Thursday, February 26, 2015

Q & A

And now for the good clean fun of a parlor game. Terry Teachout answers a list of bookish questions first addressed to David Brooks by the New York Times Book Review. I’m elbowing my way into the interview just behind Terry, whose answers sometimes overlap mine: 

What books are now on your night stand?
Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to VĂ©ra (Penguin Classics, 2014), documenting one of literature’s great love stories; Swift: Poetical Works (Oxford Standard Authors Series, 1967); Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). 

And what’s the last truly great book you read?
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958). 

Who is your favorite novelist ever? And your favorite who’s writing today?
Neither question elicits a reflexive answer, partly because “novelist” (like “novel”) is so elusive a category. Is Swift a novelist? Dr. Johnson? Pushed, I would say Henry James to the first and “I don’t know” to the second (though, like Terry, I like the author of A House for Mr. Biswas). 

What are your reading habits–do you prefer electronic or print? Do you write in your books? Keep them or give away?
Strictly print. Only occasionally do I vandalize books. Instead, I insert notes to mark noteworthy passages. I keep most of the good stuff, especially the books I might reread or at least consult. The rest I give away or sell.
What’s your favorite genre to read?
Is “well-written” a genre? It’s the only one worth paying attention to. “Genre” is usually a polite way to say crap. Like Terry, I’m a happy rereader of Wodehouse and Stark. 

What’s your favorite book about the newspaper business?
Again, I like Terry’s choice, but let me add The Press, A.J. Liebling’s collected press criticism. And let me qualify that by noting it’s probably the Liebling title I read least often. When I do, it’s for lines like this: “Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments.” 

What do you consider to be the best book about American politics ever written?
Witness (1952) by Whittaker Chambers. 

And what’s your favorite book by a political columnist?
I don’t have one. 

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?
Greedy. I favored field guides and biographies. A little later, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among his characters, David Innes and Abner Perry. 

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981) by Guy Davenport. 

If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would be it be, and why?
Dr. Johnson. The only other writer I can think of whose life and work vie for dominance in formulating my esteem would be Charles Lamb. I love Proust but I doubt we would have much to say to each other (though his English, fortunately, was better than my French). 

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Johnson, Lamb, Italo Svevo. The last because he was a great writer, mordantly funny, had learned English from James Joyce and knew something about the real world (business, marriage, children). 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’ve never felt that I was “supposed to like” any book. All of them are available OTC, no prescription required. About the time I reached draft age, I started permitting myself the luxury of not finishing lousy books, except when I was being paid to do so. Their number probably exceeds those I’ve read all the way through, which only makes sense. The mediocre in any art form always exceeds the excellent or even the passably good. 

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?
A fat, sympathetic biography of Yvor Winters. 

Who would you want to write your life story?
I’m laughing. 

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. 

What do you plan to read next?
Joseph Epstein’s Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). And I know nothing about sports.

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