Believe me, this is the most self-indulgent post I ever intend to write, and I promise it won’t happen again.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review has a feature called “By the Book,” in which a popular author is interviewed about reading. I love this feature. Some cranky fascination with Author X’s a) weird taste in literature; b) attitude; c) degree of show-offiness; d) suspected amount of fibbing; and e) comfort (or discomfort) level keeps me gobbling the interview as if it were popcorn.
I’m jealous of every writer who gets to answer the questions. I want to be the writer being interviewed. I want to tell everyone about books.
So I have decided that it’s my turn to ask and answer the questions, since no one from the Times has called for a phone date. You are most welcome to answer the questions too, in the Add a Comment section below.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year? Battle Bunny, a children’s book by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and Alex (yes, just “Alex”). Or perhaps it’s Alice McDermott’s Someone or Maile Meloy’s short story collection called Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.
Have you finished all the books you started this year? Almost none. I have a “read at least fifty pages” rule, but I didn’t follow it this year. Life’s too short.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time? Willa Cather. Who else would write a novel about aging, drop into it a completely stand-alone short story that works perfectly in (or out of) the book, and get away with it? I refer to The Professor’s House, and the short story is called “Tom Outland’s Story.” I often wonder if any editor or publisher would allow such a thing in a contemporary novel.
Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer? Willa Cather again. Once upon a time high school sophomores were required to read My Antonia in English Lit; more’s the pity if that’s no longer true. She’s mostly a joy to read (yes, there are a few flops), and you can grow up with her. Reading Death Comes for the Archbishop when you’re twenty is very different from the read you’ll get when you’re fifty. Talk about Great American Novels–that’s one of them. Cather is sometimes oddly clumsy, but writers can learn an enormous amount about writing by reading her.
What Great American Novel do you think is overrated? The Great Gatsby. Kindly refrain from hate mail or hate comments.
How do you keep your books organized? By owning as few of them as possible. My can’t-live-withouts (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction narrative) are jammed into one three-shelf Ikea bookcase; art books, reference books, and my own published books are tucked here and there around my very small apartment. Everything else I need or want is in the New York Society Library–that’s my true organizer.
What books are currently on your night stand? What night stand? Small apartment! But I have a book-width shelf that runs the length of my bed, and that’s where my current books are stacked: The Best American Short Stories 2013; Pat Barker’s Regeneration; Russell Banks’s Trailerpark; Carrie Fountain’s poetry, Burn Lake; The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszeski; Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams; William Stafford’s poetry, The Way It Is; and two books of Helen Levitt’s photographs.
What books do you reread? Category 1: books I like so much that I reread them every year or two, which includes Alice Munro’s and William Trevor’s short stories; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Raj Quartet; The Deptford Trilogy; Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands, and a few others. Category 2: books I reread quite often, because they comfort me, though it’s hard to say exactly why they do. Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a novel about nuns and the contemplative life; Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, his best novel, a family saga; John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, probably because homely little Smiley triumphs by brainpower.
What kind of reader were you as a child? The persistent kind. Also the snoopy kind. We had a houseful of books, but I had trouble learning to read (because I’m left-handed?) until well into the first grade. Once I got over the hurdle, no one haunted the library more than I did. The very word “library” can make me tear up with gratitude and love. A library is better than a great restaurant, a fabulous shoe store, and the best bakery in New York City put together. The snooping was in Mom’s closet, to sneak-peek at books I didn’t understand, mostly about sex.
What was your favorite book as a child? Newbery-award-winning And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold, which is truly a book for any age. I reread it regularly. One of the characters in the books is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and I will never forget my first actual sight of them, when I was forty.
What do you plan to read next? More short stories. I’m writing a novel and since not reading isn’t an option, short stories interfere least.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Lemuria Books, Jackson, MS
Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC
The Peregrine Book Company, Prescott, AZ