1. What was your favorite book as a child? Oddly enough, I don’t remember reading children’s books, though I know I did. The first novel that I clearly recall reading through the eyes of a child was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I adored. I reread it as an adult with only modest pleasure, but the 1934 film version in which Leslie Howard plays Sir Percy Blakeney remains a favorite.
2. What’s the last really good book you read? I’m currently reading Man in Profile, Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Joseph Mitchell. It’s exactly the kind of book I like to read and try to write.
3. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why? Nonfiction, but not by much. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had this preference.
4. Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading? Unless money is changing hands, I stop when I get bored.
5. List your ten favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end.
W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson
Max Beerbohm, And Even Now
David Cairns, Berlioz
Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb
James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor
Moss Hart, Act One
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time
Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now
6. Do you reread books? Which ones? All the time.
7. Do you read poetry? Why or why not? Not very often. I’m too narrative-driven to enjoy it as much as I should. I did, however, read a considerable amount of poetry in my youth, and I still draw on the imaginative capital that I accumulated back then. (The only major poet whose work I first encountered in adulthood and came to love at once is Philip Larkin.)
8. Do you remember the first “grown-up” book you read? I’m pretty sure it was either Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent or Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, both of which I had initially read as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
9. Are there any authors whose work you have read completely? None, if by that you mean absolutely every published word. I have, however, read all of the books of a great many writers (a word I far prefer to “authors,” by the way).
10. How often do you read books that are more than one hundred years old? Reasonably often, but I’m rather more likely at any given moment to be reading a book that is less old than that. This is, I’m sure, a journalist’s bias.
11. Is there a type (or types) of book you never read? Self-help books and novels for young adults. Nothing personal—I have friends who write in both genres. They’re just not my thing. (I tried the Harry Potter books out of cultural curiosity, but gave them up after the second or third volume.)
12. How do you choose what to read? I follow my nose.
13. What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about? To me, they’re consubstantial. If a book is poorly written, though, I’ll find it difficult to read no matter how interesting the subject is to me. (I can’t read Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis, for instance.)
14. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with? Probably Flannery O’Connor, though I can imagine regretting the choice after the fact. I expect she could be a tricky dinner companion.
15. If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be? Hugh Moreland, in A Dance to the Music of Time. (Strange that I should choose a male character, since nearly all of my real-life friends are women, but there it is.)
16. If you could be a literary character, who would it be? Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time. I fear, however, that I’m more like Charles Gray, in John P. Marquand’s Point of No Return.
17. Have you ever written a fan letter to an author? Many times. I believe devoutly in paying compliments. The first fan letter I ever wrote to a famous author I’d never met was to E.B. White, back when I was in college. (I long ago changed my mind about White, alas.)
18. Is there any book that, if I professed to love it, you would be turned off? Is there any book that would impress you in particular? No, to both questions. People are more important than books.
19. Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking? I don’t embarrass that easily.
20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished? That seems an absurd reason to be proud.
21. Have you ever lied about having read a book? In my not-so-innocent youth, I actually dared to review the biography of a writer of fiction whose works I’d never read (and still haven’t).
22. Do you keep track of the books you read? Only by writing about them, when I do. (The daily almanac posting on this blog sometimes offers clues as to what I’ve been reading lately.)
23. How do you form opinions about what you read? How do you form opinions? Do you have a machine at home, or do you send your first impressions out with the wash?
24. What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated? I certainly hope Dickens is overrated, because if he’s not, I’m really missing out on something. James Gould Cozzens, Somerset Maugham, and Edwin O’Connor, by contrast, are definitely underrated. (Colette isn’t so much underrated as insufficiently known, at least in this country.)
25. Do you ever read self-help books? You already asked me that, sort of.
26. What’s a book that shocked you? I don’t recall ever having been shocked by a book—at least not since I’ve been an adult.
27. If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be? Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
28. What book would you recommend to me in particular? I don’t know you.
29. What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet? Dickens again! I have what appears to be a permanent allergy to his work—there’s something about his prose that puts me off, and always has.
30. What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?” I don’t have guilty pleasures. I like what I like, period.
31. Has a book ever changed your mind about something? David R. Dow’s The Autobiography of an Execution changed my mind about the death penalty.
32. If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read? I don’t think that knowledge would change my reading habits. Work excluded, I read solely for pleasure.
33. Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me?
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
I had to double-check the punctuation, but I got the words exactly right.
34. If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be? Not a thing—except maybe to read more poetry.
35. Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way? Not in the way I think you have in mind. Books have taught me hugely important things about life and art, but I wouldn’t say that there is any one book I’ve lived by.
36. Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation? Not a one.
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UPDATE: To read Patrick Kurp’s answers to the same questions, go here.