Books·My Life in Books

11 books Alice Munro loves, and you will too

Want to read like a Nobel Prize winner? They say great writers start out as great readers — so here are 11 books Alice Munro has mentioned over the years as being influential to her own life.
Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Want to read like a Nobel Prize winner? They say great writers start out as great readers — so here are 11 books Alice Munro has mentioned over the years as being influential to her own life and work.

The short story writer turns 88 on July 10, 2019.

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales

Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author who specialised in writing fairy tales. (Thora Hallager, Gramercy)

As a child, Munro remembers reading Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and changing the endings of those she didn't like. Case in point: The Little Mermaid. Munro was appalled by the story's sad ending (spoiler alert: the mermaid dies, but only after suffering terrible hardships trying to become human). Munro remembers going outside and walking around and around her house as she rewrote the story in her head to one with a happy ending.

Thornton Burgess's children's stories

Thornton Burgess was a conservationist and children's author. (Dover Publications)

Munro's grandmother used to read her stories when she was a young girl, which Munro remembers as being a wondrous experience — especially in the case of the American children's writer Thornton Burgess. "She read me all the Burgess stories," she recalls, "and it was a great disappointment when I tried to read them myself."

A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is the author of A Child's History of England. (Jeremiah Gurney - Heritage Auction Gallery, Open Road Media Teen & Tween)

In the summer of 1939, Alice Munro was sitting around the house, recovering from whooping cough, when she opened up a copy of Charles Dickens' A Child's History of England that was lying around. She devoured Dickens' historical vignettes, full of grisly deaths and beheadings. In fact, Munro credits this book with the fact that she continues to get chills as an adult when she comes upon the names of certain historical events, like "gunpowder plot." Munro didn't realize until she was an adult that the copy of the book she had cracked open in the summer of 1939 was her father's and it was also the first book he had read on his own.

William Maxwell's stories

William Maxwell was an author and served as the fiction editor of the New Yorker for 39 years. (Brookie Maxwell, Library of America)

In a 2013 interview with the Atlantic, Alice Munro called the novelist and short story writer William Maxwell her favourite North American writer. Aside from being adept with the short story form, Maxwell and Munro have something else in common: their ties to the New Yorker. As fiction editor of the venerable publication from 1936 to 1975, Maxwell just missed working with the spun gold of a Munro short story (Munro had many stories published in The New Yorker through the years). But Maxwell did work with many other greats, from J.D. Salinger to Vladimir Nabokov, Mavis Gallant to Eudora Welty, who said of him, "For fiction writers, he was the headquarters."

Stories by Maeve Brennan, Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien

Maeve Brennan, Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien we all Irish writers and each one made an impression on Alice Munro. (Michael Loccisano, Getty Images)

Munro has talked about her affinity for a triad of great Irish women writers: Maeve Brennan, Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien. Munro may have discovered Brennan, a great short story writer also praised by Edward Albee, through her column in The New Yorker in the 1960s called The Long-Winded Lady, in which the expat sardonically commented on New York City life.

Munro has cited another Irish master of the short story form, Mary Lavin, as someone she greatly enjoys reading. (With her first collection of short stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, published to great acclaim in 1943, Lavin is regarded as one of Ireland's pioneering female writers.) 

The Irish writer Edna O'Brien is someone Alice Munro has described reading and finding a 'tremendous connection' in the way she describes her youth. (O'Brien was interviewed in spring 2016 by Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio's Writers & Company.)

Anton Chekhov's short stories

Anton Chekhov is considered to be one of the greatest short story writers in history. (Modern Library)

Munro discovered Anton Chekhov's short stories as a teenager, and found "the extreme importance he'd give to ordinary life and ordinary people" a revelation — one that went on to inspire her own literary style.

Southern American writers

Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and Katherine Anne Porter all inspired the short stories of Alice Munro. (Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress, Cmacauley at English Wikipedia, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With her literary lens focused on small towns and seemingly "ordinary" people, it's no surprise that Munro feels an affinity with Southern American writers. But more importantly, Munro has pointed out that it's the great Southern women writers, especially, who were the first to really move her, saying "there was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal." Munro includes Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Ann Porter and Carson McCullers in this list. But Eudora Welty is especially adored by Munro — and she calls The Golden Apples Welty's 'supreme' book.

Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom is a Dutch novelist and the author of Rituals. (@Cees_Nooteboom/twitter.com, Penguin Books)

Munro is always reading new writers and has mentioned the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom — a frequent candidate for something Munro's already won, the Nobel Prize for literature — as a recent discovery.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights is the only novel by Emily Brontë. (Patrick Branwell Brontë, Penguin Classics)

In a 2014 Skype chat with Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro mentioned that she used to receive hate mail from people saying her stories are too depressing. She found this hard to understand, because books like Wuthering Heights made her happy.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.