How to Read Like Mark Twain

Step one: Pretend you don’t like books

Twain reading
Twain, pictured in 1902, was an eager reader of fiction, verse and non-fiction alike. Library of Congress

“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:

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $12

This article is a selection from the September 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Most of Charles Dickens

(Library of Congress)

“My brother used to try to get me to read Dickens, long ago,” Twain said the year before his death. “I couldn’t do it.” Actually, though, young Twain knew some Dickens novels by heart. Echoes of Our Mutual Friend can be found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Astronomy books

(Alamy)

Gribben says Twain “read and annotated every popular book published on astronomy”—and it shows in works such as his Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. Twain was also inspired by the poet-astronomer Omar Khayyám, writing a poem in Khayyám’s style.

Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters

(Archive.org)

Throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and his friend Joe Harper act out scenes from Robin Hood. Gribben discovered that the characters are quoting a specific version of the tale, Joseph Cundall’s 1841 classic, which Twain may have read as a child. “We used to undress & play Robin Hood in our shirt-tails,” Twain reminisced in a letter.

Abolitionist literature

(UNC Library)

Before writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—which uses the n-word 215 times—Twain read antislavery novels and slave narratives, including William Still’s Underground Railroad. Twain captured the vernacular of the antebellum South,
but it didn’t reflect his views when he completed the book in 1884, says Gribben, who edited a 2011 version of Huckleberry Finn without the slur.

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.