The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
The Catcher in the Rye has always had special meaning for me because I read it when I was young – 18 or so. It resonated with my fantasies about Manhattan, the Upper East Side, and New York City in general. It was such a relief from all the other books I was reading at the time, which all had a quality of homework about them. For me, reading Middlemarch or Sentimental Education is work, whereas The Catcher in the Rye is pure pleasure. The burden of entertainment was on the author. Salinger fulfilled that obligation from the first sentence on.
When I was younger reading was something you did for school, something you did for obligation, something you did if you wanted to take out a certain kind of woman. It wasn't something I did for fun. But Catcher in the Rye was different. It was amusing, it was in my vernacular, and the atmosphere held great emotional resonance for me. I reread it on a few occasions and I always get a kick out of it.
Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe (1946)
I learned over the years – by meeting legitimate jazz musicians who knew Mezzrow and the people he wrote about in the book – that this memoir was filled with apocryphal stories. But it had a great impact on me because I was learning to be a jazz clarinet player, like Mezzrow, and learning to play the idiom of music that he and Bernard Wolfe wrote about. The story, while probably just a lot of junk, was compelling for me because it was about many musicians whose work I knew and admired and the ins and outs of jazz joints that I knew about and the legendary songs that were played in the legendary nightclubs. So I had a great time reading it when my own jazz passion was forming. But I know it's not a very good or even a very honest book.
The World of SJ Perelman (2000)
The funniest human being in my lifetime, in any medium – whether it's stand-up, television, theatre, prose, or movies – is SJ Perelman. The early stuff was a little wild, not nearly as subtle or as good. As he developed over the years, his stuff became relentlessly sensational.
There are many collections of Perelman that are filled with great things. This one, which I wrote the foreword to, has a number of spectacular pieces. Because the editors did it chronologically, my own opinion is that the first four essays are weaker. Once you hit the fifth casual, as the New Yorker called them, he hits his stride and the rest of them are absolute comic genius. As funny as you can get.
Those of us who grew up with Perelman found it impossible to avoid his influence. He had such a strong, inventive style.
Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis (1880)
I just got this in the mail one day. Some stranger in Brazil sent it and wrote, "You'll like this". Because it's a thin book, I read it. If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it.
I was shocked by how charming and amusing it was. I couldn't believe he lived as long ago as he did. You would've thought he wrote it yesterday. It's so modern and so amusing. It's a very, very original piece of work. It rang a bell in me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye did. It was about subject matter that I liked and it was treated with great wit, great originality and no sentimentality.
Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel (2005)
It's the best showbusiness book that I've read. It's brilliantly written and it's about a brilliant director who was very meaningful to me when I was growing up and becoming a film-maker. Schickel understands Kazan; he understands Tennessee Williams; he understands Marlon Brando; he understands A Streetcar Named Desire. He writes with great historical knowledge, insight and liveliness. Showbusiness books are usually not worth reading. They're just silly and shallow. But this is a fabulous book. Whatever you think of Kazan politically, it has nothing to do with the fact that the guy was a great director.