Stephanie Kelley

Interviews by Stephanie Kelley

The Best Self-Help Novels, recommended by Beth Blum

Since the publication of Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help (1859) in Victorian Britain, self-help has become a billion dollar industry—and its influence is even felt in the contemporary novel, says Harvard literary scholar Beth Blum, author of The Self-Help Compulsion, a new history of the rise of self-help narratives in modern literature.

The Best Elena Ferrante Books, recommended by Sarah Chihaya and Merve Emre

From her early novellas to the Neapolitan quartet, the elusive Elena Ferrante has achieved deserved superstar status for the compulsively readable, addictive quality of her writing. Two of the authors of The Ferrante Letters, Sarah Chihaya and Merve Emre, introduce us to Ferrante and recommend what to read next after My Brilliant Friend.

The Best Iris Murdoch Books, recommended by Miles Leeson

Iris Murdoch gained fame as a novelist, a philosopher and, perhaps most prominently of all, for her public and rapid decline (and posthumous immortalization by her husband John Bayley) after an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. But now, a hundred years on from her birth, the attention is returning back to her work: Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Chichester, recommends what books to read from her canon of 27 novels.

The best books on Witches and Witchcraft, recommended by Diane Purkiss

For centuries, the witch has been an index not only of what we fear most in others, but also what we cannot cope with—the powerfully abnormal, strange and often irrational elements—in ourselves. And the best way to understand the history of witches and witchcraft is to first understand the supernatural, according to Diane Purkiss, Professor at Keble College, Oxford and author of the lauded book The Witch in History.

The Best Fiction of 2019, recommended by Peter Florence

Each year, a panel of esteemed judges reads over 100 novels to determine which titles will vie for the award of the Booker Prize for Fiction. Peter Florence, chair of the 2019 judges and founder of the famous Hay Festival, tells us why the books on this year’s shortlist are gripping, enthralling must-reads.

The Best George Orwell Books, recommended by D J Taylor

Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a lauded biography of Orwell and a forthcoming biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.

The best books on True Crime, recommended by Cara Robertson

Why do women kill? What does violence tell us about human nature? How do the methods of the criminal justice system speak to an era? Cara Robertson—a lawyer, author and expert on the famous Lizzie Borden case—picks five true crime books that deal in murder, individual psychology, public trials and justice.

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer: A Reading List, recommended by Jenni Nuttall

Troilus and Criseyde has a centuries’ old backstory. Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.

The best books on Friendship, recommended by Lauren Mechling

Friendships: they can be hard to keep and even harder to understand. Yet so often they end up having enormous impacts on our lives. Lauren Mechling, contributing editor at Vogue and author of the novel How Could She, picks the novelists that best portray the thorny underside of friendship as well as its joys.

The Canterbury Tales: A Reading List, recommended by Marion Turner

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales not only revolutionized English poetry—they’re also extremely funny and moving. Oxford Professor Marion Turner, who has written the first full-length biography of Chaucer in a generation, tells us about the extraordinary man who wrote them and why we should all read the Canterbury Tales. 

The best books on Ralph Waldo Emerson, recommended by James Marcus

Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.

The Best Prose Poetry, recommended by Jeremy Noel-Tod

It’s not quite poetry, yet not quite prose: the prose poem is “the defining poetic invention of modernity,” argues Jeremy Noel-Tod, editor of The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. Here he chooses five of the best prose poems from Arthur Rimbaud to Claudia Rankine.

Sylvia Plath Books, recommended by Tim Kendall

Though biographical sensation has often diverted attention from her work, Sylvia Plath remains one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century, argues Professor Tim Kendall, Academic Director of Arts and Culture at Exeter and author of Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. Here, he recommends the best places to start (or return to) with Plath, from a fresh look at Ariel to illuminating an oft-overlooked, brilliant appendix in her unabridged journals.

The Best Poetry to Read in 2019, recommended by Jamie McKendrick

Looking for recent collections of poetry to read this year? Longtime Faber poet and virtuosic translator Jamie McKendrick recommends the five best poetry books he’s read in the last year, from a peculiar book of grief by Anne Carson to a long-awaited volume by Michael Hofmann.

The best books on Grief, recommended by Sophie Ratcliffe

We often think of bereavement in terms of deep melancholy or gentle sadness, but “grief behaves badly and grief is risk-taking”, says Sophie Ratcliffe, Oxford literary critic and author of the memoir The Lost Properties of Love. Here, she recommends five books that may act as a balm for those who have lost someone, and says that the act of reading—any book, any poem—can be consoling.

The Best Daphne du Maurier Books, recommended by Laura Varnam

Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University’s Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist’s sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.

The best books on Dickens and Christmas, recommended by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

When it was published on December 19th, 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was an instant classic. As families settle in front of the fire to read it aloud on Christmas Eve, Oxford Professor of English Literature Robert Douglas-Fairhurst runs through the best of Dickens’s prolific writings about Christmas.

The Best Fiction of 2018, recommended by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Looking for the best novels of the year? Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at New York University and chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction, gives an in-depth breakdown of the six books that made this year’s shortlist, and reflects on why the novel as a form is stronger than ever.

The best books on The Odyssey, recommended by Emily Wilson

The Odyssey has been constantly rewritten by centuries of writers, but like so much of Greek myth, it's always already open to revising its own narrative. Emily Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, recommends the best books to read after (or alongside) the Ancient Greek epic, and offers sage wisdom about both translating ancient epics and why everyone can learn from the Odyssey today.

The best books on Personality Types, recommended by Merve Emre

Since its birth in the early twentieth century, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become the most popular personality test in the world. Here, Merve Emre, author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, recommends five books that reveal how the language of ‘type’ has seeped into the marrow of American civic institutions and social life—from Fortune 500 companies to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

David Russell on The Victorian Essay

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the Spectator were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

The best books on Sex in Victorian Literature, recommended by Claire Jarvis

We often assume the Victorians had puritanical attitudes to sex, but this was far from the reality. From familiar classics to neglected gems, Claire Jarvis—Stanford academic and author of Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage and the Novel Form—selects the best books on sex in Victorian literature.

The Best Samuel Taylor Coleridge Books, recommended by Seamus Perry

The reputation of Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge has long been overshadowed by William Wordsworth, his friend and Lyrical Ballads co-author. Oxford professor Seamus Perry talks us through the books that showcase Coleridge’s idiosyncratic brilliance.  

The best books on Adam and Eve, recommended by Stephen Greenblatt

Who were Adam and Eve, really? Over many centuries, the origin story has undergone countless transformations. The Pulitzer Prize-winner and Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt chooses five books that explore the history of Adam and Eve, and tells us why the world isn’t ready to leave the narrative of Eden behind