Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

Homeland Elegies


Some of us have a teacher we can thank, but all of us can thank Diana Doerfler, Ayad Akhtar’s Milwaukee high school literature teacher who instilled in him a love for writing that made the then-15-year-old want to pursue it for the next two decades. Homeland Elegies, a work of autofiction (don’t ask him which parts are or aren’t true) about what American identity is for a Muslim after 9/11, was on more than a dozen best of 2020 lists, including the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Public Library and President Barack Obama’s Favorites and is out in paperback from Back Bay this week. (Title he considered: Cantos for the Republic.)

The New York-based Akhtar is the president of PEN America, son of doctors from Pakistan who wanted him to follow their lead (his dad made him give him a shot at 3), a Green Bay Packers fan (“If they lose Aaron Rogers this year, I may have to reconsider my loyalty”), daily Shakespeare reader, erstwhile actor (The War Within, which he co-wrote; Too Big to Fail) and was a theater major in college (where he taught himself French).

He kept tweaking his 2012 play, Disgraced—even after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He used to sleep with a pencil tied to his finger to write down his dreams in the middle of the night. And he’s keeping quiet about a TV show he’s working on but shared a few notable reads.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

When I first read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, I got so absorbed, I just couldn’t stop reading it. At the time I was living with my girlfriend in a studio apartment, and sat up for three nights in the adjoining bathroom turning the pages.

…made me weep uncontrollably:

Andrea Elliott’s forthcoming Invisible Child [October 2021]. A flat-out masterwork. Elliott followed Brooklyn-born Dasani Coates for seven years, as her family struggled with homelessness and poverty. The result is moving beyond belief.

…I recommend over and over again:

I recommend over and over again: Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s de Kooning: An American Master. It is one of the great books ever written about art, the life of an artist, not to mention an utterly absorbing and masterful portrait of mid-twentieth century American cultural life. I can’t recommend enough, or to enough people!

…shaped my worldview:

Mimesis by Erich Auerbach. The Kabbalists have an idea that language is what creates the world, and this is never so clear to me as it is when I read Auerbach. His survey of the representation of reality in Western literature has shaped my very understanding of just how much sentences, and the words that comprise them, shape the world.

…I swear I’ll finish one day:

Tristes Tropiques. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s blend of theory, travelogue and personal memoir sits on my nightstand in French and English.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

Meister Eckhart’s Sermons & Treatises. Three volumes of which have sat there for fifteen years. I read from one every night.

…I’d gift to a new graduate:

The Gift by Lewis Hyde. In a world increasingly defined by algorithms whose sole purpose is to predict and monetize our behavior, Hyde’s classic about the economy of gifts is, dare I say, essential preparation for anyone setting forth into the world and hoping to remain human.

…made me laugh out loud:

Early Work by Andrew Martin. Conversation after conversation rendered (and read) with sheer delight.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Early Work by Andrew Martin. For exactly the reason above.

…I last bought:

Svetlana Alpers’s Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch. I am eager to read the brilliant scholar of Dutch painting’s take on an artist whose work has moved and inspired me for years.

…has the best opening line:

V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

…has the greatest ending:

Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day: In which Tommy Wilhelm, at a stranger’s funeral, torn apart by his own failures, overcome with emotion over our common plight as dying creatures, sobs his way “toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”

…I’ve re-read the most:

Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. The greatest instance of reality in language, and an object lesson in the power of language on a page to embody human truth. I don’t know of a book that I can rely on as much as this one for inspiration. Always.

…I’d want signed by the author for my library:

Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? A book I love so much I used a quote from it for the epigraph to my new book.

If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

The famed La Hune in Paris, a bookstore where I spent more time than in any other in my early twenties. Alas, it’s no longer with us, shuttered six years ago due to the rising rents of the last decade. I suppose it’s no more feasible to live in a bookstore that once was than any other!

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