Anna Della Subin is the author of Accidental Gods, a study of the many men, from Julius Caesar to Gandhi, who have been deified by contemporaries. Below, Subin recommends the books on religion, myth, and history that have most inspired her.
Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson (1986).
I often revisit Carson's lyrical meditation on love, language, and loss, which weaves together deep readings of Sappho, Plato, and other ancient Greek authors to reflect on desire, sacred and profane. This book opened up new perspectives for me as to what literature could do. Buy it here.
The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport (1981).
Reading Davenport taught me how to write. In this inimitable essay collection, he roves across literatures and cultures, from prehistoric cave paintings to modernist poetry, teasing out surprising connections and bringing us right up to the mysteries of being human. There is an entire universe inside this book. Buy it here.
The Birth-mark by Susan Howe (1993).
Howe has called herself "a library cormorant" — a creature that stalks the bookshelves and that I can relate to. Here, the poet takes us to the wilderness landscapes of early America, where Puritans and female prophets, Melville, Dickinson, and Howe's own ancestors haunt the archives. These experimental essays pose questions of law, freedom, and the wildness of the mind. Buy it here.
Alone of All Her Sex by Marina Warner (1976).
This is a powerful study of the Virgin Mary — the textual fragments, icons, and relics that constructed our ideas of her and of the feminine, from the Gospels to today. Many of Warner's books, which range across mythology, criticism, and memoir, have been scriptures for me. Buy it here.
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (1949).
It's hard to know where to begin with Thomas Merton, the poet-monk who was perhaps the 20th century's greatest mystical mind and also profoundly engaged in the politics of his time. One starting point is this classic set of reflections on solitude, spiritual searching, and the strange state of being alive. Buy it here.
Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (1984).
Is what we see around us real, or is it all an illusion? Wendy Doniger, a former professor of mine, illuminates a constellation of myths from ancient India — accounts of collective dreaming, ephemeral cities, a girl who lives inside a stone—in a book that blends immense erudition with mischievous wit and is impossible to forget. Buy it here.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.