What books are on your night stand?
“The Luminous Novel,” by Mario Levrero. “Booth,” by Karen Joy Fowler. “The Swank Hotel,” by Lucy Corin. “Time Will Darken It,” by William Maxwell. “The Wrong End of the Telescope,” by Rabih Alameddine.
What’s the last great book you read?
“A Journey to the End of the Millennium,” by A.B. Yehoshua! It’s not a book I would normally pick up, but I live on recommendations (Michael Chabon forced this one on me) and WOW. An adventure tale of North African Jewish and Arab merchants in A.D. 999 heading into exotic France! Incredibly beautiful writing, Hilary Mantel subtlety with history, and the wonder of exploring a “new” world which we in the West think so familiar. Sadly, Yehoshua died just this summer. A great way to enter his work.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“Moby-Dick”! Can you believe it? We read parts in high school and it was so booooring. But I picked it up while writing “Less Is Lost” and couldn’t put it down — it’s hilarious! Why did no one tell me it was hilarious? I thought it was this dismal screed about God and obsession. But it’s not; it’s a hoot and a half.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Maybe,” by Lillian Hellman. Once a year I have a cocktail and write to New York Review Books on social media to bring it back in print and they say “Yeah yeah thanks” but it never happens. It is the nuttiest book by a wild author; it only makes sense when you realize all the characters are drunk, including the narrator (and author), who falls into a thorn bush near the end and tipsily sends a telegram. Can’t get enough of it.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
They’re all guilty pleasures. “Moby-Dick” is a guilty pleasure. Agatha Christie is a guilty pleasure. A.B. Yehoshua is a guilty pleasure. Because you’re stealing time for something amazing just for yourself. I think once you start thinking some books are not guilty pleasures then you’re not a good answer to the dinner party question.
“Less Is Lost” brings back the hero of your last novel, “Less,” and follows him on a trip across America. Are there other road-trip narratives or travelogues you particularly admire?
“Travels With My Aunt,” by Graham Greene. One of his “entertainments” (the books he didn’t think were serious), it’s maybe my favorite because it isn’t as entrenched in postcolonial politics. It’s just a bossy old woman dragging her uptight nephew into more and more dangerous situations. It’s also hilarious! But the movie with Maggie Smith is not to be seen. Don’t do it. I wish I hadn’t mentioned it. But go out and read that book!
What other books deserve a sequel?
Almost every book I love, if we define “sequel” as diving into the same language and storytelling. For instance, I’d love to see a sequel to “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” because I just want to be in that world some more. Not those characters or places necessarily, but that style and epic sweep. Mr. Chabon, are you reading this?
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That phone used to be spelled ’phone. Meaning, with an apostrophe to mark where the word has been shortened. I learned it from an Agatha Christie novel, I forget which one, but it was something like “I had just come in and from the other room I heard the ’phone.” Isn’t that interesting?
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Well, I always like a heist.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Language. When something interesting is said in an interesting way. That’s why poetry moves me the most; they get right to the language. It’s funny to think about for nonwriters, but just as painting is all about paint, and photography is all about light, writing is all about words. And the most ordinary sentiment (“he felt love” or “they died”) can be transformed by language into something new. It forces us to feel it again. And that’s important. To me, at least.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Love love love science fiction. Love high fantasy. Love cozy murder mysteries. I just can’t understand how they can pull those off! I avoid much Domestic Literary Fiction, to be honest, and I suppose I don’t read romance except that almost everything I love is basically romance anyway. There must be genres I don’t know about — Nurse Robot Adventures and Navy Panda Horror — but I’m mostly game for anything. Who would have thought Hard-boiled Detective would be my thing? But I love it, too. Oh, I do avoid I Wrote an 800-Page Book About a Dude I’m a Genius, Right? Those are not my thing.
How do you organize your books?
I separate fiction and “nonfiction” (whatever that is), then alphabetize. But I’m too lazy to truly alphabetize, so I just get all the W’s together and figure I’ll know Colson Whitehead is in there somewhere.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I no longer feel the need to read every new “hot” book out there or have an opinion about it. I also read lots more work in translation and lots more poetry, but that’s probably the influence of my friend Daniel Handler, who mails them to me with stickie notes that say things like “Couldn’t put it down.” Well, he’s always right.
Can you separate a book from its social context?
I think you can do anything you want to with a book, in your mind. After all, it’s your book now. It’s interesting to think about it both ways. Lots of ways, in fact.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Oh, I think Marlon James, Cathy Park Hong and Elaine Castillo would be a hoot together! They’re all such wonderful storytellers and kind souls. I never know about inviting dead people. Dorothy Parker seems fun but you’d spend the whole party explaining to her what the internet is.
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?
James. Fenimore. Cooper. I reread a lot of American lit for “Less Is Lost” and I couldn’t read more than a page of “Last of the Mohicans.” Not only is it wildly offensive, it’s unintelligible gibberish. There. I said it. Come after me.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Never read Dostoyevsky. I did try! But it was maybe 30 years ago. I guess I should try again. Every time I pick one up, though, life starts to feel awfully short.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m going to try Natalia Ginzburg’s “Lessico Famigliare” in Italian. My Italian is terrible, but if a book has narrative sweep and charm it’s like drinking half a bottle of wine: Somehow I start to understand Italian!
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