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Introduction

Passion, I see, is catching.

--William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

I ONCE HEARD THE novelist and biographer Nicholas Shakespeare read and then take questions from the audience. A young woman said, "I have a two-part question; the first is, Are you really related to William Shakespeare?" Mr. Shakespeare said that yes, indeed he was. The young woman then asked, in earnest, "How has he influenced your work?"

It is a cliché that writers cannot write without reading extensively. If nothing else, this issue of WLS shows the cliché to be a truism. Each of the featured 12 writers was asked to write about another writer of their choice, living or dead, for whom they feel a passion. None of them needed to think long and hard about it, each quickly chose a different author, and as you read their pieces, you will realize the depth of their admiration, the intensity of their passion -- and the importance of their predecessors.

David Grossman, Geoff Dyer, Christopher Hitchens and William T. Vollmann chose writers they admire not only for their words but for their lives. Reading Bruno Schulz in these difficult times, writes Israeli novelist Grossman, "reminds me what we can long for, and what a life worth living truly is." Tim Parks and Claire Messud chose authors whose prose and thinking serve as models for what they hope to -- and do -- achieve in their own work. Says Messud, "Carey writes as his characters live: knowing that everything is at stake."

James Wood locates the revolutionary Knut Hamsun (who shows us that "our souls are 'patched together' assemblages of fantasy, delusion and dream") somewhere between Dostoyevsky and Beckett, while the young Russian Victor Pelevin suggests that samizdat (the onetime clandestine publication of anti-Soviet texts) was not so much Solzhenitsyn, as Westerners tend to believe, but Castaneda.

For Bernard Cooper and Jonathan Safran Foer, the works of Anatole Broyard and Paul Muldoon bring on the pleasures of both mind and body. Call it love. The pure and innocent love that opens children's minds is at play in Shelley Jackson's portrait of Finnish author Tove Jansson, mother of the Moomins and "a writer who could be funny and dire at the same time, a whiz of tomfoolery who was also a profound guide to the human heart."

Like Jackson, Nicholas Shakespeare returns to his youth in a memoir of his relative the writer -- not the well-known fellow who shares his surname but, rather, his maternal grandfather, S.P.B. Mais, a prolific and influential author and critic in 1930s and '40s Britain whose "poverty of circumstances" made young Nicholas want to be anything but a writer. Luckily for him, and for us, he met Jorge Luis Borges and changed his mind.


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