For further reading, we’ve included a list of works by authors interviewed here.
I was a graduate student in literature in the late 1960s when the world seemed ripe for changing, with causes like the fight against the war in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle. For many of my generation, personal and political quests were connected, and reading was integral to the causes in which we enlisted.
How do texts help us become better human beings? The connection between what we read and how we act is an intimate one. Oral tales and texts have been used to guide human behavior or lead it astray in virtually all civilizations.
Newt Gingrich understands the importance of texts, and his penchant for recommending reading lists has gotten a lot of attention, as he has handed fellow legislators copies of de Tocqueville, The Federalist Papers, Madison, Jefferson, and the Tofflers. With this in mind, I set out to ask a broad range of thinkers what they had read that had provided moral insight or served as a catalyst or paradigm of virtue, ethical behavior, or simply living the kind of life that makes a difference. What texts do they look to when they want moral guideposts or standards for ethical action?
Art Spiegelman, Cartoonist
“What I needed was a vacation. What I needed was a house in the country. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a gun. I put them on and walked outside.”
There is a sensibility in that quote from Raymond Chandler that is now pervasive. It’s an unsentimental, almost cynical veneer put on what is actually a very sentimental worldview.
Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” That line talks about setting up your own ethical compass rather than inheriting one. You need to figure it out for yourself because no one can tell you what is right or wrong. You can’t rely on received and inherited ideas.
Maxine Hong Kingston, novelist
The Five Precepts of Buddhism as described by Thich Nhat Hanh. His new book, For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, discusses them for our times. Instead of Thou Shalt Not Kill, we are told: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has refined these Buddhist precepts to make them relevant to modern life. He’s changed the wording like a lawyer and it’s all positive. What we are going to do. Not like the Ten Commandments, which are thou shalt nots.
Gloria Steinem, Feminist
Two texts–Gandhi’s letters mostly, and his book The Story of My Experiments with Truth–are important to counter Machiavelli’s idea that the means justify the ends. What I learned watching Gandhi when I lived in India was that the means you use will dictate the ends you get. Show me an example in which violent means have produced a peaceful end.
Marx is a great example of the means-and-ends argument. He lived off his wife’s pawned jewelry, impregnated his maid, and let Engels take the blame. His daughter committed suicide. Marxism doesn’t work because you can’t choose whatever means you want. He did it in a microcosmic way in his family.
Robert Bly, Poet and Men’s Movement Leader
In poetry we always need to lay out what we believe. I am a student of Yeats, who lays out what a moral life is. Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, and Whitman are all teachers of morality as well. Whitman’s morality is strange, but it’s the kind that doesn’t hate outsiders and extends the surfaces of the skin to include everyone.
Poetry is its own language and when someone speaks it and it goes into the heart and the gut it becomes real. It goes to the body’s moral center and passes the brain that’s rational or deconstructionist or feminist.
Katha Pollitt, Journalist
Poems by William Blake are still for me the most important statement about wealth and poverty, cruelty, the evil of authoritarian religion, and the way an unjust society maintains itself by what he calls “the mind-forged manacles”–the ways in which you make your own prison and the prison makes you. “Holy Thursday,” which is about orphans, or “London.”
If Newt Gingrich read the poems of William Blake, he would tear up the “Contract With America.” Blake says, “Pity would be no more if we did not make somebody poor.” All the charity and the thousand points of light are because we have made all this poverty. It’s not a natural condition. Society creates it and could get rid of it.
Sandra Cisneros, Novelist
Dorothy Allison’s Skin, a collection of essays, helps motivate me when I feel lost in writing the literature I want to create or when I am going to speak. Her inspiration, passion, and great faith that literature has the power to change the way we think inspires me. I feel I can say important things that can change lives and write the kind of literature that can change people’s lives.
Tobias Wolff, Novelist
I keep going back to War and Peace. It’s about a search for meaning and goodness in a world that looked as bleak as anything we see now. The society was corrupt and given over to the worship of power and money and threatened by a great evil in Napoleon. And here is Pierre dedicated to finding the truth in his way. It’s deeply moving to me.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Novelist
I read Lao-tzu and the Tao Te Ching at 14. My father had it around the house in the old edition with the Chinese text. I sneaked a peek and was and remain fascinated. Taoism is still an underlayer in my work. It begins talking about what we can’t talk about–an old mysticism that intertwines with Buddhism and is practical and not theistic. Before and beyond God. There’s a humorous and easygoing aspect to it that I like temperamentally and that fits in with anarchism. Pacifist anarchism and Lao-tzu have a lot of connection with each other, especially in the 20th century.
Herbert Kohl, Educator
I’d recommend Spinoza’s Ethics. It’s enormously challenging on freedom, bondage, and acquiring spiritual self-discipline and a larger view of the universe. It’s calming. It’s silly–laid out in geometrical form. But every one of Spinoza’s hypotheses is a proverb that can be used for meditation. For example: “A free man thinks of death least of all things and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”
Gus Lee, Novelist
At some early age I started finding a satisfying sense of internal guidance in novels. To Kill a Mockingbird. Ben-Hur. Heroes who resolve moral dilemmas. Atticus Finch being spat upon without spitting back and Ben-Hur choosing not to kill Messala. Those are lessons. Mercy. Tolerance. Those burned in my imagination.
I met Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and it was like meeting a holy woman. Her book affected my classmates from the South at West Point but, though I wasn’t particularly prejudiced, it affected me too. That was moral guidance coming from a text.
Sissela Bok, Writer and Philosopher
Autobiography is my first recommendation, because you can see how someone else tries to work out moral problems, casting about. I’d suggest Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years by Margaret Mead, for example. You have a young woman and you see how she develops.
I’d also recommend Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. Students are especially drawn to these; the letters provide guidelines on how to live one’s life. Seneca tells us that a wise man should “gather many arts, precepts, and examples from history” to inform his own life.
Sam Keen, Philosopher
I’d want my children to read the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and the fundamental Buddhist texts. The great spiritual values are still stated in the religious traditions. Forget all the new age junk of The Celestine Prophecy or Embraced by the Light or A Course in Miracles. Get it straight from the source.
Neruda’s Book of Questions is fantastic. It has a lovely use of children’s questions, the right and the wild questions that are linked to the great questions.
Christopher Hitchens, Columnist
Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, about the Welsh mining community, contains one of the best-ever descriptions of a boy losing his virginity. I read it about 14 or 15 times as a boy.
Until then I had been screened by lower middle-class resentment from knowing about the working class and the labor movement. It made it easier for me to read Orwell. In his novels he described the family I was from–resentful, insecure, the lower middle class of England. Novels like Coming Up for Air.
Grace Paley, Short Story Writer
I always think: “We were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). It’s the Jewish part of me. I am reminded of it in every part of our political life. Think of immigration in California. That line always seems to be something Jews need to keep in mind. It’s said so many times in the liturgy and the Passover Haggadah.
Brent Staples, New York Times Writer
The document most important to us as Americans is the Declaration of Independence. I grew up in the shadow of Philadelphia and still get goose bumps when I think about the declaration’s being signed there. I’m nuts about it. Crazy about it. That idea–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”–is in jeopardy as we return to classism and scientific racism.
Stephen Greenblatt, Literary Critic
Montaigne is the single writer who has worked through to wisdom for me. He is more perplexed than, say, Whitman; ever to doubt, waver, and inquire. Montaigne’s writing is about understanding what Orwell called the smelly little orthodoxies and being committed to justice and decency. Montaigne could see, in the 1580s, how disastrous what the Europeans were doing in the new Americas was and was one of the few to speak out.
Richard Russo, Novelist
Great Expectations has been an important text for me. It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. When I was young I understood Pip and sympathized with him and felt what he felt in his various horrors and discovery of his paternity. As I got older I felt no sympathy for that little shit whatsoever and was horrified by his shallowness.
It’s like watching The Graduate when you were young–and then older and you understand why Mrs. Robinson doesn’t want to talk with him in bed.
What would she say to the little twit?
Michael Krasny is a professor of English at San Francisco State University and host of an award-winning weekday public radio program. Research assistance by Steve Sheret.