Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Once I was praising “Time’s Arrow,” by Martin Amis, and a friend called it “gimmicky” with a dismissive wave of the hand — the novel is told backward, as in all the characters actually move backward, as if they are on rewind, which flips the meaning of many things, and in my view, this change allowed for the emotional force and surprise of the book. So that was a bummer of a conversation. But we got past it.
Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood?
I don’t really think “Ulysses” is widely misunderstood, but I did have my own narrow misunderstanding about it; I hadn’t known that the first three chapters focus on Stephen Dedalus, the same Stephen from “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” a book I hadn’t connected with, but in Chapter 4, Dedalus moves aside and in comes big feeler Leopold Bloom and the writing style changes dramatically. I took a wonderful course with Wilton Barnhardt in graduate school, and he was the most joyful guide to this book and let us soak in the language, and allow that as our entry instead of trying to crack every allusion, which is never my strength. Had I picked up the book on my own, without Wilton, I would’ve felt so daunted by Dedalus and never found Bloom.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The Bodei book on my nightstand is all about how we navigate the world of objects, written in such friendly prose — orphaned objects, clusters of objects that define a generation, objects that used to be trackable to the humans that made them (cobbler, tailor, etc.) and now aren’t, and all the consequences of this.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I love this question. It’s really both. When I read someone like Borges, I feel keenly that through his thought experiments, he is getting to emotion. And I feel this in a totally different way with Maggie Nelson: She is able to wrangle with concepts in part through an emotional palette, which allows me to understand theory under her guidance much more than I might through a purely cerebral writer. I love seeing these elements work together on the page. Whatever it is, I just want some part of a book to be abstracted in some way so that the emotion can sidle in unexpectedly — it could be a kind of strangeness, or a formal experimentation, or whatever, but it seems to be that once my thinky self is occupied with that, I am freed up to feel.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I am a fan of all genres! It ultimately comes down to language. When something is told in a way that feels specific to that particular writer, then the story can go anywhere and I will happily follow. I don’t think I read for plot or even character — I read for something living below the words that drives both of those things and shows up in the sentences.
How do you organize your books?
Pile 1, Pile 2, Pile 3 … Pile 10, and then some shelves.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a big reader, and gobbled up especially the books of wondrous lands. I must’ve read Baum’s Oz books 50 times each. And all the L’Engle, magical family and nonmagical family. Also “The Four-Story Mistake,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” Julie Andrews’s marvel “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles,” fairy tales from around the world, often collected in the Lang books — Lilac, Ochre and more — “The Phantom Tollbooth,” Stuart Little crashing his little light wooden hammer on the faucet to get enough water to brush his teeth.
What do you plan to read next?
“Signs Preceding the End of the World,” Yuri Herrera — very excited to dive into this one! I’ve heard great things.