Andromeda: What They Were Reading — The Books on John Updike's Desk, 2009

I love reading lists, and the ones I’m tracking down lately are the reading lists of writers at key moments in their lives. A while back, I listed the books George Orwell was reading in 1949, the last full year of his life. This week, I stumbled upon a blogpost mention about books left on John Updike’s writing desk at the time of his death in 2009, when he concluded his amazingly prolific writing career — one in which he produced nearly a book a year. A kind curator at Harvard University’s Houghton Library answered my followup query and provided the list of the books collected from Updike’s desk on Feb. 20, 2009. Evidently, these were books he was reading and consulting in relation to the final unfinished book he was writing.

As an apprentice writer, I am always interested to know how our most productive and disciplined writers live and write, how they revise or respond to editorial advice and criticism, what they read, how they continue to feed their minds. I am nearly always humbled by what I discover: working drafts of our best-known writers (often preserved in libraries — will we have these same records for future authors?) reveal the labor required to shape an evolving style, the last-minute changes that contributed to the perfection of paragraphs now so famous we might falsely imagine they sprang from their authors’ heads already perfect and unchangeable. Drafts show us the truth: that every work is a work-in-progress, as is every author. The reading lists of elder writers reveal minds challenging themselves decade after decade.

What strikes me about the Updike list: the preponderance of nonfiction and the dedication to research of all kinds. (For his first Rabbit books, Updike consulted car salesmanship manuals, kept lists of basketball moves, and studied a Planter Peanuts Bar wrapper, “lovingly pressed as an autumn leaf” according to a 2010 New York Times article, in order to describe those details and ephemera of his protagonist’s life.)

For the book he was still writing at the age of 76, when he died of lung cancer, Updike was studying the lives and ideas of ancient Romans, the history of warfare, and religious ideas. He was possibly trying to teach himself Greek, or at least looking up some words — a possibility made more poignant by the NYT mention that at Harvard, where the ambitious farmboy often fretted about losing his scholarship, Updike was found to have a limited aptitude for languages (he finally dropped French) and his final examiners noted his “weak grasp of classical literature.”

Even Updike (who published not only novels but essays and poetry, including a final poignant collection in 2009 that addresses themes of aging and illness) had some weak spots in his education –weaknesses he either surmounted or perhaps felt he was laboring to surmount. All this is conjecture, of course. Updike had a clear vision of who he was and what he hoped to do at a very young age and he worked at that goal to the very end.

More information on the Updike archive at Houghton Library, which provided this list, here and here. The processing of the Updike collection, with integration of new materials following the author’s death, is expecting to be finished in 2012.

From left to right, on the desk:

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam, 1953.

Roget’s Thesaurus. London: Penguin, 1954.

F. Kinchin Smith and T.W. Melluish, Teach Yourself Greek. London: English Universities Press, 1954. New York train receipt between pages 72 and 73. Shakespeare course description between pages 314 and 315.

King James Bible. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode. On back free endpaper, in pencil: “For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live forever. – Deut. 33:40”

The New Testament. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: North Point Press, 1996.
Annotations in pencil on back free endpaper and pastedown, annotations throughout, several page markers.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. Baltimore: Penguin, 1957. Penciled annotations throughout. Signed drawing marking pages 144-145.

Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Penguin, 1956. Penciled annotations throughout.

Amanda Claridge. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Paper markers set at page 168 and 174.

Robin Lane Fox. Pagans and Christians. New York: Knopf, 1986. Uncorrected proof copy. Markers at pages 30 and 280.

Henry Chadwick. The Early Church. Penguin, 1984. Ink and pencil annotations throughout. Markers at pages 24 and 54.

Edith Hamilton. The Roman Way to Western Civilization. New York: Mentor Books, 1963. Page 47 is dog-eared.

A Lexicon, abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958. Marker at page 578.

Colm Luibheid, ed. The Essential Eusebius. New York: Mentor Books, 1966. Penciled annotations on reverse of back cover.

George F.X. Griffith. The Last Years of Saint Paul. Facsimile of 1906 Longmans edition. Penciled annotations throughout.

A.N. Wilson. Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. New York: Norton, 1997. Annotations throughout; markers at pages 50, 76 (photocopy of information on Paul), 112 (newspaper clipping, “Laborers’ burial site excavated near Rome”), 178, 248.

Garry Wills. What Paul Meant. Penguin, 2007. Penciled annotations throughout.

John Keegan. A History of Warfare. Dust jacket marking page 12. New York: Knopf, 1993. Penciled annotations throughout. Paper marker at page 262.

Graham Webster. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 4 pages of notes on yellow legal paper marking page 90.

Karl Barth. The Epistle to the Romans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968. Annotations throughout. Markers on pages 110, 164, 180, 218.

The New Complete Works of Josephus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999. Markers on page 40 and 650. Annotation throughout.

Henryk Sienkiewicz. Quo Vadis. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993. Markers on pages 66, 338, 468.

Mircea Eliade. A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 2. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. Annotations throughout.

Webster’s New Pocket Dictionary. Cleveland: Wiley, 2000.

1 thought on “Andromeda: What They Were Reading — The Books on John Updike's Desk, 2009”

  1. Jack De Bellis

    congratulations on good work in allowing us to glimpse the last moments of Updike's creativity.

    Jack De Bellis

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