All readers have favorite writers, writers whom we know and love, writers whose company we enjoy though we may never meet, writers who, we feel sure, know and love us back, who understand what we think and feel.
Loving favorite writers starts so early in our reading life—A. A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, E. B. White, Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling—that we often take it for granted. Yet think for a moment: how can such a powerful emotion spring up from words on a page, a feeling not just for the words themselves but also for he or she who arranged them on that page?
I have dozens of favorite writers, P.G. Wodehouse for one. Why do I love Pelham Grenville Wodehouse? Let me count the ways. First, because his wacky sense of humor makes me laugh again and again no matter how often I read him. Second, because I love his goofy characters—Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, of course, then Gussie Fink-Nottle, Tuppy Glossop, Aunt Dahlia, Madeline Bassett—and the upper-crusty English world they inhabit.
Finally, because I admire (and envy) him as a devilishly clever writer who infuses every sentence with droll wit, and fourth because he keeps various gags running through his books that tickle me beyond my power to resist. In every Bertie and Jeeves novel, for example, brainless Bertie misquotes poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, Burns, et al, thinking that the phrases are bon mots Jeeves has invented:
I don't know if Kipper...noticed that my brow was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, as I have heard Jeeves put it.
I reached Wilbert's door and paused outside doing a bit of screwing the courage up to the sticking point as I have heard Jeeves call it.
—Jeeves in the Offing
Such repetition might annoy some readers, but I laugh every time just as I laugh every time my wife and I share some silly gag we've been repeating since the first days of our romance.
I love Homer for his unflinching descriptions of death in combat:
Meges Phyleides, the master spearman, closing with him, hit his nape; the point clove through his tongue's root and against his teeth. Biting cold bronze he fell into the dust.
—and for his metaphors drawn from daily life:
Imagine at each end of a rich man's field a line of reapers who cut a swath in the barley or wheat, and spiky clumps of grain are brought low by the scything—even so the armies moved to cut each other down.
I love Balzac how he describes money with down-to-the-centime accuracy:
[Hidden fees] bring in twenty-eight francs a day to the banking house or ten thousand two hundred and twenty francs a year. Multiply by three the average number of these "Return Accounts" and you reach an income of thirty thousand francs drawn from fictitious capital...this, in provincial bankers' language, is called "making the money sweat."
—even as he recognizes money's irrational power:
The moment money slips into a student's pocket, an imaginary pillar rises inside him for him to lounge against. His movements are freer, his deportment improves, he looks people straight in the face... Yesterday shy and humble, expecting blows; today he could strike a prime minister.
I love Dickens for his expressionistic portraits:
...feline from sole to crown was Mr. Carker the Manager as he basked in the strip of sunlight upon his table, his long nails, nicely pared and sharpened...Mr. Carker the Manager, sly of manner, sharp of foot, watchful of eye, oily of tongue, cruel of heart, nice of habit, sat with a dainty steadfastness at his work, as if he were waiting at a mouse's hole.
—Dombey and Son
—and I love Trollope for his plain ones:
Brooke Burgess was a good-looking man, with black whiskers and black hair, which, as he said, was beginning to thin on the top of his head, and pleasant small bright eyes...He was rather below the middle height, and somewhat inclined to be stout.
—He Knew He Was Right
I love George Eliot because she writes so tenderly about love: "It is almost certain that you have been in love," she writes, speaking straight to me:
If so you will [not think trivial] the slight words, the timid looks, the tremulous touches, by which two human souls approach each other gradually, like two little quivering rain streams before they mingle into one.
Add to these old cronies my pals Will Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, Raymond Chandler, James Jones, Alexander Solzhenitsyn...
Reading a good novel, I often feel that I've climbed into an invisible bubble-like space craft piloted by the author-astronaut who takes me on swooping, darting trips along the streets and alleyways of London, Moscow, or Los Angeles, into spotless kitchens and rumpled bedrooms, funky bars and chic restaurants, and into the hearts and minds of the characters:
His head felt rather dizzy; a sort of savage energy gleamed suddenly in his feverish eyes and his wasted, pale and yellow face. He had one thought only "that all this must be ended today once for all, immediately; that he would not return home without it, because he would not go on living like that." How, with what to make an end? He had not an idea about it. He drove away thought; thought tortured him.
—Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
I love the people and places my astronauts introduce me to, but even more do I love the time I get to spend sitting beside them and listening to their on-flowing spiels. Every word choice they make, the phrasing of every sentence, how long one lingers with this character or that, how often another breaks away from narrative to background—every detail gives me deeper insights into the character and quirks of my fearless pilots.
Meanwhile, I'm basking in the glow of being noticed by such a distinguished person: what, Anthony Trollope, a London literary lion, wants to talk to little me when he could be conversing with Thackeray or Disraeli? Okay then, I will have a glass of port and take my place among the bigwigs chatting by the fire!
Good writers are good friends, and good friends are good fortune. My favorite writers put into words ideas I've glimpsed but barely known how to express. As they show me how they see into the hearts of their characters, they show me how to see into the hearts of my neighbors. They paint their worlds and suddenly I can see my world more clearly. When a writer looks life in the face and describes what he sees, he or she lives in the writing—a man or woman in a see-through paper mask.
On the other side of Hamlet's pages is a human as real and mysterious, huge and humble, silly and serious, bright and cloudy as myself, and he is talking to me:
—and it's my great, great pleasure to listen and respond.