The author of “The Grammarians” and other novels favors nonfiction when she’s writing: “I try not to read contemporary fiction, which is often so good it’s discouraging or so bad it’s discouraging.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I work in bed, so my bedside pile is a tower not of Babel but of everything I’m thinking about, working on, thinking about working on, looking forward to reading or rereading, and a few palate-cleanser books to read before falling asleep to remove the poisonous taste of the news of the day. Here is the current list. Even I am not sure which book falls into which category, just that the pile, though not safe for earthquakes, is somehow comforting to have nearby. “The Old Drift,” by Namwali Serpell, “Dreyer’s English,” by Benjamin Dreyer, “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” by Craig Brown, “A Thousand Small Sanities,” by Adam Gopnik, “The Memoirs of Elias Canetti,” “Y Is for Yesterday,” by Sue Grafton, “Gropius,” by Fiona MacCarthy, “The Prodigal Tongue,” by Lynne Murphy, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” by Geoffrey K. Pullum, “Crampton Hodnet,” by Barbara Pym, “Black Reconstruction in America,” by W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Most of P. G. Wodehouse,” “Selected Poems of W. H. Auden.”
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Puttermesser Papers,” by the insufficiently celebrated genius Cynthia Ozick. It is a masterpiece. The intellectual vigor of her work, the literary and imaginative originality, the confidence and breadth — I mean, she can write about a sex-crazed golem girl with the same propulsive clarity, intensity, intellectual warmth and high good humor she brings to a story about Henry James’s typist. She takes my breath away. She is the darkest, deepest comic writer and the most searingly funny tragedian. Ozick is not, to crib from Walt Whitman, “contain’d between her hat and her boots.” She is magnificent.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“O Pioneers!” I assumed for years that I had read Willa Cather. She is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, so of course I had read her! Except, I had not. And then I picked up a copy of “O Pioneers!” that was lying around. It was a revelation. America! America? Yes, America! The American pioneer experience as an immigrant experience! Nebraska, land of immigrants where everyone speaks a different language! Nebraska, where every neighbor is odder than Dick’s hatband! Beauty and despair are so physical. I have a lot more Cather to read. And I have been drawn into the internet rabbit hole of the mutual disdain Cather and Lionel Trilling held for each other, so I have years of Willa Cather ahead, which is a literary blessing.