In celebration of her new book, By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review, we asked Pamela Paul to answer the questions she's usually asking some of the world's most talented writers.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Pamela Paul: Right now, I'm reading Moss Hart's marvelous memoir, Act One, a delight on so many levels. I saw the play based on the book earlier this year, and had been meaning to read it ever since. Now that we've got our Notables and Best Books picked for the year, I can do a little "freelance reading." Also, among books published quite a while ago, John Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, which I was inspired to turn to after reading Ben Macintyre's hugely entertaining A Spy Among Friends earlier this year. I still want to read Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, which came out last year. And I haven't read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, also on the pile.
Children's books too: The Little House books, which I'm reading aloud to my daughter at night. The first Harry Potter, which I am midway through re-reading as an ongoing project for my children's book club, Kidlit. I feel doubly inspired because my middle child just finished the books for the first time, and my eldest just re-read them a third time. I'm a slacker by comparison.
What are your favorite books of all time?
PP: I've got a long list, even though I'm just going to stick to the classics. First, the Russians: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov. Short stories: "The Nose," "The Double." Another favorite story: "The Secret Sharer," by Joseph Conrad — I've always wanted to make it into a movie. I generally love stories at sea even though I don't particularly like being at sea — "Benito Cereno" is another. My favorite Edith Wharton by far is The House of Mirth and for George Eliot, I am tied between Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. I loved The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks. The best book that made me cry was The Portrait of a Lady, and the books that have made me laugh more than any others were and still are Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. Other random favorites: I adored Of Human Bondage, William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes, and A Modern Instance.
As for nonfiction: George Orwell's essays are still the very best. The Emperor of All Maladies by Sidddartha Mukherjee. Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon. Self-help: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen ... And Listen So Kids Will Talk (works with grown-ups too).
I gobble up memoir and biography and so must subcategorize in order to do some justice. Memoir: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, Present at the Creation by Dean Acheson, The Long Road to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, everything by Spalding Gray. Graphic memoir: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Stitches by David Small, Maus by Art Spiegelman. Biography: The Power Broker. Literary biography: Richard Ellmann on Oscar Wilde.
Comics: Claire Bretécher's Les Frustrées. She and Roz Chast graphically narrate my life.
And who is your favorite novelist of all time?
PP: Why would I ask such an impossible question? There is no such thing as just one favorite. If I could name several I would say George Eliot, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Edith Wharton.
What do you like to read when you travel?
PP: I generally enjoy reading things that feel inappropriate to the venue. On a trip to London last year, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I once read Moby-Dick on Ko Phi Phi Island in Thailand, with the idea that it was sort of "beach reading." I have very strong associations of places with books. In Beijing, for example, I would eagerly rush back to the hotel at night to read Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Earlier on that trip, a six-week swing through northwest China, I read Silas Marner. It didn't really make sense, except insofar as I always like my reading to transport me when I'm away, so reading about "home" has a certain logic.
What do you like to read when procrastinating?
What do you like to read right before bed?
PP: Something just a tiny bit tiring. I don't get enough sleep on page turners.
What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favorite childhood books?
PP: I was the kind of obsessive and voracious reader that actually frightened grown-ups. 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.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
PP: Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. I've never re-read it, so memory may serve me wrong. But my recollection is that the protagonist was always calculating the most efficient solution to everything, beginning with getting out the door each morning. There was satire and social commentary in there that was mostly lost on my developing brain. Instead the book led to a lifetime of aspirational efficiency. Also, the book was about a family with 12 children, and I am drawn to book and movie stories about large families — All of a Kind Family, Little Women, Meet Me In St. Louis, etc. I stopped at three children in my own, but even with that number, efficiency comes in handy.
You're hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
PP: 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?
PP: 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.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good. What books did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn't?
PP: I actually hate a lot of books that other people passionately love. I really disliked The Great Gatsby, and honestly, all of Fitzgerald leaves me cold. (Though I adored Nancy Milford's Zelda biography.) I gritted my teeth with disgust through The Fountainhead, which contains some of the worst prose I've ever read. Dominique was always striding across the room. I dislike the Beats and couldn't stand On the Road. I wanted to throttle Holden Caulfield — what a complainer! What kind of person would complain like that? Oh, wait.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
PP: I'm seriously behind on my midcentury men. With the exception of Seize the Day, I haven't read any Saul Bellow. Haven't read Updike or Nabokov. I've only read three Philip Roth novels. The only Eliot I haven't read is Romola.
What do you plan to read next?
PP: Maybe one of those. Or I could chip away at my nightstand cache.
Pamela Paul is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Follow her on Twitter.
To learn more about By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review, click here.