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Roger Ebert's Favorite Books

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic’s obsession with celluloid was closely rivaled by his passion for print. Here, in his own words, some of his most treasured reads. (Book descriptions are from Ebert's 2011 memoir Life Itself.)

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Toys of a Lifetime
Arnold Gingrich 370 pages | 1969

"Long ago I read a book called The Toys of a Lifetime by Arnold Gingrich, the founder of Esquire. In it he writes of his acquired tastes in clothing, automobiles, furniture, music, books, gloves, ties, aftershaves, and on and on. He spent a great deal of time on the ritual of shaving. All I had ever used was lime Barbasol from a can and a Gillette blade."

"What Pauline Kael once told me she did: 'I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.' That was useful, and from another critic I found a talisman...The Immediate Experience by Robert Warshow. He wrote, 'A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.' By this he meant that the critic has to set aside theory and ideology, theology and politics, and open himself to—well, the immediate experience. More than once in my early years his words allowed me to find an approach to writing about movies I didn’t understand, like Bergman’s Persona the first time I saw it. I wrote about what happened to me."

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Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking
Kenneth H.C. Lo 229 pages | 1972

"[Y]ou can’t throw away a book. Not even a cookbook from which we have prepared only a single recipe, for it is a meal preserved, in printed form. The very sight of Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking by Kenneth H. C. Lo quickens my pulse. Its pages are stained by broth, sherry, soy sauce, and chicken fat, and so thoroughly did I master it that I once sought out Ken Lo’s Memories of China on Ebury Street in London and laid eyes on the great man himself, dining alone in a little room near the entrance. A book like that, you’re not gonna throw away."

"Some [books] are enchanted because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word. They’re shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most were used, and I remember where I found each one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady bookstore on the Left Bank in 1965 (two dollars, today ninety-one). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Town, where Irving Freeman claimed he had half a million books. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used bookstore."

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By Love Possessed
James Gould Cozzens 576 pages | 1998

"My books are the subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs, and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may need to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, forty-seven novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 best seller by James Gould Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read through that year’s list of fiction best sellers and surfaced with a scowl. I remember reading the novel late into the night when I was fourteen, stirring restlessly with the desire to be possessed by love...with fascination for the adult character entirely outside my experience."

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Penrod
Booth Tarkington 208 pages | 2007

"Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or else every book I have owned since I was seven...I still have all the Penrod books, and every time I look at them, I’m reminded of Tarkington’s inventory of the contents of Penrod’s pants pockets. After reading it a third time, as a boy, I jammed my pockets with a pocketknife, a Yo-Yo, marbles, a compass, a stapler, an oddly shaped rock, a hardball, a ball of rubber bands and three jawbreakers. These, in an ostensible search for a nickel, I emptied out on the counter of Harry Rusk’s grocery, so that Hary Rusk could see that I was a Real Boy."

"In my teens I began to read Thomas Wolfe, and felt I’d met my soul mate. From a small town he went north to Harvard and then to the great city of New York. He was a Writer, filled with fierce energy, pouring out a stream of passionate prose. His hero stalked through the stacks of the Harvard library, feeling driven to read every book. On the train north, he had dreamed of the soft white thighs of the farm women of the night. He walked the campus, uttering wild goat cries to the moon. Through my window, a lonesome train whistle blew. My chin made a puddle of sweat on my neck. No writer since has been able to sweep me up like Thomas Wolfe when I was thirteen and fourteen. I read all his novels nonstop. We all grow less sweepable. I read Look Homeward, Angel again a few years ago and expected it to seem overwrought and dated, but it held up pretty well. Then I began again on Of Time and the River but got bogged down. I still have my Universal Library reprints of The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, but they remain on the shelf."

"All the King’s Men, recommended to me by the lady at Robeson’s Book Department. I read it four or five times, absorbed in its portrait of its hero Jack Burden, the cynical newspaper reporter and enabler for the corrupt governor."

Not Available for Purchase
The Hidden Persuaders
Vance Packard 200 pages | 2007

"I’d joined the Book-of-the-Month Club with a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate from my aunt Martha, at a time when few books were as much as five dollars. I read...countless science fiction books. Erle Stanley Gardner. The angry screeds of Vance Packard, like The Hidden Persuaders with the attack on 'ad men' and its photos discovering subliminal images of genitalia in the ice cubes of vodka ads."

"I took a class on William Faulkner and Willa Cather and was introduced to the power of Cather's stories and the clarity of her prose, as clear as running water."

"I had a bookcase in which I carefully arranged first childhood books, then books about Tarzan, Penrod, the Hardy Boys, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Also Huckleberry Finn, the first real book I ever read and still the best."