“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:
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.