In keeping with our ongoing exploration into language and the written word, we’re asking artists on the season to share thoughts on what they’re reading and why.

We’ll gather some of these books and include them in Royce Reads, our Pop-Up Library in the Royce Hall West Lobby, where you’ll be able to peruse and enjoy at the performances.

Gabriel Kahane, singer, composer and creator of The Ambassador

What are the 5 (or more) books that have had a lasting impact on you, and share a few thoughts on why they made the shortlist.

Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader

Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham

City of Quartz by Mike Davis

The Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live: Collected Non-Fiction by Joan Didion

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Because The Ambassador is so much a piece in which cultural artifacts "talk" to one another, a piece in which I've written songs in response to books, films, and buildings, I've decided to limit my list to books that had a direct impact on the creation of this piece. The first four titles on this list offer a kind of genealogy of writing about Los Angeles. For many, Esther McCoy is the matriarch of L.A. architecture criticism, and one can draw a line through her work to the British architectural historian Reyner Banham and then to Mike Davis. Each has provided us at least one volume that is totemic in its impact on how we read Los Angeles.

Next comes Joan Didion, one of the great scribes of Southern California, and one of the most elegant prose stylists of the century. We Tell Ourselves... is a bit of a cheat, inasmuch as it's a massive collection of several non-fiction books, but with a writer as significant as Didion, it seems unfair to have to choose just one.

Speaking of prose stylists, James M. Cain is, I think, unfairly neglected as a writer of direct and yet stylish sentences. Overshadowed by the rather more blunt Chandler, whom I also adore, Cain nevertheless left us with a handful of small masterpieces, foremost among them being Mildred Pierce. I've included Chandler's The Long Goodbye as well, the most ambitious and autobiographical of the Marlowe detective novels, and the inspiration for the song "Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.)," featured in The Ambassador.

Finally, there's the peculiar inclusion of the contemporary German novelist W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz. Though Sebald wrote primarily about Europe, and in particular post-war Germany's struggle to make sense of the legacy of Nazism, his central concern as a writer seems to me to have been the question of how memory and place relate to one another, a concern that is at the heart of The Ambassador.

What books came close to making your list but didn’t – was it hard to decide?

I did a huge amount of reading for The Ambassador; the books I've chosen are the ones that most clearly influenced the work.

What are you reading now?

I am currently reading Seeing Is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees, a book of interviews with the artist Robert Irwin conducted by Lawrence Weschler. I also have a pile of novels by the Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai that I'm looking forward to reading this spring.

Do you go back to books that you love– do keep them on hand or read them more than once a year?

Yes. I crazily just re-read Infinite Jest, all 1073 pages of it. The books on my bedside table look rather like a miniature version of Christine Jones' set for The Ambassador. (Check out a gallery of images from the performance).

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be? If you could invite a group of writers, living or dead to a meal, who would be in the group? Would you go to a restaurant, or would you cook?

I would love to have met Chekhov. But I don't think I would want to eat with him. If I were constructing a dinner party, I would want it to include all the writers who lived at 7 Middagh St. in Brooklyn, the house about which I wrote my first musical, February House. So I'd have W.H. Auden, George Davis, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Jane and Paul Bowles. That would be a gas. 

Frank Warren, founder of The PostSecret Project

Warren F-Photo (Low Res HEADSHOT Booksigning 2008).jpg

What are the 5 or more books that have had a lasting impact on you?

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

Harvey Pekar, Cleveland

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

FOUND Magazine, Davy Rothbart

"I chose to select books I have read that redefined the stories worth telling. These books elevated the lives of everyday people and their personal experiences. Not that long ago History, Art, Literature was the province of one class. These not only gave voice to those who were once voiceless, the works also redefine whose stories are worth telling. The democratization of story-telling may be just as important as the democratization of politics. That process is ongoing.

What untold stories are waiting to be uncovered today?"

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be? If you could invite a group of writers, living or dead to a meal, who would be in the group? Would you go to a restaurant, or would you cook?

"I am not a good cook so if I could invite a group of literary figures to dinner I would probably have us all meet at a restaurant. And the writers I would invite would be some of my favorites but also some of the most volatile. Maybe Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer and Tom Wolfe. I would hope to enjoy the food while being prepared for a food fight. The night might not make for an enlightening transcript but it could become one hell of a story in itself."

Prashant Bhargava director, editor and designer for the film 
'RADHE RADE: Rites of Holi'

What are the 5 or more books that have had a lasting impact on you, and could you say something about each of your choices?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - I love this book because it the more our own awareness of race and identity, the more it

The Film Director's Intution by Judith Weston - Whenever I'm preparing for a shoot, I return to Weston's book. An invaluable resource on finding in the truth in the written word and leading actors to an authentic place.

Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - A lyrical masterpiece. Epic and intimate. Tragic and funny. Captures the resilience and hardship of life in India so beautifully. Hope to turn this into a movie one day.

Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda by Swami Vivekananda

When I was eighteen I read my grandfather's eight volume set. Vivekandanda sheds a practical wisdom to the ancient teachings of the Veda. Vivekananda inspires strength and eloquently captures a synergy of the East and West. He was among the first Indians to arrive in my home city of Chicago in 1893 for the World Parliament of Religions.

The Gift by Hafiz

Every stanza is a gift.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte
Tufte's book has been an inspiration for my approach to design. Through prose and illustration he takes us through the history of how information has been displayed effectively. The examples are clean, thoughtful, precise and expressive.

Are these books that that you go back to? Do you read any of them once a year or more?

Definitely. All seem to bring new wisdom upon every time I revisit.

What books came close to making your list but didn’t – was it hard to decide?

When I was twelve, my interest in Graffiti was sparked by a photo book entitled Subway Art. Every time I see the book I'm reminded of those copying the letter forms and the inspiration to tag up on lunch tables.

What are you reading now?

A bit late but reading Steve Job's autobiography. I got my first Apple Computer in 1982. His ingenuity played such a big part in my life. I'm inspired by his disruptive, perfectionist and spiritual leadership style.

What do you do with books that you’ve finished reading?

I've been a bit of a nomad these past years. Prefer to have them close. Nothing like feeling the pages in contrast to digital.

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be? If you could invite a group of writers, living or dead, to a meal, who would be in the group? Would you go to a restaurant, or would you cook?

I'll have to ponder a bit longer on this one. I would most definitely cook.

Ryoji Ikeda, sound artist and creator of superposition

Books that have had a lasting impact…

1. The Labyrinth of the Continuum: Writings on the Continuum Problem 1672-1686, G. W. Leibniz (Yale University Press)

my bible.

2. Collected Works, Vol. 3: Unpublished Essays and Lectures, Kurt Gödel (Oxford University Press)

my bible 2.

3. Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, Hermann Weyl (Princeton University Press)

my bible 3.

i owned the japanese version for many years but it was totally torn down last year. i recently bought it again.

4. Critique of the Power of Judgment, Immanuel Kant (Cambridge University Press)

such a must.

5. On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, Hermann von Helmholtz (Dover Publications)

a must 2.

6. The Mathematical Experience, by Phillip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh (Mariner Books)

the japanese version was always in my bag during my 20’s.

7. Galileo’s Finger, Peter Atkins (Oxford University Press)

this book has been always in my bag since 2004, and still.

8. Stanley Kubrick Interviews (University Press of Mississippi)

encouraging me somehow...

Jason Grote, stageplay adaptor of Basetrack Live

List five or more books that have had a lasting impact on you.

V by Thomas Pynchon

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borge

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

What’s special about the books you selected?

All of them are exploratory in some way. None of them deal with worlds I know, or in many cases could ever know. They all contain events and images I'll always remember.

Are these books that that you go back to? Do you read any of them more than once a year?

Some of them, especially the Chekhov and Borges, because they always reveal new things about themselves, and they're short stories, so I don't have to commit to the whole book.

What books came close to making your list but didn't – was it hard to decide?

2666 by Roberto Bolano

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinso

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Too many others to mention.

What are you reading now?

The Nixon Defense, by John Dean; a guidebook to Saudi Arabia.

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be? If you could invite a group of writers, living or dead to a meal, who would be in the group? Would you go to a restaurant, or would you cook?

I already know lots and lots of writers, including some who were or are heroes. Not really in a hurry to meet any more of them. I'd like to know more visual artists, scientists, philosophers, horticulturists, architects, carpenters, janitors. My favorite people in film sets are usually gaffers.

Victoria Tennant, 
author of Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

List five or more books that have had a lasting impact on you.

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro

Palace Walk trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

The Coldest War


The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Crossing to Safety by William Stegner

What is The What by Dave Eggers

100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Empire of Reason by Henry Steele Commager

Light Years by James Salter

The Rougon-Macquart series by Emile Zola

My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan

The Collector of Treasures by Bessie Head

The Lying Days by Nadine Gordimer

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Memories Dreams and Reflections by C.G.Jung 

I should probably stop now...

What’s special about the books you selected?

Each book affected my understanding of the world and opened my eyes to other ways of thinking or living or expressing oneself. And that leads to examining the differences between them and my own heart.

Are these books that that you go back to? Do you read any of them more than once a year?

I love my books. I have kept every book I have read and loved since I was a child. They are old friends and I visit them often.

What books came close to making your list but didn’t – was it hard to decide?

The books I don't keep are the ones I haven't enjoyed and they have faded from memory. I honestly don't remember them. I try and pick books I think I will like, so the list of my failures is not long.

What are you reading now?

David Leser's memoir of his father, To Begin To Know

There are 16 books on my bedside table waiting to be read when I finish it.

If you could meet any writer, living or dead, who would it be? If you could invite a group of writers, living or dead to a meal, who would be in the group? Would you go to a restaurant, or would you cook?

Well, Shakespeare, he would be fun don't you think? And to make the most of my evening I would cook dinner for the two of us in the kitchen, and he could help. By the time we sat down to eat the ice would be broken.

A group of writers ... Well, Dave Eggers and David Leser and Tom Stoppard and the late William Stegner would be grand. They all have compassion and a sense of humor.

Phillip Johnston, composer of  Wordless!  

(For more on his eclectically fabulous personal library read this fascinating interview. Phillip's partner in Wordless! the one-and-only Art Spiegelman, wrote a very special treatise on books that have meant something to him. Visit our blog to check it out!)

List five or more books that have had a lasting impact on you.

Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov/The Third Policemanby Flann O’Brien

These two books to me are like two sides of the same coin: a lot of the fun is in the footnotes. But in a lot of books the best stuff is in the footnotes.

The Information by Martin Amis

One of the truest, funniest, cruelest books ever written. The two writers who are the main characters could have just as easily have been musicians, and they would both be like people I know.

Fata Morgana/The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle

For me, and many people I know,The Fan Manwas the ultimate 70s East Village book–it told our story. It has one of the most tragic, and funny, endings of any book I’ve read.Fata Morgana is just so much fun to read, it’s probably the book I’ve reread the most often.

Complete Fictions Jorge Luis Borges

Borges, like PK Dick, is one of those writers who can only be represented by his whole body of work. Fortunately we have the excellent Collected Fictions and Non-Fictions. “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote” is one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I didn’t actually read this book until I was in my 50s. If I’d known it was so modernist, so sharply observed, so powerful, and, yes, so funny, I wouldn’t have waited so long.

The Dream Detective by Sax Rohmer

I love Victorian detective stories; for a while in the 80s, when you had to haunt used bookstores for them, I collected out-of-print Fu Manchu novels (I have about twenty, but you can probably get them all for the Kindle for 49 cents now).The Dream Detective is collection of related short stories about a detective who solves crimes by tracing their aetheric origins while sleeping on his ‘odic pillow’. I also highly recommend The Yellow ClawandDope.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

This dystopian novel, by an American living in Melbourne, is funny, insightful, weird and heartbreaking, and just so original, I’m amazed it’s not better known in the States. His second novel,What The Family Needed,is just as good.

The Big Sleep/The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

At one point I inhaled all of the hard-boiled fiction, Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Ross Macdonald, and others. So many great films came out of this genre that they almost overshadow the originals. But not quite.

Time Out of Joint/Martian Time Slip/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? by Philip K Dick

I can rarely remember the plot of any individual Dick book; they all blend together for me to form a world. While not the most literary writer in the world, Dick has so many ideas that he doesn’t even develop most of them; he just leaves them by the side of the road for others to pick up. A terrifying writer, because so many things he foresaw in his paranoia have become even more true than he imagined them.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

(see below) I read this again recently and couldn’t believe how good it was. I wanted to start over the minute I finished it. It’s got so much heart.

The New York Trilogy/Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

Everyone loves the New York Trilogy, which established Auster’s reputation. ButBook of Illusions is as good as anything he’s written, and has an amazing ending!


Low Life by Luc Sante

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music by Claudia Gorbman

Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music by Anahid Kassabian

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, by David Hajdu

Shapinski’s Karma, Bogg’s Bills by Lawrence Weschler

No one May Ever Have The Same Knowledge Again: Letters To The Mount Wilson Observatory 1915-1935, edited and transcribed by Sarah Simons (Museum of Jurassic Technology)

The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg

Graphic Novels/Cartoons

Little Nemo In Slumberland: So Many Spendid Sundays by Windsor McKay

Shadowland by Kim Deitch

Hard Boiled Defective Comics by Charles Burns

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Powerhouse Pepper by Basil Wolverton

Are these books that that you go back to? Do you read any of them once a year or more?

For a number of years now I’ve been going back and re-reading authors that I read between the ages of 15-25, such as Cat’s Cradleby Kurt Vonnegut Jr.,Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, V by Thomas Pynchon, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, the list goes on, real 60s stuff mostly, Richard Brautigan, Herman Hesse,Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Though I was afraid I’d be embarrassed by it, most of it I’ve found to be incredibly enjoyable, with a few exceptions.

I often re-read books, and as I get older I find that I spend more and more time reading books I’ve read before; the same is true of watching films. The good ones just keep getting better and better, and, sad to say, when you have very little reading time as I do, it gets harder to take a risk on an unknown. That being said, I WISH I had the time to re-read the same book once a year!

What books came close to making your list but didn’t – was it hard to decide?

It was excruciatingly hard to decide, and some of my favorite writers in each field can’t be represented by a single, or even a couple of works: it’s the whole world they create. So, just as Captain Beefheart can in a sense be represented byTroutmaskreplica, but no one record can represent Thelonious Monk or Steve Lacy–it’s their entire cumulative body of work as a whole that resonates–I find the same is true of Philip K. Dick, Kim Deitch, William Burroughs, Robert Crumb, JG Ballard or Lawrence Weschler.