Anthony Doerr: A Literary Treasure


As I said when I wrote about Brandon Sanderson, there are certain authors I’ve come to read and love so much that I want to gobble up everything they’ve ever written. Anthony Doerr is another of those author’s for me. He’s not a fantasy writer, though you’ll certainly find elements of mysticism in some of his work. What charms me about Doerr’s writing is not his imagination, though it is certainly fertile. It’s the way he writes, the way he sees the world and the beauty and tragedy within it. It’s the simplicity with which he tells his stories, which is never boring or overbearing, but so simply and elegantly stated that you feel instantly transformed and transported into the world he’s created. 

In 1998, one of the first writing classes I took at Bowling Green State University was taught by Anthony Doerr. I simply knew him as Tony, BGSU graduate and writer-in-residence. While I was unclear about who he was, my advisor  insisted “you have to take one of Tony’s workshops if you’re interested in fiction” and I obediently jumped on board. I wish I could say I ran to the library right away to find and read his work, but I did not. I went through the entire class ignorant of the prize that stood before me. It wasn’t until after graduating that I understood how such a young, largely still unknown quantity had come to be a writer-in-residence there. Talk about a misspent youth. I’d give just about anything to have another shot to learn from a master such as Anthony Doerr.

Being the recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer in literature for his epic historical novel All The Light You Cannot See, along with a slew of other awards for his fiction writing, I’m sure Anthony Doerr doesn’t need my little review to help his sales, and yet so few people I speak with have read him. How could I not beat out his praises on my keyboard, knowing this is an author every reader can be enriched by? I may have bungled my chance to learn from him directly, but every author could learn quite a lot from digesting and dissecting his work. 

Don’t take my word for it. If you search for All the Light You Cannot See, you’ll find an abundance of study guides on the text; a pretty firm indication that he’s being read in literature and writing courses around the country. It leaves me a bit lovelorn for my teaching days. I can imagine few things more satisfying than dissecting his work in a class full of like-minded students. 

Doerr is a literary mastermind. I don’t think it’s too much to state that he’ll be held up as one of the best writers of our time. This success is not because his works are wildly experimental or clever in their use of devices. It’s not because his words or the content is timely and fashionable or even speaks to the complexity of our times, though it certainly does enough of that. Obvious to anyone who reads his work, Doerr is not out to prove what an innovative writer he is or that he has his finger on the pulse of the 21st century or, knowing his humble nature, even to collect awards, though he certainly has had a heavily decorated early writing career. 

The gems that truly sparkle in Doerr’s literary crown are the simplicity of his storytelling, the verdant way he paints his settings and the width and breadth of his fully fleshed characters and the complexity of the turmoil in which their lives become ensnared. His characters are everyday people and come to feel like your cousin or best friend. What happens to their lives, how they react and ultimately what they say about human nature make his stories a testament to what it means to be alive, to love, to dream, to be human.

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His writing is so powerful, yet so subtle you don’t even think about the author behind the words. This subtlety might lure some into thinking there’s little to learn from Doerr, but that deception is hard to achieve. Becoming the invisible author is something to which we should all aspire. Certainly, it’s difficult not to be envious of the apparent ease with which Doerr tells his stories, but of course there’s no telling just how much of his sweat, blood and tears go into achieving such a feat. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off and yet he achieves it with such precision.

Rather than discuss each of his works and what I love about it in detail, I’ve included information on each of his novels and short story collections. To purchase any of these books on Amazon, simply click the title.

All the Light We Cannot See

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1501173219
  • ISBN-13: 978-1501173219

Given the acclaim this book has received, it’s not surprising that it would be first on my list, though I like to think my tastes aren’t nearly so predictable. Set during the second world war, the book is told from the perspective of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy. The theme is common for Doerr, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. To think this is in anyway a typical book about war would be remiss. It’s not a war story, but a story of triumph and survival against all odds and it’s nearly impossible to put down, so entwined does one become in the story and its resolution. We may know how the war was won, but how people lived and survived through it, that’s the real miracle, one which Doerr captures with all the beauty and mystery humankind has to offer.

Not much of a historical fiction reader? You can still enjoy All the Light You Cannot See, but you’ll have to wait a while. Apparently, Netflix is in the process of transforming the book into a limited series! I’ll try to update with news as it comes forth, as so far the studio has kept the project heavily under wraps. Here’s what we know so far:

About Grace

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins Pub Ltd (March 31, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 000714699X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007146994

Prior to All the Light We Cannot See, I considered About Grace to be his best work. The setting shifts throughout the book, from boring old Ohio, to the tropics, to Alaska and beyond. The main character, a hydrologist who occasionally dreams things before they happen, creates a kafkaesque feeling to this work, leading us to an uncertainty of whether the event that sets the story in motion is simply imagined or actual fact. Filled with rich prose and compelling storylines, it’s hard to put this book down. According to Doerr’s website,  “About Grace was a Book Sense76 selection, a Washington Post Bookworld Book of the Year, and a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award. The Book of-the-Month Club picked it as one of the five best books of 2004, and it topped the Seattle-Post Intelligencer’s best of 2004 list.”

The Shell Collector

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (January 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439190054
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439190050

This much acclaimed collection of short stories is a must read for any author or lover of fiction. Devoid of the pretension and experimentation so popular in today’s short fiction, they breath new life into the genre. This review encapsulates The Shell Collector (and all of Doerr’s work) best:

“Stunning. Eight stunning exercises in steel-tipped feathery fineness that no writer can read without envying… His is the all-knowing, all-seeing eye we find in D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Pynchon, DeLillo, Richard Powers—writers able to pin down every butterfly wing and fleck of matter in the universe, yet willing to float the unanswerables about the ‘hot, hard kernel of human experience. “ The Philadelphia Enquirer.

Four Seasons in Rome

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781416573166
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416573166

Doerr’s only biographical work to date, Four Seasons in Rome recounts his life and thoughts as an artist-in-residence in this historic city, all while navigating his new role as the parent of infant twins. Part travelogue, part memoir, part writer’s journal, this book will have you panting after your own Roman vacation while providing plenty of laughs.

Memory Wall

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (July 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439182841
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439182840

While I haven’t read the Memory Wall from cover to cover, it wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying it immensely. The material hit far too close to home at the time. The short story from which the collection takes its name explores Alzheimer’s disease. While I don’t have Alzheimer’s, the cognitive dysfunction I do have is a feature of my neurological condition and it can fluctuate wildly. It can be quite debilitating, so much so that I was unable to write anything of substance for years. At the time, it was still new and at an all-time high. I thought my life was over and I just couldn’t bear to see my fate reflected on the page. I couldn’t get past the first two pages without bawling my eyes out. I suppose that’s a real testament of the authenticity captured by the author. The collection has garnered as much praise as Doerr’s other stories, many of which are award winning. No review would be complete without its mention.

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Best American Short Stories (Guest Editor)

  • Series: The Best American Series ®
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (October 1, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1328484246
  • ISBN-13: 978-1328484246

Doerr also served as guest editor of the 2019 Best American Short Stories. I confess I haven’t read a Best American Short Stories since college when they were assigned reading in many of my courses, largely because I’m not a big fan of experimental fiction and that’s what they were filled with at the time. When I saw Doerr’s name gracing last year’s cover, I couldn’t help but pick it up from our local library. I’m glad I did. It’s filled with fascinating stories relevant for the times and was largely a pleasure to read. As he notes in the introduction, many aren’t perfect, but their contributions to the genre are often unique and always compelling. I found it a great way to recharge and some of the stories inspiring a few ideas of my own to flesh out.

No matter which of these novels or collections appeal most, you can hardly go wrong in the choosing. You’ll find new friends wrapped in rich prose, a precision of writing that’s refreshing, and stories that will travel with you into life for years to come. To learn more about Anothony Doerr and his work, visit anthonydoerr.com.  

Already a fan of Anthony Doerr’s work? Which of his works is your favorite? Let us know in the comments! 

8 thoughts on “Anthony Doerr: A Literary Treasure

  1. You know, I was thinking ‘nah, never heard of him’, then saw All The Light We Cannot See and realised yes, I know him!

    Pishposh, your ‘little review’ is very much needed. I don’t think his name is anywhere near as well known as it could or should be, which is almost odd given how much of a cult hit that aforementioned book has become. I’ll add his name to my TBR, though I don’t know when I’ll be able to get physical books again at the moment (and I’m not sure I can convince myself to step over to the dark side and Kindle it).

    Excellent write-up, Mykie. You’ve done Doerr proud.xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re so right, Caz. Every author could use a hand, no matter how celebrated. There just aren’t that many readers left in the world and so many are genre readers. If you enjoy audiobooks, there’s always that route as well if you need or have an audible account. I miss my library so much right now. I’m hardly getting any reading done. Migraines and ebooks do not mix! Thanks for checking it out. I look forward to hearing what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I miss my library, too! I’m sorry about your migraines, I really do empathise there. As I’m getting them 4-5 times a week, I’ve been lucky in my doc recently upping my meds from 6 a month (which was crippling me!) to 16, but even medication doesn’t stop them from eating away at so much of your time. Do you have meds for yours..? I hope you can get some peace and quiet from them at least over the weekend to enjoy some books and get some rest xx

    Like

  4. I do have meds, but something about that virus has unbalanced everything and they aren’t working so well. My diet hasn’t been very good lately, either. I seem to end every day with a migraine right now and my brain fog is having a party, too. Probably inflammation. Hopefully everything will calm back down soon. I hope the additional meds help with yours!

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  5. I’ve read All the Light We Cannot See and LOVED it! Your review of his writing has made me add some more of his books to my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

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