Recommended Reading from 20 of Our Nerdiest Heroes
In the spirit of shelf improvement, we decided to create the ultimate recommended reading list by peeking at the bookshelves and bedside tables of our favorite nerd heroes. If you like reading, books, or reading about books, we're guessing this will appeal to you!
1. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON // GULLIVER’S TRAVELS
The astrophysicist could likely load you down with lots of scientific texts, too, but he made it clear to the New York Times that, when it comes to novels, the gripping satirical adventure in Jonathan Swift’s classic tale makes it his favorite:
“I often find myself reflecting on the odd assortment of characters that Lemuel Gulliver met during his travels. We’re all familiar with the tiny Lilliputians, but during his voyages he also met the giant Brobdingnagians. And elsewhere he met the savage humanoid Yahoos and the breed of rational horses—the Houyhnhnms—who shunned them. And I will not soon forget the misguided scientists of the Grand Academy of Lagado beneath the levitated Island of Laputa, who invested great resources posing and answering the wrong questions about nature.”
2. SUPREME COURT JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR // SPIDER-MAN COMICS
When she was growing up, Justice Sotomayor let reading be her “rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects,” she told NPR. “I traveled the world through books. And even to this day, if I'm feeling down about anything, I pick up a book and I just read.” She explained,
“At first I read Archie. I then graduated to the Marvel series. When Spiderman [sic] and Batman came out, I was in love, OK? And I gave up comic books shortly after I started reading serious—more serious—literature like Nancy Drew [...] She had character, and she had courage.”
Unlike Justice Sotomayor’s picks (which you can get here), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favorite non-legal texts (from childhood or adulthood) aren’t well known, though she does credit a former teacher—specifically, the lepidopterist, chess composer, and writer Vladimir Nabokov—with having changed her outlook on both reading and writing.
3. JOHN WATERS // THE KINDLY ONES
If you had the impression that the cult director spends his free time thumbing a well-worn copy of Eat, Pray, Love, then you were plain wrong (and possibly haven’t seen his movies). Waters shared a list of grim favorites with The Week, including Jonathan Littell’s “harrowing, repulsive, and witty thousand-page, gay–Nazi–Final Solution novel.” He added,
“[It] may have won the two top French literary prizes, but here in America it was panned by the critics. Of course, the French were right. Not since the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom has there been such an explosive literary shocker. And there’s a 39-hour audiobook version available, too. Just imagine that recording session!”
Get your copy here.
4. GEORGE R. R. MARTIN // THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Being fantasy’s hot commodity of the moment, this author takes every opportunity to encourage his fans to check out those classics that defined the genre (and likely helped Martin develop his own imagined universes, too). He told the site AbeBooks, “In junior high I read [J. R. R.] Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and that’s still a book I admire vastly. I re-read it every few years, or at least dip into it.” He also stressed to Paste that fantasy buffs should be sure to catch up on the works of Jack Vance, who’s somewhat lesser known in fantasy and sci-fi circles. Click here to check out Vance's work.
5. PATTON OSWALT // THE BLACK DAHLIA
Like many active readers, the writer and comedian has a favorite book list that’s constantly evolving; one standing favorite, however, is James Ellroy’s “unapologetic historical fiction” that offered a “disgusting portrait of Los Angeles that, weirdly, made me want to move there even more,” he told the New York Times. Oswalt also gave shout-outs to Willa Cather’s My Ántonia “because it’s good to know perfection can exist in letters” and to Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, “which was my first experience reading a book that invented its own genre.”
6. AMY POEHLER // A TALE OF TWO CITIES
The actress, comedian, and author’s list of top reads sports a variety of genres and titles, including this Dickens classic—a book which, Poehler told O Magazine, “not only has the best first line ever written—'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'—it’s got everything! The novel has wine, guillotines, revolution! It has the storming of the Bastille! It has Madame Defarge, one of the best villains in any literary novel.” Get your copy here.
7. TINA FEY // LENI RIEFENSTAHL’S MEMOIREN
Like her 30 Rock alter ego Liz Lemon, Fey seemingly likes to plan ahead—even for far-from-likely scenarios: Vanity Fair learned that “the 669-page autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl—chronicling her time as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker and the creation of the propaganda movie Triumph of the Will—is one of Fey’s favorite (cautionary) books.”
Fey explained, “If she hadn’t been so brilliant at what she did, she wouldn’t have been so evil [...] She was like, in the book, ‘He was the leader of the country. Who was I not to go?’ And it’s like, Note to self: Think through the invite from the leader of your country.” Get it here.
8. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS // GONE GIRL
The Hollywood octuple-threat is a big reader, and one novel that recently struck a strong chord with him—not just because he “got a lovely part in the movie version”—was Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller; he told the New York Times that the “just brilliant” work even drove him toward some serious ‘fanboy’ behaviors:
“I was so into it that I read literally every word—after the story ended, I devoured the acknowledgments, the book cover flaps, the ISBN, you name it. If it had been like a DVD, I could have read the ‘making of’ the writing of the book. I was that into it.” You can pick it up here.
9. JANELLE MONAE // WILD SEED
The next time you and your friends are swapping anecdotes about how amazing she is, you can casually mention that, on top of everything else, she makes plenty of time to read: the Octavia Butler title is only one of several favorites she shared with VIBE in 2010. Get yours here.
10. DAVID LYNCH // CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
If you’ve ever wondered where Lynch gets his flair for heavy, even overwrought drama, his reading list might give you some clues. When the director curated a multimedia “Club Silencio” exhibit, he selected several of his favorite books for its onsite library, including Dostoevsky’s grim tome, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Frank Capra’s Name Above the Title. More information here.
11. HAYAO MIYAZAKI // THE LITTLE PRINCE
In celebration of the 2010 Japanese release of Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arietty, the Kochi Literary Museum held a special exhibition of handwritten book recommendations from the renowned director and animator. Not surprisingly, quite a few children’s classics made the list, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Buy it here.
12. DAN SAVAGE // THE PERSIAN BOY
When he’s not reading thousands of letters from love- and lust-lorn fans seeking advice, Savage likes to dig into nonfiction genres like history and biography. He’s also partial to some historical fiction, and told the New York Times that Mary Renault’s novel “about a eunuch slave boy who falls in love with Alexander the Great after he conquers the Persian Empire” and Gore Vidal’s Julian “may be my two favorite novels.” Get it here.
13. LEVAR BURTON // THE GOLDFINCH
It might not surprise you that the actor, author, and activist—who hosted Reading Rainbow for over 20 years, and recently raised more than enough on Kickstarter to re-launch the series—appreciates a good book. Among the many favorite titles he mentioned on the Kickstarter blog, Burton had especially high praise for Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel:
“[It] is excruciatingly good. [I love] that it is excruciating to read, and I can’t put it down. I can’t not turn the next page, but I don’t want to see the next bad thing. I don’t want to experience the next bad thing that happens to this guy. It’s a train wreck, but you can’t avert your eyes.” See more here.
14. IRA GLASS // CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER
The This American Life host is typically doing research for numerous stories at once, and doesn’t seem to have the time--or, perhaps, the patience--for reading much fiction. Glass explained to the New York Times, however, that this nonfiction work from director Cameron Crowe has helped him develop his own methods for storytelling:
“I first read it over a decade ago when screenwriters and studios started trying to convert stories from our show into films, and I was trying to understand the storytelling tricks you can use in a movie. I’m sure people who study film in school would have a different perspective, but for someone like me who’s just a movie fan, scanning for quick insight, it was wonderful: anecdotal and fun to read.” Get it here.
15. BRIAN ENO // SEEING LIKE A STATE: HOW CERTAIN SCHEMES TO IMPROVE THE HUMAN CONDITION HAVE FAILED
The artist’s literary tastes seem to be as varied and experimental as his musical ones, but his inner bibliography was put to the test last year when he was asked to compile his reading list of “20 Essential Books for Sustaining Civilization.” First on his list is James C. Scott’s utopia-dissecting Seeing Like a State, while David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power will be helping Eno lead postapocalyptic society, too. Buy it here.
16. JON RONSON // ANYTHING FROM RAYMOND CARVER
When asked about his favorite novelist of all time, Ronson gushed to the New York Times, “It’s like magic how his sentences are so short and simple and about nothing much, but they fill you with such dread. I know Carver is not a novelist, but give me a break.” Get it here.
17. STANLEY KUBRICK // FILM TECHNIQUE AND FILM ACTING
Before he began making cinematic masterpieces, Kubrick was mostly working as a photographer in New York City and giving serious thought to the matter of filmmaking technique. He recalled,
"The most influential book I read at that time was Pudovkin’s Film Technique. It is a very simple, unpretentious book that illuminates rather than embroiders. It certainly makes it clear that film cutting is the one and only aspect of films that is unique and unrelated to any other art form. I found this book much more important than the complex writings of Eisenstein.” More info here.
18. AZIZ ANSARI // WILL NOT ATTEND
When Cultivating Thought asked about the multi-talented performer’s favorite writers, he named several comedians that are changing the written landscape through their own (and various other) mediums. With regard to books he’d enjoyed recently, he did give props to Adam Resnick’s collection of stories, and added, “Whenever I get these questions, I realize that I should read more.” Buy it here.
19. CHARLIE KAUFMAN // WHATEVER HE’S CURRENTLY READING… OR NOT
The screenwriter and filmmaker has reportedly listed authors Franz Kafka, Stanislaw Lem, and Samuel Beckett among his influences; as he explained to the New York Post, however, he doesn’t like to go on record about particular books he’s been reading or enjoying (or not):
“I got asked about favorite books the other night, and I don’t like to answer. I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t like the books that I’m reading. When I’ve talked about the books that I’m reading, I get asked about these books for the next 15 years, and it was just something I happened to have in my backpack.”
And finally, one of history’s most heroic nerds (or, alternately, nerdiest heroes)...
20. NIKOLA TESLA // FAUST
As a child, Tesla suffered from numerous illnesses, and often passed his bedridden time reading and even memorizing the works of his favorite authors, including Mark Twain and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was the latter’s infamous tale Faust, however, that thrummed in Tesla’s brain throughout his life, and which he credited for finally bringing his vision for the inductor motor into being, PBS reported:
“One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the city park and reciting poetry. At that age I knew entire books by heart, word for word. One of these was Goethe's Faust. The sun was just setting and reminded me of a glorious passage:
The glow retreats, done is the day of toil / It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil / Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!
As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” Be sure to pick up your copy here.
All images of heroes courtesy of Getty Images.