How to Read Like Mark Twain

Step one: Pretend you don’t like books

Twain, pictured in 1902, was an eager reader of fiction, verse and non-fiction alike. (Library of Congress)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

“I have no liking for novels or stories,” Mark Twain once wrote—and often repeated.

You’d have to be as gullible as the boys who whitewashed Tom Sawyer’s fence to believe the famous writer didn’t read, but the 19th-century literati still fell for it, dismissing Twain as unsophisticated. “Even today there are those who look down their nose at Twain as an unrefined upstart,” says Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University.

In truth, Twain was a voracious reader, and Gribben has spent almost 50 years compiling a list of the 3,000 books in Twain’s library, which was scattered after his death. The scholar has also zeroed in on hundreds of works that influenced Twain’s writing, including these titles:

Paradise Lost

(DEA Picture Library / The Granger Collection)

In 1900, Twain applied his much-quoted maxim about classics to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was, Twain said in a lecture, “something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Except Twain, who read it, loved it and bought a second copy for his wife. He also wrote his own versions of the story.

About Terena Bell

Terena Bell is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian and Quartz.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus