Donna Tartt's favourite books that inspired The Secret History and The Goldfinch

Shelves of classic books
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It's always been a challenge to learn more about Donna Tartt. She's known for hiding away in-between book releases (usually once a decade, most recently The Goldfinch in 2013 and The Little Friend in 2002, which suggests that a new book should be coming soon).

That said, in the interviews that Donna Tartt has agreed to, there's been one recurring question: what are her favourite books?

For this post, I've sifted through these interviews to curate a list of Donna Tartt's favourite books. I've tried to avoid anything speculative here, including which books she might like best by favourite authors she's mentioned. Of these, there are many.

In an interview with Rivista Studio in 2021, Donna Tartt shared her “worshipped writers”:

“Homer, the Greek poets and tragedians, Dante and Shakespeare are my constant touchstones. I went back and read Macbeth and Hamlet during the pandemic. I also venerate Dickens, Nabokov, Proust, Dostoevsky, Yeats, Borges, Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, Salinger, Virginia Woolf. Dickens was a part of my familial landscape, the air I breathed.”

These writers overlap with those described by Donna Tartt as "the ones who made me want to become a writer", which are mostly from the 19th century: "Dickens, Melville, James, Conrad, Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, with Dickens probably coming first in that list."

Donna Tartt has also shared her favourite contemporary novelists (despite, in another interview, refusing to do so for fear of being “gossipy”): “I love Edward St. Aubyn, Haruki Murakami, Olga Tokarczuk, Don DeLillo, W.G. Sebald, Joan Didion."

Elsewhere, Tartt shared: "As far as 20th-century novelists go, I love Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Don DeLillo; and of the 21st century, my two favorites so far are Edward St. Aubyn and Paul Murray."

I previously shared a list of the books mentioned in The Secret History, and there are some overlaps with this collection of Donna Tartt’s favourites. Read on for literary inspiration to add to your to-read list while waiting for Donna Tartt's next book...

The curated list of Donna Tartt's favourite books

1. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

In a 2021 interview, Rivista Studio asked Donna Tartt if she remembered the first book she read. She replied: "I certainly do: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It’s still a book I love."

There are so many gorgeously editions of The Wind in the Willows, but I love this Union Square hardcover with illustrations by renowned artist Robert Ingpen.

This book about four enchanting and endearing protagonists – Mole, Mr. Toad, Badger, and Ratty – is one of the most beautiful children's books of all time, and just as perfect for grown readers to retreat into.

Donna Tartt shared some of her other favourite children's books with The New York Times: "As a child I adored Huckleberry Finn and Peter Pan. As a teenager: Franny Glass. In my 20s: Agatha Runcible."

2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Donna Tartt has shared how she went back and read Macbeth and Hamlet during the pandemic. She added: "Homer, the Greek poets and tragedians, Dante and Shakespeare are my constant touchstones."

3. Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glück

"As a reader I love poetry more than novels and turn to poetry more often for inspiration. I was thrilled when Louise Glück won the Nobel as she’s one of my favorite living poets," shared Tartt in 2021.

Madeline Miller, author of Circe and The Song of Achilles, has also shared her admiration for Louise Glück, a writer who has written about the Greek myth inspiring Miller's novel-in-progress, Persephone.

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

In 2013, Donna Tartt chose Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov as her favourite book. However, she added, "Ask me tomorrow and I'll probably say something else."

On a similar note, here's what Donna Tartt shared she's looking for in a good book: "To paraphrase Nabokov: all I want from a book is the tingle down the spine, for my hairs to stand on end."

5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

In an interview with Independent.ie, Donna Tartt shared how influential Charles Dickens' writing was on her early years: "I was entranced by Oliver Twist. It was the first book I read with real blood and death in it. I would worry about Oliver all day at school."

About Dickens’ influence on The Goldfinch, in which Theo becomes an orphan with a mysterious benefactor, Tartt has shared: “Theo’s setup is Dickensian. I love Dickens a lot and just kind of internalize him.”

6. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Donna Tartt has said of her favourite comfort writing: "I always have a comfort book going too, something I’ve read many times, and for me at the moment that comfort book is Raymond Chandler’s 'The Big Sleep.'"

7. The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly

In an interview with The New York Times, Donna Tartt shared: "I’ve always got a dozen books going, which is why my suitcases are always so heavy."

In the same piece, she commented that The Unquiet Grave has long been one of her favorite books (an enduring classic described by Hemingway as "a book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough"):

"I certainly haven’t enjoyed anything more than 'The Unquiet Grave,' by Cyril Connolly, which I went back and reread sometime early this year. I’ve loved it since I was a teenager and like always to have it to hand; when I lived in France, years ago, it was one of only six books I carried with me — but because of its aphoristic nature, usually I only read bits and pieces of it, and it’s been many years since I read the whole thing start to finish."

8. The Iliad by Homer

The Iliad is one of the many books mentioned in The Secret History. In one interaction, Henry says to Charles: "The descriptions of Troy in the Iliad are horrible to me – all flat land and burning sun. No. I’ve always been drawn to broken, wild terrain.”

When asked about overrated and disappointing books, Donna Tartt replied: "I don’t like Hemingway. And I know I don’t love 'Ulysses' as much as I am supposed to — but then again, I never cared even one-tenth so much for the 'Odyssey' as I do for the 'Iliad.'” 

9. The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau

In 2013, Donna Tartt shared with The New York Times: "At the moment: Am greatly enjoying the Neversink Library reissue of Jean Cocteau’s 'Difficulty of Being,' since my copy from college is so torn up the pages are falling out."

This book is a memoir of reflections on life and art from the legendary filmmaker-novelist-poet-genius, first published in 1947.

10. Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford

Donna Tartt shared her favourite books of the pandemic in 2021; books that were new to her, though none by living writers: Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford, All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, and A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq.

All three of these novels are about German history, interestingly. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw walks the line between autobiography and fiction, leading us from the Kaiser's Germany into the wider Europe of the 1920s and the limbo between world wars.

In this world-shaping era, the narrator, Billi, tells the story of her apprenticeship to life and her many teachers along the way.


For more Donna Tartt-inspired books to add to your reading list, here are the 30+ books mentioned in her fan-favorite dark academia novel, The Secret History.

 
 

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