How does your reading influence your own writing process, if at all?
Obliquely. When I’m stuck on something I’m trying to write I turn to other, better writers for inspiration, but it’s only occasionally that I look for something specific – like when I don’t. can’t find my way through an article and go read the openings of a few dozen pieces that I love just to remind myself how they work. But this is an exception to the rule. In general, if I have trouble with, say, scientific writing, I’m just as likely to reread âSong of Solomonâ by Toni Morrison as âThe Song of the Dodoâ by David Quammen. The point is not to find a model for what I am trying to write; the goal is to rekindle my love and faith in all that good writing can do.
Do you consider certain books to be guilty pleasures?
I am not sure if I consider pleasures to be culpable, with the possible exception of schadenfreude. I love William James and Henry James, but did I also read EL James in 2011? You bet. More to my liking, however, there are a few literary inclinations that I have retained from childhood – among them, a love of mysteries and detective novels and a penchant for medieval tales of all kinds. “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Malory is made respectable by its age of six centuries and “The Once and Future King” by TH White is a truly exceptional book, but I have a very high tolerance for what you might call Arthurian waste.
Which writers are particularly good at father-daughter relationships?
I have a vague feeling, which could be completely unfounded, that father-daughter relationships are under-represented in fiction compared to mother-daughter, mother-son, and father-son relationships. Yet Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath immediately spring to mind, albeit for the narrower category of great literature on horrific relationships; nobody wants a father like the ones in “King Lear” or “Daddy”. In the realm of non-fiction, I was dazzled by the intellectual, emotional and visual sophistication of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”, a graphic memoir about growing up with his father, a locked-in homosexual who died. , apparently by suicide, when she was in her 20s. And I was moved by Chimamanda Adichie’s âNotes on Mourningâ, in part because he’s an anti- âdaddyâ, an anti- âLearâ – that is, he is. an adorable portrait of a beloved relative.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or has it come between you?
I don’t often write hatchet work, but I am always persona non grata around Walden Pond for a critical article I wrote on Thoreau, and legions of F. Scott Fitzgerald fans will not forgive me. – never to publicly denigrate “The Great Gatsby” (including Joyce Carol Oates, who likened this act to spitting in the Grand Canyon). But at least one Fitzgerald devotee has changed her mind about me, if not about my essay: she read it, she hated it, she met me, she married me.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?
Meteorites make two prominent appearances in my next book, so I spent some time reading about the asteroid belt, where most of them originate from. From “Meteorites: A Journey Through Space and Time” by Alex Bevan and John Robert de Laeter, I learned this wonderful fact: unlike popular depictions in which a spacecraft entering the asteroid belt is immediately under bombardment. , this belt is so huge that, on average, the two asteroids it contains are more than half a million kilometers apart. This fact fits neatly into a category that I cherish: information that changes our sense of the scale of existence.
Do you prefer books that touch you emotionally or intellectually?
I am not sure I observe this distinction, as the path to my heart is through my prefrontal cortex.
How do you organize your books?
Obsessively, but it never lasts. Some time ago I wrote an essay on my mixed heritage on this front. When I was growing up, my mother was both alphabetically and thematically demanding about her books; the departments for which she was responsible essentially required call numbers and catalogs of cards. In contrast, my father’s organizing strategy involved throwing all the books he read into a pile next to the bed, resulting in a massive, towering threat – literally seven or eight feet tall – which we affectionately referred to as “the battery”. I regret that he never had the chance to write his By the Book; her response to “What books are on your nightstand?” Would have been 15 pages.