Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love to read in the tub, but I easily fall asleep and end up with a soggy bloated creature rather than a legible book. This works out well for the authors, as I always go buy another copy. I have bought and drowned four copies of Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” – that’s how powerful her message is. Otherwise, I like it to be summer and breezy, the air scented with spicy flowers, me in a comfortable chair or sofa with a cup of coffee and a pen for underlining.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I’ll mention three lesser-read novels by well-known authors. I deeply love “The Catherine Wheel,” by Jean Stafford, for its extraordinary and often very funny sentences. It takes place during a summer in Maine in a fusty old town and a house full of old-fashioned objects and habits, yet like her work in general it’s sobering about the nature of desire. “A Handful of Dust,” by Evelyn Waugh, always makes me squirm and hope I’m not deluding myself like Tony Last. It’s a scathing book that takes down the pretensions of class and empire as it entertains with quick brilliant scenes. “The Good Terrorist,” by Doris Lessing, “is a thorough look at radical squatters in London and what they understand and what they do not.
Which writers – novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets – working today do you admire most?
Hilton Als and Vivian Gornick. His “White Girls” and her “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” are favorites. I will always read a review by Merve Emre or James Wood. I recently read Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” and was excited by her determination to create histories of undocumented lives. Roxane Gay’s and Rebecca Solnit’s bylines attract me. I like Krista Tippet’s, Miwa Messer’s and Ezra Klein’s podcasts. Nicholson Baker is endlessly inventive, funny, serious and challenging.
John Updike chose your short story “In the Gloaming” as one of the best American stories of the 20th century. Are there story writers you particularly admire, or feel more people should know about?
I am very attached to particular stories and reread them when I want to remember the exhilarating possibilities of writing. “Camp Cataract,” by Jane Bowles, is a stunner, as is “The Remission,” by Mavis Gallant. I do not even teach those stories as their wizardry is inexplicable, at least by me. I do teach “Babylon Revisited,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Wilderness Station,” by Alice Munro, “Lawns,” by Mona Simpson, “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, “The Garden-Party,” by Katherine Mansfield, “Good Country People,” by Flannery O ‘Connor, “The Embassy of Cambodia,” by Zadie Smith, “Just Before the War With the Eskimos,” by JD Salinger, “The Five-Forty-Eight,” by John Cheever, and “Bronze,” by Jeffrey Eugenides. I love stories that shift directions in the middle and have real endings.