David Thomson's 6 favorite books about the creative process and its effects

The veteran film writer recommends works by Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen Sondheim, and more

David Thomson offers his favorite books.
(Image credit: Michael Lionstar)

The veteran film writer recommends works by Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen Sondheim, and more:

Like a Rolling Stone by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $17). In June 1965, Bob Dylan recorded his highest-charting hit, "Like a Rolling Stone," and here Greil Marcus creates a 283-page biography of the song, its impact, and its following over the years. It's a lesson in listening to the ripples made by an original sound.

The Authentic Death & Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid by Paul Seydor (Northwestern, $30). Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Western was a disaster as a factory-made film, with the director and the studio both left thirsting for blood. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was hacked apart, but it found life again and now looks like a masterpiece. This is a story of the kind of collaboration that takes decades and many hands.

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The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov (New Directions, $15). This was Nabokov's first novel in English, published in 1941. V, the narrator, is writing a book about his dead half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight, and his research launches a journey of erotic melancholy and misappropriated identity. It's an inspired account of truth fighting desire in writing.

Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf, $45 each). How does Sondheim do what he does? Here's the best answer, in two volumes of collected lyrics with brilliant, perverse, surly, funny sidebars that have changed what a sidebar can contain.

Everything Is Happening by Michael Jacobs (Granta, $20 in e-book form). Velazquez's 1656 group portrait Las Meninas ("Maids of Honor") depicts the artist painting the gloomy and entrapped members of the Spanish royal court. Jacobs' inspiring literary investigation of the painting makes you feel you could walk into its room and talk to the Infanta Margarita Teresa.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Vintage, $16). In this modern classic, the persistence of the architects, planners, politicians, and profiteers who built the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 parallels the dark passion and dedication with which H.H. Holmes, a pharmacist and inventor, turned himself into a serial killer.

David Thomson's latest book, How to Watch a Movie, is a guide to appreciating the artistry and mystery of great cinema.

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