Patti Smith on the Two Kinds of Masterpieces and Her Fifty Favorite Books

Maria Popova

“Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.”

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith exhales within the pages of M Train (public library) — her astonishingly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the rupture of loss, embedded into which is an affectionate memoir of reading. Half a century after Susan Sontag extolled the rewards of rereading as rebirth, Smith journeys to the final resting places of great writers, photographing their tombstones and the ephemera that survived them — Virginia Woolf’s cane, Hermann Hesse’s typewriter, Robert Graves’s straw hat, Samuel Beckett’s spectacles — as she revisits her most beloved books. Through the devotional culvert of memory, she looks back on a lifetime of reading and communes with the authors who most animated her inner life.

After finding herself under a monthlong spell of obsessively reading nothing but Haruki Murakami, Smith considers how great books bewitch the human spirit:

There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.

Much like the lifelong reading list extracted from Gabriel García Márquez’s autobiography, I’ve assembled a reading list of the books Smith mentions in her memoir — some in direct and effusive homages, others obliquely, all lovingly. What emerges is a self-portrait of a creatively voracious mind, passionately painted on the canvas of literature.

After Nature (public library) by W.G. Sebald

At one time the three lengthy poems in this slim volume had such a profound effect on me that I could hardly bear to read them. Scarcely would I enter their world before I’d be transported to a myriad of other worlds. Evidences of such transports are crammed onto the endpapers as well as a declaration I once had the hubris to scrawl in a margin — I may not know what is in your mind, but I know how your mind works.

Max Sebald! … He sees, not with eyes, and yet he sees. He recognizes voices within silence, history within negative space. He conjures ancestors who are not ancestors, with such precision that the gilded threads of an embroidered sleeve are as familiar as his own dusty trousers.

[…]

What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process. I read and feel that same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself.

The Thief’s Journal (public library) by Jean Genet

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (public library) by Haruki Murakami

A Wild Sheep Chase (public library) by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore (public library) by Haruki Murakami

Dance Dance Dance (public library) by Haruki Murakami

2666 (public library) by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet (public library) by Roberto Bolaño

The First Man (public library) by Albert Camus

A photograph of Albert Camus hung next to the light switch. It was a classic shot of Camus in a heavy overcoat with a cigarette between his lips, like a young Bogart, in a clay frame made by my son, Jackson… My son, seeing him every day, got the idea that Camus was an uncle who lived far away. I would glance up at him from time to time as I was writing.

The Divine Comedy (public library) by Dante Alighieri

The Story of Davy Crockett (public library) by Enid Meadowcroft

The Little Lame Prince (public library) by Rosemary Wells

Ariel (public library) by Sylvia Plath

My copy of Ariel [was] given to me when I was twenty. Ariel became the book of my life then, drawing me to a poet with hair worthy of a Breck commercial and the incisive observational powers of a female surgeon cutting out her own heart. With little effort I visualized my Ariel perfectly. Slim, with faded black cloth, that I opened in my mind, noting my youthful signature on the cream endpaper. I turned the pages, revisiting the shape of each poem.

The Master and Margarita (public library) by Mikhail Bulgakov

Winter Trees (public library) by Sylvia Plath

Four Major Plays (public library) by Henrik Ibsen

After-Dinner Declarations (public library) by Nicanor Parra

Letters from Iceland (public library) by W.H. Auden

The Petting Zoo (public library) by Jim Carroll

Essential to anyone in search of concrete delirium.

Tractatus Logico (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Dog of Flanders (public library) by Ouida

The Prince and the Pauper (public library) by Mark Twain

The Blue Bird (public library) by Maurice Maeterlinck

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (public library) by Margaret Sidney

Little Women (public library) by Louisa May Alcott

Through the Looking-Glass (public library) by Lewis Carroll

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (public library) by Betty Smith

The Glass Bead Game (public library) by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the East (public library) by Hermann Hesse

Lolita (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (public library) by César Aira

A Night of Serious Drinking (public library) by René Daumal

Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (public library) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

The Complete Sherlock Holmes (public library) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Orphée (public library) by Jean Cocteau

The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (public library) by Bertram David Wolfe

Anthology (public library) by Artaud

The Confusions of Young Törless (public library) by Robert Musil

The Women of Cairo (public library) by Gérard De Nerval

Black Spring (public library) by Henry Miller

The Setting Sun (public library) by Osamu Dazai

No Longer Human (public library) by Osamu Dazai

Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov

Hawk Moon (public library) by Sam Shepard

A Scarcity of Love (public library) by Anna Kavan

Moby-Dick (public library) by Herman Melville

Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus (public library) by Mary Shelley

Wuthering Heights (public library) by Emily Brontë

The Beach Café (public library) by Mohammed Mrabet, translated by Paul Bowles

The Sheltering Sky (public library) by Paul Bowles

I was first introduced to Bowles in a serendipitous way. In the summer of 1967, shortly after I left home and went to New York City, I passed a large box of overturned books spilling out into the street. Several were scattered across the sidewalk, and a dated copy of Who’s Who in America lay open before my feet. I bent down to look, as a photograph caught my eye above an entry for Paul Frederic Bowles. I had never heard of him but I noticed we shared the same birthday, the thirtieth of December. Believing it to be a sign, I tore out the page and later searched out his books, the first being The Sheltering Sky. I read everything he wrote as well as his translations, introducing me to the work of Mohammed Mrabet and Isabelle Eberhardt.

Three decades later, in 1997, I was asked by German Vogue to interview him in Tangier. I had mixed feelings about my assignment, for they mentioned he was ill. But I was assured that he had readily agreed and that I would not be disturbing him. Bowles lived in a three-room apartment on a quiet street in a straightforward fifties-modern building in a residential section. A high stack of well-traveled trunks and suitcases formed a column in the entranceway. There were books lining the walls and halls, books that I knew and books I wished to know. He sat propped up in bed, wearing a soft plaid robe, and appeared to brighten when I entered the room.

I crouched down trying to find a graceful position in the awkward air. We spoke of his late wife, Jane, whose spirit seemed to be everywhere. I sat there twisting my braids, speaking about love. I wondered if he was really listening.

—Are you writing? I asked.
—No, I am no longer writing.
—How do you feel now? I asked.
—Empty, he answered.

I left him to his thoughts and went upstairs to the patio on the roof.

[…]

Everything pours forth. Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds. The spirits rose like an ether that spun an arabesque and touched down as gently as a benevolent mask.

After her Murakami-induced meditation on the two types of masterpieces, Smith herself attempts to compose a deliberate list of her favorite books. But, overwhelmed by the volume of potential candidates and bedeviled by the difficulty of drawing the line between a “masterpiece” and a book that is “merely beloved,” she eventually resigns. Shoving the piece of paper into her pocket, she concludes:

The truth is that there is only one kind of masterpiece: a masterpiece.

M Train is nothing short of a masterpiece. Devour a richer taste of it here, then revisit the lifelong reading lists of David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

For more of Smith’s reflections on a lifetime of affectionate reading, treat yourself to her wonderful conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber:

You think some things will go on forever — your children will always be small, your husband will always be alive — but time passes… Memory is our most fertile souvenir.