Thom Barthelmess

My favorite thing in the world is discovering a new favorite book I didn’t even know I was looking for. That’s the library right there.

What did you like to read when you were young? 

I actually wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. My parents were both professors of Latin and Greek and ancient history. They studied dead languages that weren’t even spoken any more. The written word sat on a pedestal in our house, and resisting reading was my form of rebellion, I suppose. Still, words and reading were all around me, and they became a big part of my identity anyhow. And I do remember loving some books as a child, especially poetry by A.A. Milne and Ogden Nash. 

What five desert island books would you choose? 

I can choose five, but ask again in an hour and I bet you’d get a completely different selection. But, for the moment, I choose: 

Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt 

I really love a poem, and this book digs into poetry in ways that you can spend lots of time with. 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 

I can’t get enough of the florid language and deep humanity, plus, it reminds me of my dad. 

The Boy with Flowers in His Hair by Jarvis 

This one is as close to a perfect picture book as I know, with so much to pore over and study. I could return to it again and again. 

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers 

This book is just so sad. I love a sad book. I have probably read it more times than any other book, and I’m sure I’ll read it some more. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

I love the lyrical magic of the language and the convoluted storytelling. 

Is there a book that changed the way you see the world? 

I loved the book Spectacles by Ellen Raskin. I still love it. Ellen Raskin is the only person to win the Newbery Medal (for The Westing Game, in 1979) and do the original cover art for another Newbery Medal winner (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, in 1963). She was an artist and a puzzle fanatic, and those two elements came together in Spectacles. It’s a picture book with a pretty simple premise: a young girl needs glasses and keeps mistaking ordinary people and objects for extraordinary things. On one page we see the outline and hear her description of the dragon or stallion or giant bird, and on the next we see what’s really there, inside the same outline. On the surface it’s a fun play on optical illusions. But deep down it offers a profound message about the importance of looking past what we think we see in order to appreciate people for who they really are. It’s something I carry with me to this day.  

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