Sixty-five of the world’s leading writers open up about the books and authors that have meant the most to them
Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature. These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating exchanges, featuring personalities as varied as David Sedaris, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Lamott, and James Patterson. The questions and answers admit us into the private worlds of these authors, as they reflect on their work habits, reading preferences, inspirations, pet peeves, and recommendations.
For the devoted reader, By the Book is a way to invite sixty-five of the most interesting guests into your world. It’s a book party not to be missed. Contributors include:
By the Book contains the full uncut interviews, offering a range of experiences and observations that deepens readers’ understanding of the literary sensibility and the writing process. It also features dozens of sidebars that reveal the commonalities and conflicts among the participants, underscoring those influences that are truly universal and those that remain matters of individual taste.
David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, among other books.
What book is on your night stand now?
I was a judge for this year’s Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, so until very recently I was reading essays written by clever high school students. Now I’ve started Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy. His last book, Foreskin’s Lament, really made me laugh.
When and where do you like to read?
Throughout my twenties and early thirties—my two-books-per-week years—I did most of my reading at the International House of Pancakes. I haven’t been to one in ages, but at the time, if you went at an off-peak hour, they’d give you a gallon-sized pot of coffee and let you sit there as long as you liked. Now, though, with everyone hollering into their cellphones, it’s much harder to read in public, so I tend to do it at home, most often while reclining.
What was the last truly great book you read?
I’ve read a lot of books that I loved recently. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by a woman named Barbara Demick, was a real eye-opener. In terms of “great,” as in “This person seems to have reinvented the English language,” I’d say Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. What an exciting story collection it is, unlike anything I’ve ever come across.
J. K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter series and the novels The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm, the last two under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
What were your favorite books as a child?
The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; Manxmouse, by Paul Gallico; everything by Noel Streatfeild; everything by E. Nesbit; Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (indeed, anything with a horse in it).
Did you have a favorite character or hero as a child? Do you have a literary hero as an adult?
My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.
What’s the best book your mother ever gave or read to you?
She gave me virtually all the books mentioned above. My most vivid memory of being read to is my father reading The Wind in the Willows when I was around four and suffering from the measles. In fact, that’s all I remember about having the measles: Ratty, Mole, and Badger.
If you could bring only three books to a desert island, which would you pack?
Collected works of Shakespeare (not cheating—I’ve got a single volume of them); collected works of P. G. Wodehouse (two volumes, but I’m sure I could find one); collected works of Colette.
Marilynne Robinson is the author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Mother Country, among other books.
Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I do reread. I tend to think of the reading of any book as preparation for the next reading of it. There are always intervening books or facts or realizations that put a book in another light and make it different and richer the second or the third time.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
A wonderful writer has given the best of herself or himself in the work. I think many of them are frustrated by the thinness and inadequacy of ordinary spoken language, of ordinary contact even with the people they know best and love best. They turn to writing for this reason. I think many of them are magnanimous in a degree their lives cannot otherwise express. To meet Emily Dickinson or Henry James would be, from their side, to intrude on them, maybe even to make them feel inadequate to expectation. I can’t imagine being a sufficient reason for the disruption. We do have their books. That said, I would like to meet William James.
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.
Many a book is now touted as The Tipping Point for X or Y, or generally Gladwellian. What do you make of the many imitators and homages?
I’m flattered, naturally. Although I should point out that it is sometimes said that I invented this genre. I did not. Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross did.
In general, what kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?
I don’t think I will ever write about politics or foreign policy. I feel like there is so much good writing in those areas that I have little to add. I also like to steer clear of writing about people whom I do not personally like. My rule is that if I interview someone, they should never read what I have to say about them and regret having given me the interview.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have—by conservative estimate—several hundred novels with the word “spy” in the title.
What do you plan to read next?
Something with the word “spy” in the title.
Earl Wilson / The New York Times
Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of Parenting, Inc., Pornified, and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, Paul was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vogue. She and her family live in New York.
What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favorite childhood books?
I was the kind of obsessive and voracious reader that actually frightened grownups. My local public library was across the street from my elementary school and I would stop there for hours on the way home. I read the children’s library’s entire wall of biographies – I knew everything there was to know about Dolley Madison and Florence Nightingale. I begged the librarian to allow me to reshelve books for them but was sternly rebuffed. She must have seen a dangerous gleam in my eye.
As a child, I loved the twin titans of 70s girlhood: Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Also Madeleine L’Engle. I adored the “B is for Betsy” series by Carolyn Haywood and the “Ginnie and Geneva” series. I grew up with seven brothers so I did not like to read about boys. Even when I read Archie comics, I went for the Betty and Veronicas.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain. It would be feisty and fierce – something would get spilled and someone might actually get hurt – but I could just lean back and listen, and wonder what each would write about it the next day.
Which three books do you bring to a desert island?
The Bible, because I never got past Cain and Abel in my children’s edition – too violent and male-centric. War and Peace because I’ve been meaning to re-read it, and this would give me a chance. The Golden Bowl because it was the one assigned book in college that I never got around to reading.