In No Particular Order: Six Books That Have Influenced Stuart Dybek

By Howard Simmons

For writer Stuart Dybek, the crafting of a list is a jumping off point—a way to organize a conversation. While the following books were chosen for this list—works that have proven an inspiration to Dybek, "At different times of life it's going to be different books. On different days, it'll be different books."

Dybek's choices speak to integration, a culling of material that creates a dialogue between the author and reader, past and present, creation and creator.

1 and 2: Odessa Stories and Red Calvary by Isaac Babel. The discovery of the Russian author was purely happenstance: discovered in a bookstore on an island in the Caribbean where Dybek lived at the time, it was a purchase influenced by his love of author Russian authors, such as Chekhov and Dostoevsky. "He wasn't in any of the anthologies that one would have happened upon in one class or another or on their own as an undergraduate." The effect of reading him, Dybek said, was instantaneous, likening it to the experience of listening to Chopin's nocturnes. "It was so compressed, so jewel-like." With only the few stories available, he rationed them to one an evening, resisting the urge to consume them in one sitting.

"Babel's work, for me, was just out-and-out gorgeousness, the sheer beauty of the imagery, the luminous concentration of the language and within the concentration every pallet of human emotion, was just as complete as a novelist."

3: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. "In some ways, it's a spectacular collection of prose poems using theme and variation as a way to form the book rather than a linear narrative." In addition to the beauty of the language, the integration of folk sources into the work "enhances its modernity" rather than making it seem a work that's looking back. "It was a huge urge in the early to mid-20th century. For instance, maybe the classical composer who's most famous for it is Bela Bartok, but you can name any number of other composers who did the same thing. They took this kind of modern vocabulary and then crossed it with these folk elements. Calvino was a particularly wonderful example of somebody who figured out how to do that hybrid, that integration of influences."

4: In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. One of the ways Hemingway created his style had to do with what to leave out. Dybek cites "Big Two-Hearted River" as a great example of Hemingway's ability to put something in without putting it in. "His intention was that the reader would feel it." For Dybek, the choice of what not to put in a story is an important technique of modernist writers, and poets in particular.

5: The stories of Franz Kafka. "In many of his stories, I get a sense that the action is dreamlike, but it's as if I'm experiencing the dream, with all its magic and power and tact rather than listening to somebody telling a dream."

Works like "The Metamorphosis" and "A Country Doctor" "make you realize that all this wild imagery and these great stories that just occur to us every night that make every living human being an artist..., it can be very valuable in writing poems and stories." The incorporation of dreams and dreamlike imagery is freeing for an artist. "That associative way of thinking can be very valuable in writing. It's a way of thinking that takes you to places that, say, narrative thinking won't."

6: Imitations by Robert Lowell. "(It's) just a book I love. I read it early on … when I was twenty. I was just starting to get a glimpse at world literature, and that book was such a doorway into writers I didn't have familiarity with." While Lowell was criticized at the time of the work's publication, Dybek sees the writer's integration of original poetry with the works of other poets as a "logical step beyond that kind of—today we call it ‘sampling' almost—that kind of sampling that was going on in Eliot and especially Pound and the Cantos. Here was Lowell taking Montale or Pasternak... or any of the wonderful choices of writers that he made in that book, and integrating his own poems with them, sometimes cutting parts of their poems out, changing their lines, restructuring things." It inspired Dybek to seek out the original works of such sampled writers as Pasternak. "It wasn't an either/or."