Jane Smiley

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist finds diversions–and predictions–on her bookshelf.

In novels such as A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992, Jane Smiley crafts ambitious and emotionally powerful narratives that challenge readers to unravel the mysteries of intimacy. Her most recent book, Private Life, movingly explores the lives of a mismatched couple and their tenuous union, conceived under the shadow of impending war. This week, Smiley recommends works of fiction old and new as well as a sobering look at the future of America’s role as a global superpower.

Books by Jane Smiley

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

“Of all the books I reviewed in 2010, this was the one that gave me the most pure pleasure. It is very very funny, simultaneously good-hearted and deeply satirical. It actually gave me nights of good dreams (never said that about a book before). Comic novels often have somewhat limited appeal, because readers’ senses of humor are always idiosyncratic, but this one appealed to me on every page. Goldstein is forgiving toward her characters but coolly insightful about them, and though this novel begins in academia, it expands to include American culture, Orthodox Judaism, religion in general, God in particular, and what it means to live a decent life.”

Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future

By Ian Morris

“This is a long and informative book, totally readable and almost shockingly revelatory about the larger patterns of human history. It puts our era in beautiful context and helps us understand, among other things, the impact of technology on history, the importance of artificial intelligence, the rise of China, the history of religion, recent developments in archeology, the nature of civilization in the western hemisphere. Is that enough? There’s much much more. Morris is a lively writer and his ability to synthesize data and ideas is a marvel.”

He Knew He Was Right

By Anthony Trollope

“This 1869 novel by Anthony Trollope is wonderfully smart and worldly. I have read lots of Trollope, and this is my favorite–the plot is similar to Othello–jealous husband, younger wife. As often in Trollope, the suspense is almost unbearable, not because the earth is about to be destroyed, but because the consequences of small misjudgments in the lives of recognizable people with human failings are so lasting and so strongly felt. This novel is 864 pages long, but there is one line where the entire emotional meaning of the novel gels and explodes–to me that means that the whole novel is so perfectly and effortlessly written that it is like a single thought. Another great thing about He Knew He Was Right is the gallery of female characters–distinct, wonderfully rendered, and intelligent. This is the Victorian novel that I press on everyone.”