison-Italian Days

Tim O’Brien-The Things They Carried

Stephen King-Carrie

John Steinbeck—The Grapes of Wrath

Thorton Wilder—Our Town

J.D. Salinger—The Catcher in the Rye

Ford Maddox Ford-The Good Soldier

Somerville & Ross—Experiences of an Irish R.M.

John Synge—The Playboy of the Western World

Sherwood Anderson-Many Marriages, Collected Stories

C.V. Cavafy-Collected Poems

Mikhail Lermontov-A Hero of Our Time

Claude Levi-Strauss—Triste Tropiques

Kenneth Clark-Civilisation

Evelyn Waugh-Brideshead Revisited

Oliver Statler-Japanese Inn, Japanese Pilgrimage

Barbara Pym-A Few Green Leaves

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—The Sufferings of Young Werther

Henrik Ibsen—Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, Ghosts

Guy Davenport-Tatlin

Edmund de Waal—The Hare with Amber Eyes

Michel Houellebecq—The Map and the Territory

Peter Carey—The True History of the Kelly Gang

A. B. Facey—A Fortunate Life

Simon Schama—Landscape and Memory, Citizens

Jane Jacobs—The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Bill Wilson—AA Big Book

Wallace Stegner—Crossing to Safety

J. M. Synge—The Playboy of the Western World

Henry Beston—The Outermost House

Previous Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: