Happy 2017! A favorite Sunday tradition of mine is to sit down with the New York Times Book Review and read the “By the Book” feature. Well-known authors or public figures are asked thought-provoking questions about their reading habits. It’s unlikely that the Times has me on their “must interview” list, but I thought it might be fun to run through the routine questions and share my literary tastes with you. Wishing you a year of good reading!
What books are on your nightstand now?
A pile that keeps growing despite my efforts to whittle it down. Non-fiction titles that reflect my interest in mental agility are Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain; David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter; and Rhetorica Ad Herennium, a treatise on memorization techniques and speech writing by a contemporary of Cicero’s. My usual go-to is fiction, and recent and current reads stacked up are Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant; Steven King’s The Dead Zone (for its frightening parallels with the 2016 election yet written 30 years ago); Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird; Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; and two new short story collections—Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men and Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts.
Really, Death of a Salesman?
It’s a classic play, but in this case it’s more about the book as artifact. It’s a hardcover “Book of the Month Club” edition from 1949. The dust jacket is beautifully illustrated, the endpapers boast an artist’s rendering of the set for the play, and tucked in are some pieces of ephemera, like mailing inserts about other books the reader received and a review of the play. It is a time capsule.
What’s the last great book you read?
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Maybe because I read it on long slow train rides on vacation in Romania. Still, it transported me to other times and places and filled my mind with gorgeous visuals and imaginary aromas.
Who is your dream interview subject for your blog on memorization and creative thinking?
Bill Clinton because he is known for having an incredible ability to remember people’s names. And Joshua Foer, whose revelatory book Moonwalking with Einstein popularized the art of memory far and wide.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. The man is a sick genius for his ability to parody the untouchable icon that is Anne Frank. And I say this as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I can’t get enough fiction. For years I felt guilty reading living authors because there were so many dead ones that I hadn’t yet read. In my late 20s I got turned on to Gore Vidal, Ian McEwan, T.C. Boyle, and Katherine Dunn, among others, and realized what I was missing. Paul Theroux’s travel narratives were my gateway to non-fiction, especially memoir and history. My interest in science fiction seems limited to Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. I’ll read the geekiest books on linguistics and shy away from business and economics.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously?
Paper, paper, paper because our physical engagement with the different formats offered by books, newspapers, magazines, and handwritten letters is part of the total reading experience. We retain more, and can recall the source more readily, when we have memories of the movement required to turn pages, the weight, the texture, the sound, and even the scent of the original material. Yes, it can make my backpack heavier, but that counts in part as a workout. With fiction, I tend to stick to one novel or anthology at a time. With non-fiction, I’ll hop around between books.
How do you organize your books?
Alphabetically within each genre: fiction; biography and history; reference and foreign language texts; art, architecture, and travel; humor and puzzles; graphic novels and comic books (Tintin and Asterix were key to my learning other languages); and non-fiction relevant to the study of memory, human-computer interaction, and creative thinking.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
All of the novels of Irvin Yalom, the psychiatry professor turned novelist. A friend of mine introduced me to them years ago, and I find the blend of historical fiction and psychoanalysis unlike anything else.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Some vintage editions from my childhood of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth have special meaning. But in the last 10 years, a stand-out is Obabakoak in Spanish by the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga. I was visiting an old friend in Madrid, whom I’d known since my time as an exchange student there in 1980, and he and I were together in a bookstore when he bought if for me. It’s significant for that reason but also because of a passage about life in a small Basque village. Every morning all the old people walk together to the edge of town and trudge up a gentle hill. The view is not especially majestic, and the trail itself is unremarkable. But they do it because they know that there will come a day when they will no longer be able to.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
The usual suspects: enchanting magical tales for kids, Agatha Christie mysteries, and the Danny Dunn and Hardy Boys series. I devoured all the required canonical literature in junior high and high school and usually sought out more works by the same time-honored writers—Salinger, Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen, Steinbeck, Dickinson, etc. Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, I found the works of Southern authors like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty particularly exotic.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Tough call. I would love to invite many and put them together in break-out groups. George Orwell and Dave Eggers should discuss how 1984 and The Circle are parts one and two on the same theme. Mark Twain, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gertrude Stein, and David Sedaris could spend days comparing notes on the comic foibles of American society. Patricia Highsmith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Javier Marías could muse on the shadowy side of humanity. I am not their peer, so I’d let them talk shop among themselves and be a fly on the wall.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Far be it from me to slam any authors successful enough to get their books published. So without naming names, I’ll say that I get irked with potboilers that are not really books but rather drafts of a screenplay. A former colleague gave me a good tip once—when choosing a book, read page 99. If nothing grabs you (ideas, actions, dialogue, phrasing), pass on it. This tactic has made me a more selective buyer who will read books through to the end.
See my Resources page for a bibliography of titles that went into How Could I Forget You! A Creative Way to Remember Names and Faces. May your new year be filled with books that engage you!