With Henry James, Didion didn't pick out just one book. She loved his work so much that she put down "The novels of Henry James". So knock yourself out. James was a key figure in 19th Century literary realism, wrote many novels that focused on trans-atlantic lives as the old world and new merged. Check out, among many others, The Bostonians, The American, and The Europeans.
We know this is a list of Didion's favourite books, but how could we ever leave her out? The Year of Magical Thinking is by far one of her most powerful books, as she deals with the loss of her husband, and the fragility of her daughter's life. In dealing with grief, she turns to science and logic, yet sometimes, moments of irrationality still surface.
This is a must-read for anyone who has gone through a difficult time.
Didion adored Joseph Conrad as a writer, and she read Victory every time she embarked on a new writing project. And here's what she had to say about her favourite hero in fiction:
"Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself."
Wallace Stevens wasn't a so-called "true writer" for most of his life. Educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company, and his first major publication was when he was 35. But in 1955, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems, sealing his status as a heavyweight in poetry. Literary critic Harold Bloom called Stevens the "best and most representative" American poet of the time.
This 1915 novel was unique in its time. First of all, Madox made use of the "unreliable narrator" with great effect (and a rarity at that time). Second of all, the novel told using a series of flashbacks in non-chronological order, a literary technique that formed part of Ford's pioneering view of literary. Reading about WWI may seem dated and tough to get through, but great writing techniques are great writing techniques. And it never hurts to learn from the greats.
This is a mammoth 700-page heavyweight and is one the most famous literary works of any Russian author. It might be daunting to even want to try and start this, but if Joan Didion says you have to read it (and even wrote it down in her own handwriting) then you better.
This is the only published work of Emily Bronte but by god is it a powerhouse of jealousy and vengeance. All the characters circle through life, living with the consequences of the jealous or vengeful individuals and on their communities.