What books are on your night stand?
A mishmash of pleasure reading — “Passing,” by Nella Larsen, “Second Place,” by Rachel Cusk, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” by Ruth Ozeki, “Trust,” by Hernan Diaz, “An Immense World,” by Ed Yong — and books for a possible essay related to Dorothy Wordsworth: Dorothy’s “The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals.” “Home at Grasmere” (extracts from her journal interleaved with William’s poems), edited by Colette Clark. Frances Wilson’s “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life.” Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “The Immortal Evening” and also his “Posthumous Keats.”
What’s the last great book you read?
Damon Galgut’s “The Promise” — a rare example of a novel melding savage political and historical insight with brilliant literary structure. He captures a great deal about the last few decades in South Africa through the changes in one family.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Despite loving certain Willa Cather novels for years, I’d skipped others, thinking — I don’t know, that I wasn’t drawn to the subject matter? Silly me. During the pandemic I finally read, and loved, “Shadows on the Rock,” which is set in late-17th-century Quebec and shimmers with the same still radiance as “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I’ve pulled myself through clumsy but powerful books — Dreiser’s novels especially — but I can’t really think of them as “great.” That I remember the characters and stories must count for something, though.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Early morning, in bed, something I’ve been longing to read in my hand, dog and two cats still asleep along with the rest of the world. Rain is good. Bird sounds too.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Pioneers of Science,” by the British physicist Oliver Lodge (1893). I have a beautiful 1908 edition, with an ornate embossed cover and gilded page edges.
Your fiction often incorporates historical accounts of scientific discovery. Are there researchers or popular science writers you especially admire?
Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” rocked my world; ditto Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk,” Sy Montgomery’s “The Soul of an Octopus,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” and Scott Weidensaul’s “A World on the Wing.” I’ll read anything written by Jonathan Weiner or Richard Panek. Rachel Carson remains a touchstone.
What writers are especially good on the relationship between humans and the (rest of the) natural world?
See above — but also Willa Cather, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Natasha Trethewey, Marilynne Robinson, Jamaica Kincaid and many other poets and novelists. And Dorothy Wordsworth!
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?
Bats using their sonar to hunt luna moths are daunted by the long tabs hanging from the moths’ hind wings, which spin and twirl in flight and create confusing echoes. (Thanks, Ed Yong!)
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Sea, stars, sky, woods, ponds, birds, moths, lizards, mushrooms, mountains, bats, clouds — all the world outside the house and our narrow minds.
How do you organize your books?
Idiosyncratically, I guess? I know where everything is but visitors would be confused. Fiction and poetry alphabetically by writer, although dear friends get their own separate shelves. History roughly by period; biographies by subject, except when I mash together those who were close in life or slide them in next to volumes of their own fiction or poetry. Some shelves are packed with things related to whatever I’m working on: books about the Arctic, say, or books about cure cottages in the Adirondacks and tuberculosis. Right now, those shelves hold works of such mid- to late-19th-century women naturalists as Anna Botsford Comstock and Mary Treat.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series? Nautical history really is not my thing — but when I first came to W.W. Norton, my beloved editor, Carol Houck Smith (now sadly gone), sent me “Master and Commander” as a gift. I was dubious, then enchanted. She kept sending them, until I’d read them all.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
An almost complete 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, famous for its historical entries, which came to me when I was in my early 20s and flirting with graduate school.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Greedy! Also indiscriminate, and drawn to books supposedly for grown-ups. Luckily the kind librarian at the local Bookmobile let us take any books we could reach (I was ridiculously tall). Often these were fat historical novels, which I loved without grasping that what I was learning might be wildly biased or just invented. I remember falling into Mary Renault’s novels, Anya Seton’s “Katherine” and Leon Uris’s “Mila 18.” Until I was in my 30s, almost everything I knew about van Gogh came from reading Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life” at the age of 11 or 12.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read more books about writers and scientists than I used to — curious, I suppose, as I get older, how other lives play out. I’ve enjoyed biographies of Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, H.G. Wells, Robert Oppenheimer and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and also biographical fictions like Colm Toibin’s “The Master,” Benjamín Labatut’s “When We Cease to Understand the World,” Louisa Hall’s “Trinity” and Sigrid Nunez’s “Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury.” I’m also drawn now to books in which writers ponder reading other writers. I think my first were Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” and Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Three? Are you kidding? I want all of them — every single writer whose work has set my brain on fire. I’d like to hide under the table while they eat and talk and argue and laugh, eavesdropping and also seeing whose feet are tapping nervously, whose feet reaching out to other feet.
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?
“Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Alfred Döblin’s apparently great novel of the Weimar Republic, has been recommended to me many times. At least once a decade I start it, only to give up with regret and embarrassment.
What do you plan to read next?
Elizabeth Strout’s “Oh, William!” I loved “My Name Is Lucy Barton” and “Anything Is Possible” — not just because I adore Lucy as a character, but because of the brilliant ways Strout reflects and refracts impressions of Lucy. What will she do next?