Happy 60th birthday, John Grisham. What’s in a name? Sometimes, a whole pantheon.
Consider: If you’re an athlete, it’s tempting to want to be named Michael (Jordan, Phelps, Johnson, Tyson), but you really want to be a Bob (Jones, Orr, Hull, Cousy, Pettit, Gibson, Feller, Beamon, Mathias, Griese). If you’re an actor, Tom is terrific (Cruise, Hanks… um, Arnold), but James is probably better (Cagney, Stewart, Durante, Franco). And if you’re a writer, William is a mighty impressive name (Shakespeare, Faulkner, Maugham, Wordsworth, Yeats). But nothing matches the output of the Johns.
That might have been phrased better. But you understand. There is a personal attachment here. Three of my five favorite reads—Cannery Row, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy—were John creations. But the list of notable Johns is remarkable across genres and eras and personal tastes.
The irony, of course, is that if you ask a writer—and if they’re being honest—many will say they do their best thinking on the john. So here are 48 of them (we didn’t even include the likes of Jonathan Swift and Jon Krakauer), along with a superlative or two about each:
1. John Steinbeck
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath. And East of Eden is a classic. But many of us prefer his shorter works like Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men.
2. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Poet, philologist, Oxford professor, path-maker of modern fantasy literature. Forbes named him the fifth top-earning “dead celebrity” of 2009, just behind Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. He’s why I’m a writer today.
3. John Updike
His series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom earned him a couple of Pulitzers (one of only three authors to win it more than once).
4. John Cheever
The “Chekhov of the suburbs” won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Stories of John Cheever. Upon receiving the National Medal for Literature just before he died of cancer a few years later, he told an audience “A page of good prose remains invincible.”
5. John Grisham
He has sold something close to 300 million books worldwide and is said to be one of only three authors to sell at least two million copies of a book on first printing (the others: Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling). Eight of his novels have become films.
6. John Irving
Owen Meany is one of the most memorable characters in literature. Irving won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules and a National Book Award for The World According to Garp, but Cheever edged him out for the 1979 Pulitzer.
7. John Muir
Yes, he founded the Sierra Club and almost single-handedly willed our national parks into existence, but his writings endure, too—although he once wrote, “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.”
8. John Milton
The English 17th-century poet composed the epic poem “Paradise Lost” form 1658 to 1664, by which time he was blind and impoverished. He sold the publication rights to publisher Samuel Simmons for five pounds.
9. John Keats
He had only been writing serious poetry for six years before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25. But none other than Jorge Luis Borges once stated that his first reading of this English Romantic poet was the most significant literary experience of his life.
10. John McPhee
A pioneer of creative nonfiction and Pulitzer Prize-winner, he avoided the more self-centered stream-of-consciousness styles of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, instead opting for an enduring amalgamation of detail and creative design.
11. John Edgar Wideman
A novelist and short story master who collects awards—everything from the International PEN/Faulkner Award (twice) and the O. Henry Award to the National Book Critics Circle Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. Oh, and he also won a MacArthur genius grant.
12. John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces, the story of the adventures of unforgettable Ignatius J. Reilly, was published posthumously after Toole committed suicide at the age of 31. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, a dozen years after his death.
13. John Hersey
Yet another Pulitzer-winning John, this one for the author and journalist’s first novel (A Bell for Adano). But his most notable work was a 31,000-word article about the aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, which occupied almost the entire issue of the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, a first and last for the magazine.
14. John D. MacDonald
Stephen King once praised this prolific author of suspense and crime novels as “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” In 1972, he was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America. Eight years later, he won the National Book Award.
15. John le Carre
He was born David John Moore Cornwell, but the pen name graces his classic spy novels, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His characters have been portrayed by actors like Richard Burton, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins.
16. John James Audubon
Sure, call him a birdwatcher. But this French-Canadian author/painter’s The Birds of America identified 25 new species and is considered an ornithological masterpiece. Parks, parkways, schools, towns and counties have been named for him.
17. John Maxwell Coetzee
The South African novelist won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003, and he’s one of only three writers to twice win the Booker Prize. J.M. Coetzee is the reclusive type, so he didn’t collect either award in person.
18. John Locke
This English philosopher, considered the Father of Classical Liberalism, influenced the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the writers of the Declaration of Independence.
19. John Stuart Mill
On Liberty, published by this influential English philosopher in 1859, remains the foundation of much modern liberal political thought. Even today, succeeding presidents of the British Liberal Democrats pass it to one another as a symbol of office.
20. John Maynard Keynes
Keynesian. How many writers get an adjective? This British economist published various treatises that framed him as a founder of the field macroeconomics. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
21. John Bunyan
He was a 17th-century English writer and preacher, oft-persecuted and imprisoned a couple of times, and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory that has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print.
22. John Dos Passos
A “radical novelist” of the early 20th century, he is best known for his U.S.A. Trilogy consisting of three novels published during the 1930s—The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. The Modern Library ranked the trilogy 23rd among its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the century.
23. John Fowles
Named one of the 50 greatest British writers since World War II, he is best known for The Magus (named one of the Modern Library’s Best 100 Novels) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (which was made into a film and nominated for an Oscar).
24. John Jakes
A prolific author of historical, western, science and fantasy fiction, including the bestselling Kent Family Chronicles and the North and South trilogy about the Civil War, which sold ten million copies and became and ABC miniseries.
25. John Lescroart
Sixteen of his series of legal and crime thrillers have appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. They have sold more than ten million copies and have been translated into 22 languages in more than 75 countries.
26. John Flanagan
The Australian fantasy writer is best known for his bestselling Ranger’s Apprentice series and, more recently, the Brotherband Chronicles.
27, John Ball
“They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Ball’s In the Heat of the Night won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America and was made into the Oscar-winning film starring Sidney Poitier.
28. John Hart
The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for four consecutive novels—The King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child, and Iron House.
29. John Feinstein
Author, columnist, sports commentator Feinstein has written some two-dozen books, including bestsellers A Season on the Brink (about Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight) and A Good Walk Spoiled (about life on the PGA Tour).
30. John R. Erickson
Erickson is the award-winning author of more than 75 books, notably the Hank the Cowdog children’s series, which has sold nearly eight million copies.
31. John Lutz
The past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Lutz has won numerous awards for his mystery novels (including the Private Eye Writers of America Life Achievement Award).
32. John Barth
A postmodern American novelist and short story writer, he won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for Chimera in 1972. He shared that award with…
33. John Edward Williams
The novelist won it for Augustus, his fourth novel, which chronicled the violent times of Augustus Caesar. Many critics like his 1965 novel Stoner even more.
34. John Sandford
As a columnist in St. Paul, Minnesota, by the name of John Roswell Camp, he won a Pulitzer for a series of stories he wrote during the 1985 Midwest farm crisis. He has since written three series of acclaimed novels under the pen name John Sandford.
35. John Greenleaf Whittier
A 19th-century Quaker poet, ardent abolitionist and one of the founding contributors of Atlantic Monthly, he appeared on a U.S. postage stamp 48 years after his death.
36. John Pierpont
A slightly older contemporary of Whittier, fellow poet and abolitionist, he was the grandfather of financier J.P. Morgan and father of James Lord Pierpont, who wrote the song “Jingle Bells.”
37. John Searles
The author of three bestselling novels—Boy Still Missing, Strange But True (named the best novel of 2004 by Salon.com), and Help for the Haunted.
38. John Gilstrap
He’s the bestselling author of thrillers like High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, and The Chopin Manuscript.
39. John Berryman
The Oklahoma-born poet and scholar (born John Allyn Smith, Jr.) is best known for his prolific collection The Dream Songs, which includes accounts of his struggle to understand his father’s suicide. He took his own life in 1972, jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.
40. John Green
He won the 2006 Printz Award from the American Library Association for his debut young adult novel Looking For Alaska and followed it up with critically acclaimed novels like An Abundance of Katherines and The Fault in Our Stars.
41. John Everson
He is the author of a dozen novels and short story collections, all focusing on horror and the supernatural. Everson won the Bram Stoker Award for a First Novel for Covenant in 2004.
42. John Passarella
He writes horror novels and supernatural thrillers, including Wither, Wither’s Legacy, Kindred Spirit, and Shimmer.
43. John Connolly
An Irish writer known for his series of novels featuring antihero private detective Charlie Parker. His original book in the series, Every Dead Thing, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.
44. John Boyne
This multi-award-winning Irish novelist’s eight novels for adults and four for young readers (including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) have been published in 46 languages.
45. John Locke
Not to be confused with #18 on our list, he’s a top John in the self-publishing world—bestselling author of the Donovan Creed Series.
46. John Graves
A regional icon in Texas, known for writing about the environment and the state, he passed away in July 2013, but not before twice being nominated for a National Book Award.
47. John Grogan
Journalist and nonfiction writer Grogan is best known for his bestselling 2005 book Marley and Me, about his family’s dog, which became a 2008 film starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.
48. John Fitzgerald Kennedy
The only president to win a Pulitzer Prize—for Profiles in Courage (1957), which consisted of eight mini-biographies of brave U.S. senators (he should have split the award with speechwriter Theodore Sorensen).