Matt Burriesci is the author of Nonprofit (New Issues Press, January 2015) and Dead White Guys: A Father, his Daughter, and the Great Books of the Western World (Viva Editions, paperback, June 2015). He began his career at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, and later served as executive director for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. While at AWP, he helped build the largest literary conference in North America and served as a national advocate for literature and the humanities. He lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Erin, and their children, Violet and Henry.
On your nightstand now:
The three there now:
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. It's unfortunate that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is better known, because this is the best book he ever wrote. By a mile. It's more than 40 years old, but remains contemporary and relevant, and when it begins to get tedious (as all presidential campaigns do), Thompson manages to fly off the handle on guns, grass, Nixon and America. When he was good, nobody could touch Thompson. White-hot prose and unique. I wish he had lived to see Sarah Palin.
The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides/Robert Strassler). A beautiful book that's difficult to get through because you get lost in the footnotes, maps and commentary. An invaluable, almost unbelievable act of scholarship.
Daredevil Omnibus vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis. I'm a big comic book fan, and I think Bendis's run on Daredevil is one of the best comic stretches of all time. Netflix better get it right!
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. My parents thought it was just a goofy comic book, but it was a violent, subversive, X-rated critique of the entire 1980s. I was 12 when I read it, and I couldn't believe anyone could put that sort of thing in print--it was sex, violence, heresy and treason--and yet it captured an essential truth about that weird period. It's strange to me that we don't really worry about nuclear Armageddon anymore. That threat lurked beneath everything when I was a kid. When I remember what it felt like to grow up in the 1980s, I think of The Dark Knight Returns.
Your top five authors:
Plato. No other author changed my mind so much as Plato. It's also terrific writing--accessible, challenging, funny, and always profound. The Seventh Letter is particularly hilarious to me, having once entertained grand ideas about changing a big organization.
Plutarch. I think there should be a new law: every presidential candidate should have to read Plutarch's Lives. If you don't read it, you can't be president.
Shakespeare. People forget: Shakespeare made his living entertaining people. When I was 21, I was lucky enough to watch a world-class production of Hamlet about 40 times. (I was the guy in the back of the theater shushing school kids on field trips.) I consider it one of the greatest gifts of my life. There has not been a writer like Shakespeare since Shakespeare. And he didn't even bother to write all of this down! After he died, the actors in his troupe decided, "Okay, someone should really preserve this. We should get together and recite our parts, and somebody should write it down. It seems important."
Ernest Hemingway. Shocking, no-nonsense diction. It's harder than it looks. "The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is one of the best stories I have ever read about the condition of simply being a man on the planet Earth.
Joyce Carol Oates. Just for versatility, volume and sheer brilliance. Does this woman sleep? Has she secretly cloned herself? Black Water--holy moley! Talk about managing time in a narrative--the whole book takes place while a woman is drowning. Are you kidding me?
Book you've faked reading:
The Sun Also Rises. I think his short stories are absolutely amazing. But I just can't ever seem to make it through The Sun Also Rises.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Republic, Plato. No book has ever affected me this much--and I grew up Roman Catholic.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. The cover was so simple. It was just the title. The book's about a serial killer who's trying to "make a zombie."
Book that changed your life:
Republic, Plato. I was living one way, thinking one way, and then I read Republic. I was at the height of my cynicism when I first read this book--a gear turning in a great machine. This book liberated me, opened the world again, and restored my faith and optimism.
Which character you most relate to:
Major Barbara from Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw. Like this character, I was once an idealist with strict notions of right and wrong. I believed that uncompromising zeal could conquer huge social problems. As I got older, everything got so murky. I began to understand that there were larger agendas at work, and that my idealism might be driven by a kind of naïve narcissism. Are there really moral absolutes, or do we live in a world of situational ethics? Big question. Great play.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I read this book in two days, and it only took me that long because I had to work. I like to read in the tub. (Yeah, I said it!) I remember sitting in a bubble bath, getting to the end of this book and just sobbing. My wife heard me and came in the bathroom, and there I was, in the bathtub, holding this book and crying. I looked like a crazy person. "Oh my god, what happened? What's wrong?" She asked. "The dad!" I blubbered. "The dad!"