50 Books to Inspire Artists of All Kinds


Today marks the release of one of the most long-awaited novels in recent memory: Donna Tartt’s third novel, the glorious, sprawling, Dickens-esque romp The Goldfinch. The book is backboned by its eponymous painting, and much concerned with art of all kinds, so to celebrate its release, and to suggest a little artistic inspiration for those who’ve already read it (or will have in about three days), we’ve put together a list of 50 books for artists: to inspire, to entertain, to shake up the system. Some of these books are about visual art, some are visual art in themselves, some just strike us as the kind of thing that might keep an artist up at night. Check them out after the jump, and add any we’ve missed to the list in the comments.

The Goldfinch , Donna Tartt

Tartt’s long-awaited third novel is a fat, frolicking masterpiece that centers around the disappearance of a certain painting — but probes art of all kinds, from furniture restoration to music to, yes, painting, asking questions about what it means to humanity and what humanity means to it. Plus, you’ve got to meet Boris.

Invisible Cities , Italo Calvino

This gorgeous little novel is a work of art in its bookishness, but also a work of art in some other, more ephemeral way, a gorgeous exploration of imagination and the strangeness of the world. No surprise then that at least one artist has drawn the utmost inspiration from the book, and taken it upon herself to depict all 55 of the fantastical cities described within.

Speak, Memory , Vladimir Nabokov

Artists of all kinds should appreciate Nabokov, who championed the ideal above almost all else. In Speak, Memory, he muses on the project of using one’s own memories in one’s artistic works, and speaks for some time on his synesthesia, a section that is likely to intrigue any artist confronting the relationship between the way we understand words and the way we see them.

The Emigrants , W.G. Sebald

Like many great artists, Sebald is uncategorizable, drawing on truth, story, grainy black-and-white photos, maps, and mystery for his wonderful hybrid novels. Any artist would do well to take note of his whole catalog, but let’s say The Emigrants, for its mind-bendingly gorgeous section on the life of a painter, and the way his materials would sink into his skin.

The Flamethrowers , Rachel Kushner

Whether you feel a pang of nostalgia or a vague sense of nausea when you think of the New York City art scene in the late ‘70s, you’ll find something to love here, in Kushner’s smart story of a young filmmaker wandering through the era. Also recommended for those who need reminding that just about anything can be art — if you can sell it.

The Lover , Marguerite Duras

Duras’ most famous work was originally commissioned as a series of captions to a book of photographs from her childhood, but spiraled out of control into a lovely, dreamy novel. In so many ways, it just goes to show that you can never tell where you’ll end up.

The Family Fang , Kevin Wilson

In this charming novel, the closest thing you’re likely to get to a Wes Anderson film in book form, two siblings chase after their parents, a couple of high-concept performance artists that have been embarrassing them all their lives and are now, supposedly, dead. Many good musings on the nature of art, and many good chuckles to boot.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , Michael Chabon

In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, two young artists, one a Czech refugee with a penchant for drawing, the other his Brooklynite writer cousin, rise to comic-book fame. Delightful, magical, and, yes, pretty amazing.

An Artist of the Floating World , Kazuo Ishiguro

In this lovely, heartbreaking book, an aging artist, steeped in denial, reflects on his life and work. You can always count on Ishiguro for some mistily upsetting characterization, and this book is no different.

Bluebeard , Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s take on the Bluebeard story also happens to be the pseudo-autobiography of the fictional, one-eyed Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian, who tackles the possibility that one cannot make meaningful art at all.

The Map and the Territory , Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq’s most recent book, winner of the Prix Goncourt, is a brutal satire of the art world that The Guardian tentatively called “the only good novel about art.” Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons both appear, as does Michel Houellebecq, who gets himself murdered. But it’s not all tongue-in-cheek. As the author explained, the book concerns itself with “aging, the relationship between father and son and the representation of reality through art,” serious enough subjects no matter how many of the author’s doppelgangers get snuffed.

Remainder , Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s first novel isn’t about art, exactly. It concerns a man who wins a large settlement after a car accident, and proceeds to use the money to reconstruct, to the tiniest detail, first his memories and then scenes from his imagination, requiring every single thing to be exactly as it is in his head, 24 hours a day, his employees living out the scenes inside his head. If it’s not art, it’s certainly something that will wiggle inside your brain and spit some art out the other side.

Building Stories , Chris Ware

Trust Chris Ware to keep on pushing the boundaries of what a book can be. This graphic novel, or rather, sprawling story-in-a-box, is a feat of imagination, creativity, and spectacular storytelling and illustration sure to jump-start your own art-brain (or at least make you jealous).

Girl with a Pearl Earring , Tracy Chevalier

Everybody’s favorite historical art novel peeks inside the home of Dutch master Vermeer in the 1660s. You’ve probably seen the movie, but need we even say it: read the book or miss out.

How Should a Person Be? , Sheila Heti

Like other books on this list, Heti’s recent novel is notable for its flexibility of form — it asks not only how a person should be, but how art should be, and how those two things are related.

Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence , Nick Bantock

This gorgeous creation is like a pop-up book for grown-ups: the pages are littered with envelopes, which the reader opens to find an increasingly tempestuous correspondence between two artists in love. For those who like to think outside of the box — or at least push the envelope.

Ulysses , James Joyce

Considered by some to be the greatest work of art of all time, Ulysses has something in it to inspire anyone to greatness.

Atlas of Remote Islands , Judith Schalansky

Subtitled “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will,” Schalansky ‘s atlas of the imagination is knock-out beautiful, both conceptually and physically. Indeed, it won German Arts Foundation Prize for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year in 2009. But it’s not an atlas of made-up islands, which would be a simpler project: instead, it’s an atlas of real ones, described with an artist’s distance. Something to think about whenever you’re told to write what you know.

Ghost World , Daniel Clowes

Because what artist doesn’t have a little bit of Enid Coleslaw in their soul?

The Picture of Dorian Gray , Oscar Wilde

There’s no one like Wilde to remind you of the romanticism of art. Plus: the possibly sinister implications of that portrait you found in the attic.

Bough Down , Karen Green

This lovely work sets scraps of poetic prose alongside visual collages, tiny bits of letters, and other fragments, for a book as multifaceted as its creator herself. Green is an artist, a writer, and David Foster Wallace’s widow, and this book is an incredible ode to love, loss, and most importantly, hope. Available from Siglio Press.

Point Omega , Don DeLillo

There’s something of the artist in most of DeLillo’s books, but this one is bookended by scenes at MoMA, and concerned with artists and filmmakers and the things they see and do not see, and understand and do not understand, and the way time passes. A slow and lovely work.

Tree of Codes , Jonathan Safran Foer

Tree of Codes is more literary sculpture than novel, a formally inventive and beautiful work created when Foer slashed up Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and turned it into a whole new story.

Gravity’s Rainbow , Thomas Pynchon

Dense and lush and about some of the biggest ideas around, Gravity’s Rainbow is almost guaranteed to blow your mind. Which is almost always what an artist needs.

Nox , Anne Carson

After the death of Carson’s older brother, she began to put together a notebook — a collection of memories that she calls an “epitaph.” Incorporating photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and even a letter her brother once wrote, and roughed up with stains and other evidence of real life, the notebook — reproduced in full-color, accordion-style, and delivered in a slate gray box — feels like a secret artifact, curated by one of the most vital poets and artists of our time.

The Agony and the Ecstasy , Irving Stone

The life of Michelangelo in novel form! It sounds dry, but it will make you look at all that old art in a totally new way. If no one made you read this in high school, it’s finally time.

The Master and Margarita , Mikhail Bulgakov

Because manuscripts (and paintings, and films, and sculptures) don’t burn.

House of Leaves , Mark Z. Danielewski

This book is a triumph of shifting genres and playing with form: the original edition grew out of Internet postings and became a complex, maddening novel with text running every which way. Danielewski’s masterpiece is a dark wormhole of literary exploration, a classic of contemporary ergodic literature, and a brilliant work of art besides.

My Name Is Red , Orhan Pamuk

A murder mystery, a puzzle, a romance, a glorious metafictional narrative about miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire. Also of note, of course, is Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence.

Cat’s Eye , Margaret Atwood

How does an artist relate to her childhood? Perhaps Atwood can’t answer this question, but she can recount the tale of Elaine Risley, an avant-garde painter who goes down her own historical rabbit hole when she puts on a retrospective show in a city filled with personal demons. Another wonderful book about being an artist in the world.

I Remember , Joe Brainard

After all, isn’t that what art is all about?

The Recognitions , William Gaddis

All of Gaddis’ books read like works of visual art in themselves, formally inventive and often maddeningly dense. But this one is essential for any artist, investigating the thin, and sometimes very thin, line between real and not-real, between forgery and honesty. Plus, it’s a mega-brilliant masterpiece.

Swimming Studies , Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton is a master of unusual narratives, and her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning autobiography is no different: a fusion of spare words and sparer illustrations, an exquisite meditation on weightlessness and water.

Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace

Here’s another book that’s an absurdly beautiful and innovative work of art in itself, but also a stunning work of art about art. Especially recommended for filmmakers and those who find art in tennis.

The Sandman , Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s beloved graphic novel follows the adventures of Dream, the ruler of the world of dreams, and was once described by Norman Mailer as “a comic strip for intellectuals.” It’s probably inspired more works of art than any other book on this list.

The Moon and Sixpence , W. Somerset Maugham

Loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, this novel follows a man who gives up everything in his relentless pursuit of Art and Beauty.

Lanark , Alasdair Gray

Certain people will tell you that this is the Scottish novel, and they might not be wrong. Gray’s part-realist, part-fantastical novel is a cult classic, emblazoned with the author’s own accomplished drawings. He’s a bit of everything, and one of the best at all of it.

My Name Is Asher Lev , Chaim Potok

Art is so often bound up in religion — but it is just as often bound by it. The protagonist of this novel prizes his artistic gifts over the norms of his community, to decidedly mixed results.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being , Milan Kundera

If everything is fleeting and random, what then? For everyone you will ever meet in a dorm room and aspiring artists who are totally over Nietzsche.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , Gertrude Stein

Literary critics tend to look down their noses at Stein’s work, but famous artists cropped up around this woman like dandelions. It’s not for nothing — lady had some serious ideas and damn good taste.

Inferno (a poet’s novel) , Eileen Myles

Can’t go wrong with Myles, who will turn you upside down and back again and then burn you, burn you right up. If anything else is better inspiration for art, we don’t know it.

Role Models , John Waters

John Waters should be your role model. The man’s book is filled with pronouncements on creativity, art, and living in the modern world, while being one of the weirdest people to ever stand in shoe leather. A worthy goal, in and of itself.

Against Interpretation , Susan Sontag

No one should be allowed to talk about art until they’ve read Sontag on the subject, even if they totally disagree with her.

Lizard Music , Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater’s books are totally weird, and are likely to inform your dreams and all your art projects from the moment you flip the first page.

Speedboat , Renata Adler

Adler’s patchwork of a novel will bring little thrills of recognition to anyone who has ever: been young in New York City, tried to make art of any kind, or been a human in the world. It’s a book that could make an artist out of a rock.

Theft: A Love Story , Peter Carey

Drama! Drama in the art world! Because sometimes, that’s all the inspiration (and/or glee) you need.

Flaubert’s Parrot , Julian Barnes

If you’ve ever assigned absurd importance to a totemic item, or imagined yourself as an animal, you may enjoy Barnes’ a-linear novel, which searches for a parrot and investigates the nature of subjectivity, both in art and in life.

This Is Not a Novel , David Markson

Nope. It is “a continued heap of riddles,” “a polyphonic opera,” “a mural of sorts,” “nothing more or less than a read,” and many other things. According to itself, that is. There’s nothing better than a piece of art that can’t decide on its own nature — it means we don’t have to either.

Life: A User’s Manual , Georges Perec

Perec made a career out of probing at the edge of the possibilities of prose, so all of his works are ripe to mine for artistic inspiration. In this one, a wealthy man spends his fortune and life on a pointless, bizarre art project involving painting puzzles that get washed right clean again. Because sometimes it’s not the product that matters, quite.

Blood and Guts in High School , Kathy Acker

Punk poet and experimental novelist extraordinaire, Acker’s work is divisive, weird, sometimes appalling, and sometimes beautiful. Which seems to us to be exactly what art, or art’s inspiration, should be. Also: penis doodles, if that’s your cup of tea.