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From John Steinbeck to Evelyn Waugh: Tom Wolfe's 10 favourite books

Tom Wolfe is one of the most integral thinkers in 20th Century America; he was a radical character who helped bring a new, more liberal dawn across the country. He was a pioneering force on the same level as Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote, whose New Journalism movement changed how people write forever. If somebody knew what made literature magnificent, it was the late great Wolfe, and his list of favourite books make for essential reading.

Wolfe was an immaculately dressed character, even his socks were famously bespoke, and the only thing sharper than the clothes he donned was the pen he used to carve out a career of the finest calibre. He was born in 1930 and went on to write nine non-fiction books between 1965 until 1981. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test provided an account of his travels in California with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. They did missionary work on behalf of LSD, which perfectly epitomises the counterculture.

“Still the best account — fictional or non, in print or on film — of the genesis of the ’60s hipster subculture,” the media critic Jack Shafer wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review on the book’s 40th anniversary.

In a statement for World Authors, Wolfe explained being an author “meant writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.” He added, “In nonfiction I could combine two loves: reporting and the sociological concepts American Studies had introduced me to, especially status theory as first developed by the German sociologist Max Weber.”

In 2007, Wolfe provided a list of his favourite books in J. Peder Zane’s book, The Top Ten, which saw writers pick out their ten favourite literature pieces. As Wolfe’s definition of being an author implies, he was a man who had a broad pallet, and his list of most treasured works reflect that.

Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 book, Bel Ami, makes Wolfe’s list with the author noting: “Like a late nineteenth-century Tom Wolfe, Maupassant reveals the codes and rivalries of social success by chronicling the rise of Georges Duroy, a handsome, down on his heels ex-soldier. Duroy’s chance comes when an old army buddy hires him at his newspaper, La Vie Parisienne. Georges rewards his friend by coveting his wife, Madeleine, a smart, energetic free spirit who seems like Madame Bovary —after successful therapy. When her husband dies, Georges proposes literally over his corpse. But soon he is looking even higher.”

Another feature on his list is John Steinback’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Wolfe superlatively said: “A powerful portrait of Depression-era America, this gritty social novel follows the Joad family as they flee their farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl for the promised land of California. While limping across a crippled land, Ma and Pa Joad, their pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon, and their recently paroled son Tom sleep in ramshackle Hoovervilles filled with other refugees and encounter hardship, death, and deceit. While vividly capturing the plight of a nation, Steinbeck renders people who have lost everything but their dignity.”

Wolfe also mentions Thornton Wilder’s 1938 novel Our Town, which puts another section of society through the looking glass. The author explains: “This enduringly popular, Pulitzer Prize–winning play depicts small-town New England life (in fictional Grovers Corners, New Hampshire) with a unique combination of warm sentiment, wry comedy, and even a touch of surreal modernism in its moving final act. Childhood’s passage to maturity, love and marriage, birth and death are memorably enacted by the closely knit families of newspaper editor Webb and Doctor Gibbs, and observed by the benign Stage Manager who sagely connects their experiences to all our lives. Irresistible Americana.”

Check out his full-list, below.

Tom Wolfe’s 10 favourite books:

  • Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac
  • Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  • Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell
  • Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  • Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  • Our Town by Thornton Wilder
  • L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) & Nana by Émile Zola