Simply Like You, Claire Messud By no means Learn ‘A Transient Historical past of Time’
Do you have any consolation readings or guilty joys?
I always like popular science books – “Mama’s Last Embrace” by Frans de Waal or “Das Lied vom Dodo” by David Quammen or “She Has Her Mother’s Laughter: The Powers, Perversions and Hereditary Potential” by Carl Zimmer or “It is everything in your head: True Stories About Imaginary Diseases ”by Suzanne O’Sullivan – but they are often less than comforting. When my children were younger I loved reading the books of my childhood again with them and discovering the books of their generation. I’m a huge fan of the Lemony Snicket series. Every now and then I read William Steig’s books – “Amos & Boris” or “Brave Irene” or “Doctor De Soto” – and every time they fill me with joy and tenderness. William Steig was a genius.
Which genres do you particularly enjoy reading? And what do you avoid
I am interested in what it is like to live on this earth. I am interested in human truth. I’m not interested in escape, and not particularly interested in entertainment for its own sake. Writers can explore life and truth in any genre – Penelope Fitzgerald and Hilary Mantel do so in historical fiction; Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin do science fiction; Screenwriter Sally Wainwright does this in her crime series “Happy Valley”. So I wouldn’t rule out something by genre. That is, I tend to the kind of fiction that has no genre at all and is therefore called, or used to, “literary fiction”; the kind who are more interested in people and language than in action.
How do you organize your books?
Once upon a time the books were alphabetical, by subject – history in one place, philosophy and religion in another, literature in a third, etc. But we have been inundated now and for some time. Books are put where they fit – sometimes two rows deep on the shelf, in the guest room, in the garage, in the bathroom – which means that sometimes it is difficult to find a certain volume. I will sit still and close my eyes and hope for a vision of his spine on a shelf.
What book might surprise people if it’s on your shelves?
I think we have some surprising books just because we have so many. In addition to the ones we collected, we also have books from my parents’ libraries, although we had to give most of them away – things like Glubb Pasha’s “The Great Arab Conquests” or a first edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring” “Or Margaret Laurence’s “The Diviners.” I don’t know if we have another copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”; I bought it because everyone else did, I think. Needless to say, I have it never read. There used to be a story, perhaps apocryphal, that someone put a five pound note in a hundred copies of this bestselling book about two-thirds of the way along with the reader’s request to discover the money should one Send postcard confirming this, allegedly the person did not receive any postcards.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Unfortunately, it’s been years since people gave me books. The only person who continues to do this is my remarkable father-in-law, a retired British zoology professor and Anglican minister in his 90s who lives in a small village in Scotland. One of the best I received from him was “At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches” by Susan Sontag. It’s an interesting book, but what amazed me was the thoughtfulness of the gift, the fact that my father-in-law, who is not the type of person Susan Sontag would read, realized I would and did. He also doesn’t order books online so he had to go out of his way to get them.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which children’s books and authors hold onto you the most?
Mainly eager. I would read anything anywhere. I had read the cereal box at breakfast, I had read in cars, trains and planes. (“Why are you traveling like a suitcase?” Complained my dad. “Look out the window!”) So many favorites that I can’t start listing them all. I was a kid in Australia and then in Canada. But my childhood was really in Sydney. Among the books I adored were all of the Tintin books (“Tintin in Tibet” is my favorite), the stories by Eleanor Farjeon, the series “Swallows and Amazons”, “Seven Little Australians” and the Novels by Ivan Southall (all) – but I recently reread “Ash Road” and it’s still amazing), “Watership Down”, “A Wizard of Earthsea”, all by E. Nesbit and, perhaps unexpectedly, Eric Linklaters “The Wind on the Moon” My sister and I were very loving – it’s about two naughty sisters – and the New York Review of Books was wonderfully reissued when my kids were little so they could enjoy it too.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I am a more impatient reader in old age. When I was young I believed in finishing what I started. I am not so aware now of how little time we really have. Part of that impatience lies in the forgery. There is so much forgery in fiction as in life. I just don’t have time for it anymore.