I get a daily email from Shelf Awareness (its tagline is “Daily enlightenment for the book trade”) that’s a compendium of publishing/bookstore/author news and literary tidbits of all flavors. One of my favorite sections is called Book Brahmin, where they interview authors, publishers and scruffy roustabouts of the book trade with a series of questions about what books they are currently reading and the like. Since it might be a while before Shelf Awareness gets around to me with their penetrating, nosy literary interrogation, I thought I’d prepare a little something in advance. Here are the things they ask their trembling interlocutors:
On your nightstand now:
I’m a stacker, so there’s always a tower of tomes, some of which I nibble at, some of which I doggedly hike through, and some of which I devour. There’s Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, juicy literary stuff. There’s Monterey Bay and Beyond, kind of like a historical tour guide of points of interest and attractions on California’s central coast. Also, Haunted Baseball, a sort of silly nonfiction work on ghosts and haints frequenting major and minor league stadiums—I’m a sucker for baseball books.
Providing weighty dignity to the mix is The Workshop, Seven Decades of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which is a collection of essays, stories and mismatched oddments from graduates of the country’s most prestigious academic writing program. Great stuff, but at nearly 800 pages, a wrestling match. And my newest (and oldest): Plain Facts: For Young Women on Marijuana, Narcotics, Liquor and Tobacco. It’s a 1938 publication (with chapter titles like “Maybelle the Doper” and “Are Smoking Women Attractive”) that seeks to keep our womanhood pure and simpleheaded. Er, simple hearted. Well, wholesome. (By the way, on that “Smoking Women” issue: smoking women should be extinguished, not excoriated.)
Lastly, the good ol’ Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition. Check it out sometime: you won’t believe how many ding-dang words are in there!
Favorite book when you were a child
I was nutzoid for dinosaur books as a kid, and graduated to baseball books, but one of the books that made an early impression on me for its bookish qualities was The Phantom Tollbooth. The author, Norton Juster, really let readers know just how durn fun it is to play with words, twist ’em, poke ’em and plead with them for mercy.
Your top five authors
One of those answers that might change with the lunch menu, but: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut
Book you’ve faked reading
I was one of those kids who brought paperbacks to school to tuck into my textbook while other classes were going on. Thus, every math book I was ever given, I’ve faked reading. (Two plus two? Don’t even ask.)
Book you’re an evangelist for
Well, books: Plainsong, by Kent Haruf and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Exquisite use of language and pinpoint characterizations. Several of Annie Dillard’s works also invite you to drink in the intoxications of language (and remarkable word-clusterings in a syntactical sense too).
Book you’ve bought for the cover
Probably Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s a graphic novel whose cover displays Ware’s remarkably intricate mastery of perspective and detail in a unique style. The book is beautifully rendered (and terribly sad).
Book that changed your life
There are many (I’m fickle), but one early influence was Hesse’s Siddhartha, which made a spiritual, contemplative life very appealing to a 15-year-old boy, which is something of a miracle. Even now, I admire the rhythms of its simply stated philosophical persuasions.
Favorite line from a book
Again, impossible to pin down, but this one sticks with me: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald’s last line from Gatsby. It’s a lot like Faulkner’s, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” in its sense that our selves of the present are indelibly etched by the selves of our past.
Book you most want to read again for the first time
Huck Finn. That book gave me indescribable pleasure when I first read it (and still does, but being a virgin to it again sounds like a tantalizing joy). The richness of the language, the laugh-out-loud characters, the development of Huck and Jim’s bond, the lyrical movement down the river, rich with sensuous detail and meaningful metaphor—wow!
So, now you know. Shelf Awareness, call me anytime. Anybody else, feel free to tell me what’s on your nightstand (or hidden in your nightshirt…).