Today we present WPT/WPR favorite and The New York Times bestselling essayist Michael Perry, of New Auburn. The paperback of his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots, will be released by HarperPerennial in November while he is on tour with his band the Long Beds.
Read more to find out which books have encouraged Perry to question his assumptions about writing and life.
Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then detoured into writing. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an intermittent pig farmer.
In addition to Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy, his bestselling memoirs include Population: 485 (recently adapted for the stage), Truck: A Love Story, Coop and Visiting Tom. Among his other dozen titles are The Scavengers (for young readers) and his novel The Jesus Cow.
These days, Perry writes the weekly “Roughneck Grace” column for the Wisconsin State Journal. He hosts the nationally-syndicated Tent Show Radio – from Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield – and performs widely as a humorist.
Perry’s essays on rural life have been shared in many forms, including this animated Wisconsin Life short on the kitchen’s role in rural homes.
What is your favorite of the books on this list (here)? Why?
I could hardly scroll through the list without bolting for my bookshelves and dilapidated green reading chair. But if I could drop everything and read just one book for the next three hours, it would be Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The breadth and depth of Zora Neale Hurston’s social and literary influence are better addressed by people more well-informed and educated than I, and those elements of her writing have been an essential part of what (I hope) has been some evolution in my own character and comportment.
Speaking strictly as an aspiring writer, her sentences and imagery hit me as hard as anything my other favorite – Dylan Thomas – has ever written.
What’s a novel that ISN’T on this list that you think everyone should read, and why?
For better or worse and for no big reason I have never taken any psychedelic drugs, but when I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian all alone in my rural Wisconsin house over a series of nights, there were stretches of prose that took me on trips I imagined might be similar. It was horrifying and transporting, brutal and beautiful.
Come to think of it, I definitely don’t think everyone should read it. Nope. But that book rearranged and revivified the way I saw prose forevermore.
On a personal note, which novel (on or off this list) has had the biggest impact on your life?
When I read it in third grade, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, broke through my cowboy-book mentality to suggest that the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is not always so cleanly drawn.
I was too young to understand many of the book’s larger implications, but it cracked the foundation of my assumptions in a way that needed cracking.
Upcoming episodes of The Great American Read discuss how beloved themes relate to our lives.
Here are more great ways to discover new and old favorites: