“I bought it because everyone else did, I guess,” says the novelist and author, most recently, of “Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography in Essays.”
What books are on your night stand?
On my night stand are a lamp, my alarm clock and my reading glasses. Next to my night stand, I’m embarrassed to say, are many piles of books. Books that I’ve been reading include Dorothy Day’s diaries, “The Duty of Delight”; Jacques Attali’s “Alger 1943: L’Annee des Dupes”; Natalie Bakopoulos’s new novel set in Greece, “Scorpionfish”; “Map: Collected and Last Poems,” by Wislawa Szymborska; “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein; and Maaza Mengiste’s amazing “The Shadow King.”
What’s the last great book you read?
Many books are really good; “great,” for me, is a pretty limited category. And this year, I’ve reread both “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace,” which rather complicates the question. Aside from those two, I’d say probably Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” which I read last winter; and before that, Walter Kempowski’s “All for Nothing.”
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
See above — I’d been meaning to read Grossman’s “Life and Fate” for years (it’s in those piles by my bed), and when “Stalingrad” was published in the summer of 2019, the prequel, if you will, to “Life and Fate,” I wanted to start with it. With the result that I still haven’t yet read “Life and Fate,” of course.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
That’s a tough one. I’d venture that a great book could potentially be indifferently written; but not badly written, no. If it’s badly written, it’s not a great book. What makes a book great, as Camus rightly says in “Create Dangerously,” is its truthfulness, its honesty about the human experience. To be truthful, you have to use language precisely, judiciously, with, as Nabokov would have it, the imagination of a scientist and the precision of a poet. If you fail at the level of language, if you write in clichés or secondhand phrases, your failure is metaphysical, and you’re doomed. Prose can be clunky, uneven, even ugly, and be true — but that’s not “bad prose”; it’s just unbeautiful prose, which isn’t the same thing.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Ah! When I was a kid, I loved to wake up early at the weekends and read in bed for as long as I could, until my mother yelled upstairs that I should stop burning daylight. I still love to read lying down — a sofa or window seat is as good as bed. Ideally rainy weather outside, no claims on my time, empty hours stretching out ahead. Maybe a dog asleep beside me. Alas, in adult life this basically never happens.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
One favorite is Alain-Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes,” translated as “The Lost Domain” — a beautiful and mysterious story about the end of childhood. It was a huge success when it was published in 1913 and for generations was widely read, but now is obscure. Alas, we’ll never know what else Alain-Fournier might have written as he was killed in World War I. I was thrilled when Ursula LeGuin, reviewing my novel “The Burning Girl,” referred to “The Lost Domain,” to which my book was in part a homage.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
So many possible answers to this one; but I’m going to say “A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.,” which includes not only King’s most important speeches but introductions from other civil rights activists as well. It’s not a novel, I realize, and maybe you’d like me to recommend fiction. Taste in fiction is subjective, though; moral imperatives are not. In sixth grade, my friends and I memorized the “I Have a Dream” speech — not because we were required to but because his words moved us so powerfully. Kids get it.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
When I read “Mrs. Dalloway” in midlife, I wonder what the novel could possibly have meant to me when I adored it at age 20. That’s not to say that I don’t think anybody should read it until they’re 40, but it’s a novel that speaks so powerfully to the middle of life, to a time when your memories of youth are vivid but distant, and mortality is on the horizon before you. I would certainly suggest that anyone who read the novel in their 20s and is now over 40 go back to it.
Do you have any comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
I always enjoy popular science books — “Mama’s Last Hug,” by Frans de Waal, or “The Song of the Dodo,” by David Quammen, or “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity,” by Carl Zimmer, or “It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness,” by Suzanne O’Sullivan — but they’re often less than comforting. When my kids were younger, I loved rereading the books of my childhood with them, and discovering the books of their generation. I’m a big fan of the Lemony Snicket series. Every so often, just because, I reread the books of William Steig — “Amos & Boris,” or “Brave Irene,” or “Doctor De Soto” — and each time they fill me with joy and tenderness. William Steig was a genius.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’m interested in what it’s like to be alive on this earth. I’m interested in human truth. I’m not interested in escapism, and not particularly interested in entertainment for its own sake. Writers can explore life and truth in any genre — Penelope Fitzgerald and Hilary Mantel do this in historical fiction; Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin do it with science fiction; the scriptwriter Sally Wainwright does it in her TV crime series “Happy Valley.” So I wouldn’t rule something out by genre. That said, I gravitate toward the kind of fiction that is of no genre at all, and therefore gets called “literary fiction,” or used to; the kind that is more interested in people and in language than in plot.
How do you organize your books?
Once upon a time the books were alphabetical, by subject — history in one place, philosophy and religion in another, literature in a third, etc. But we’re inundated now, and have been for some time. Books get put where they’ll fit — sometimes two rows deep on the shelf, in the guest room, in the garage, in the bathroom — which means it’s sometimes hard to find a particular volume. I’ll sit still and close my eyes and hope for a vision of its spine upon a shelf.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
We’re in possession of some surprising books, I think, just because we’re in possession of so many. In addition to those we’ve accumulated, we also have books from my parents’ libraries, though we had to give most of them away — things like Glubb Pasha’s “The Great Arab Conquests” or a first edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring,” or Margaret Laurence’s “The Diviners.” I don’t know if we still have a copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”; I bought it because everyone else did, I guess. Needless to say, I never read it. There used to be a story, perhaps apocryphal, that someone had put a five pound note in a hundred copies of that best-selling book, about two-thirds of the way through, along with a request that the reader, upon discovering the money, should send a postcard acknowledging it. Supposedly the person never got any postcards at all.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Sadly, it’s been years since people gave me books as gifts. The only person who continues to do so is my remarkable father-in-law, a retired British zoology professor and Anglican minister in his 90s who lives in a small village in Scotland. One of the best I received from him was “At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches,” by Susan Sontag. It’s an interesting book, but what amazed me was the thoughtfulness of the gift, the fact that my father-in-law, who isn’t the sort of person who would read Susan Sontag, realized that I would and did. He doesn’t order books online, either, so he had to go to some trouble to get it.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Chiefly avid. I’d read anything, anywhere. I’d read the cereal box at breakfast, I’d read in cars and on trains and planes. (“Why do you travel like a suitcase?” my father would complain. “Look out the window!”) So many favorites I can’t begin to list them all. I was a kid in Australia, and then in Canada; but really my childhood was in Sydney. Among the books I adored were all the Tintin books (“Tintin in Tibet” is my favorite), the stories of Eleanor Farjeon, the “Swallows and Amazons” series, “Seven Little Australians,” the novels of Ivan Southall (all of them — but I reread “Ash Road” not long ago and it’s still amazing), “Watership Down,” “A Wizard of Earthsea,” anything by E. Nesbit, and perhaps unexpectedly, Eric Linklater’s “The Wind on the Moon,” which my sister and I loved intensely — it’s about two naughty sisters — and which The New York Review of Books wonderfully reissued when my kids were small, so they could enjoy it too.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I’m a more impatient reader, in age. When I was young, I believed in finishing what I started; not so much now, aware as I am of finitude, of how little time we really have. Part of that impatience is with fakery. There’s so much fakery, in fiction as in life. I just don’t have time for it anymore.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
You know, often when you meet writers, they disappoint. There’s no reason for a brilliant writer to be good company. I’d like to suggest dinner with Montaigne, Virginia Woolf and Albert Camus, but even as I imagine it, I’m plagued by terrible social anxiety and the uneasy question of how they would converse — would I have to spend the whole evening translating? How awkward. So maybe it would just be best to organize a dinner party with living writers I know already, that would definitely be fun — something we occasionally actually get to do, or used to. I’d really love to have dinner with Camus, though.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Each of us has our own literary taste, just as in music or food. Because life is so busy — teaching, writing, kids, dogs — I don’t pick up a book (if I don’t have to) unless I think it will interest me. Sometimes I’m not ultimately sufficiently interested to finish it; but that’s often not the book’s fault. Over the course of my life I’ve tried upon numerous occasions to read “Tristram Shandy,” without success. There’s an important literary tradition that descends through the centuries from Sterne’s novel, and I’ll be honest, I struggle rather to enjoy it.
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