1). What was your favorite book as a child?
The title eludes me and the book is long gone, but I repeatedly read a fat collection of one-page biographies. In particular I remember the lives of Charlemagne, Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla. Second place goes to a plump paperback, Facts about the Presidents, which ended with Kennedy. Fiction wasn’t important until I was ten, when I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs.
2). What’s the last really good book you read?
Imaginary Conversations by Walter Savage Landor. Make it a split decision: Italo Svevo’s Zeno's Conscience.
3). Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?
Except for a roughly ten-year period in my teens and twenties, always nonfiction, particularly biography, history and essays. I don’t know why. When I read fiction today, it’s usually something familiar, literary comfort food.
4.) Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
This remains the one compartment in my life where I indulge in guilt-free selfishness. If a book is dull, I chuck it. That was not a luxury I permitted myself when young. Books were serious business and they had to be read cover to cover. Anything less I understood as a personal defeat.
5.) List your ten favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end.
As of this hour:
Life of Johnson, James Boswell
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
Plays, William Shakespeare
Witness, Whittaker Chambers
The Complete Poems, Philip Larkin
American Musicians II, Whitney Balliett
Between Meals, A.J. Liebling
Essays, Michel de Montaigne
6.) Do you reread books? Which ones?
Most of my reading is rereading. See 3.).
7.) Do you read poetry? Why or why not?
Poets are in regular rotation – Larkin, Shakespeare, Swift, Winters, Pinkerton, Cunningham, Bowers, Dickinson, Sissman, C.H. Sisson, Stevie Smith, Hecht. Why? Pure pleasure.
8.) Do you remember the first "grown-up" book you read?
No. It’s not a distinction I’ve paid much attention to. Maybe Thurber. Maybe Steinbeck. Now I think of both as essentially children’s writers.
9.) Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?
Shakespeare, Melville, Jane Austen, others.
10.) How often do you read books that are more than one hundred years old?
Another trifling distinction.
11.) Is there a type (or types) of book you never read?
Self-help, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, psychology, sociology, most books about politics, anything about finance and economics.
12.) How do you choose what to read?
A question so simple I’m not certain how to answer. Instinct? Momentum? Chance? I know with certainty I’ve never engaged in high-minded reading regimens or “self-improvement,” or restricted my reading to writers of specified demographics.
13.) What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
Another distinction without a difference. Liebling’s The Sweet Science is about boxing, a subject without interest to me, and I reread it every few years.
14.) What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Dr. Johnson or Liebling. Both understood the importance of food. Boswell reports the former saying: “Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.”
15.) If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be?
I have no idea.
16.) If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
17.) Have you ever written a fan letter to an author?
Often. And I still do.
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?
To the first question, A Public Burning by Robert Coover, a work of pornographic seditiousness. To the second, no.
19.) Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking?
Not anymore. I’m not that important and neither are you.
20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished?
21.) Have you ever lied about having read a book?
I lied about a lot of things when young. Are people even capable of being impressed anymore by the books other people read or claim to have read?
22.) Do you keep track of the books you read?
Titles and dates, no. Why bother? I do copy out passages I want to remember.
23.) How do you form opinions about what you read?
I poll a random sampling of strangers. They tell me what to think.
24.) What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated?
Where to start? Let’s limit this to winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Overrated? So many to choose from, but I’ll single out Toni Morrison as a writer without redeeming literary qualities. Underrated? Rudyard Kipling, the best writer of short stories in English.
25.) Do you ever read self-help books?
Marcus Aurelius, William James, Eric Hoffer.
26.) What’s a book that shocked you?
I was in the book section of the May Co. department store in Cleveland, in the mid-nineteen-sixties. I found an anthology of recent America poetry, read a poem by Allen Ginsberg and saw fuck in print for the first time. I was shook. I didn’t know you could do that. Or why you would want to.
27.) If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be?
I don’t mean to be a prig about it but I don’t like the idea of forcing anybody to read anything. Illiteracy is its own punishment.
28.) What book would you recommend to me in particular?
Recommending books, especially to people you don’t know well, is dangerous, like giving advice. Too many people can end up hurt and disappointed. The best reading is self-driven. Time and serendipity are the best critics.
29.) What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet?
Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. I don’t know.
30.) What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?”
That applies to music and especially movies, not books.
31.) Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Not in any immediate, obvious way. I’m with Jacques Barzun in A Stroll with William James: “I am not the fortunate sort of person who can feed his mind and guide his moral conduct with the aid of a single book or author. I am naturally polytheistic and fastidiously (I hope) promiscuous.”
32.) If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read?
What I’ve always read. Why deny myself the proven pleasures?
33.) Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me?
Plenty. From the second of Allen Tate’s “Sonnets at Christmas”:
“Ah, Christ, I love you rings to the wild sky
And I must think a little of the past:
When I was ten I told a stinking lie
That got a black boy whipped; but now at last
The going years, caught in an accurate glow,
Reverse like balls englished upon green baize
Let them return, let the round trumpets blow
The ancient crackle of the Christ's deep gaze.”
34.) If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be?
I would add a couple of foreign languages, especially Italian for the sake of Dante, Leopardi and Montale.
35.) Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
36.) Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation?
None. If, however, I could have eleven, I would add Moby-Dick. Or Lives of the English Poets. Or Gulliver’s Travels. Or A Dance to the Music of Time. . .