One of my favorite part of the New York Times is called “By The Book,” which they describe as a section on “writers on literature and the literary life.” I love people talk about their favorite books, and especially love the opportunity to talk about books I love. I’m afraid that I’ll never be cool enough to be one of the people featured in “By The Book,” I’ve stolen some of their common questions and answered them here. Some of my favorites: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Lin-Manual Miranda, Siddhartha Mukherjee.
What books are currently on your night stand?
My bedside locker in New York currently belongs to a subletter, but back when it was mine, it was occupied by the last three volumes of Scott Pilgrim, a graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which I never got around to reading, and Season of Migration to the North, a book by Tayeb Salih which I kept there in the hope that friends who crashed in my bed would pick it up out of curiosity — it’s a terrific book.
Here in Tel Aviv, I have a copy of Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally. On my digital nightstand, aka my Kindle, I’m currently reading My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a history of the hip-hop movement by Jeff Chang.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?
The standout books from my childhood are Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, The Witches, by Roald Dahl, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling. Lyra, from Northern Lights, is probably my favorite literary character — she was adventurous and determined and everything I wanted to be. I love the Harry Potter series in part because Dad read the first four books to me, a chapter a night, as bedtime stories, and I loved them.
I dipped into Stephen King as a teenager, reading Salem’s Lot or Pet Semetary first, I think. I remember scaring myself silly on a holiday in the south of France. By that time I was 11 or 12, but it was Stephen King that cemented the idea that reading fiction was a pastime in the way that watching 5 hours of TV was a pastime for the average American. I read a lot for college, but even now that I’m writing a non-fiction book, I try to keep a ratio of 1:3 fiction to nonfiction ratio going in my read pile.
Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?
I have a very distinct memory of my childhood reading habits. I was so engrossed in the autobiography of the director of the early James Bond movies, Albert R. Broccoli, that my mum wouldn’t let me bring the book to school with me for fear of not paying attention. It was probably a founded fear, although I should say that my parents were nothing but encouraging of my reading habits, and introduced me to many of my favorite books.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz in two sittings (on a plane to and from Minneapolis) in May and then thrust a copy into my mum’s hands (as I said — the book swapping is a two-way street). It’s monumentally funny, and Diaz is one of the best storytellers writing today.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill if we’re using this opportunity to try and convince him (or, hopefully, her) to change some governmental policy. Being There, by Jerzy Kosinski, if he/she just wants a fun short book to get his/her mind off the fact that Donald Trump exists.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I started The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins on my flight to Israel, and was astounded by how bad it was. This is a book that Audible and Amazon have been putting front and centre of my recommendations, and I couldn’t make it past the first hour or two of the audiobook. I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore when it came out and found that it got painful toward the end.
I try to finish everything I start, though, and am successful maybe 9 times out 10. Not finishing a book feels like being in the wrong in a particularly messy breakup.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I just read Stephen King’s On Writing for a second time. I read it first in September 2012, the last time I started a long writing project, which I guess means it’s a habit now.
I also just finished a reread of the Harry Potter series, but working from the seventh down to the first. Before this year I hadn’t read the books in maybe 6 or 7 years, and I found myself noticing a lot of new things that went over my head the first time.
I tend to read sections of my favorite fiction book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, every so often. I went back to check a detail in it over the summer and ended up reading around a hundred pages in an afternoon.
What do you plan to read next?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader who already has a stack of six books will still find time to slink into a bookstore and pick up six more. Those 12 books notwithstanding, enough people have sung the praises of Katherine Boo’s Beyond The Beautiful Forevers that I feel sufficiently guilty not having read it yet, and will probably bump it to the top of my list.