The journalist, whose new book is “Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays,” read indiscriminately in her youth: “Bookish children are not critics. They just like to read.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I take it you mean the imaginary Doric column that supports a teetering pile of current and old books that the interviewee wants to bring to the reader’s attention. My actual nightstand is a small wood table with a box of Kleenex, a two-year-old Garnet Hill catalog and a cough drop on it. When I go to bed I bring with me the book I am reading during the day. Right now it is the British edition of Sally Rooney’s brilliant, enigmatic new novel, “Normal People.”
How do you organize your books?
I organize them by genre. The largest section is fiction, which I alphabetize. I also alphabetize poetry. The other sections — biography, autobiography, theater, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, classical literature, literary criticism, art, photography, books by friends — are not alphabetized. I can find my way around them. I have been doing a lot of rereading in recent years. Why have a large library and not use it? Why keep books, if you are not going to read them more than once? For the décor? The answer isn’t entirely no. A book-lined room looks nice. I like walking into my living room and seeing the walls of books with faded spines that have accreted over many decades.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“Our Princesses and Their Dogs,” by Michael Chance, which was given to me by my British son-in-law for Christmas a few years ago. People who know me associate me with cats rather than dogs, but in this case that has no bearing on the book’s prominent place in my heart. It was published in 1936, when the princesses’ uncle Edward had not yet abdicated and their dad was just Bertie, Duke of York. But it is almost as if the author could see into the future and recognize the family’s special monarchical fitness. Its benign charisma wafts out from delicate black-and-white photographs, and from a text that can only be read — if it is not to be found entirely risible — as an allegory of the relation of royalty to its people. Chance writes largely from the points of view of the family’s happy dogs — two corgis named Dookie and Lady Jane, three Labradors named Mimsy, Stiffy and Scrummy, a Tibetan lion dog named Choo-choo, a golden retriever named Judy and a cocker spaniel named Ben — pausing only to praise the owners for being “not merely people who love dogs but warmhearted, human people who, understanding their animals, are therefore understood by them in return.” At 9, Elizabeth already has the kindly placidity of the queen she is to become. Five-year-old Margaret steals the show with her mischievous charm. Margaret’s adult life of petulant desperation, mordantly chronicled in Craig Brown’s 2018 book “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” could not have been foreseen in a million years by readers of “Our Princesses and Their Dogs.”
What books would you recommend to someone who wants to know more about American culture?
“Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain, and “The Other America,” by Michael Harrington.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
The poet Louise Glück, the short story writer Alice Munro, the journalist/essayist Ian Frazier, the journalist/biographer Calvin Tomkins, the critic Sharon Cameron, the journalist/essayist Michael Greenberg, the art historian Michael Fried. May I stretch your “working today” criteria to include Richard Wilbur and Philip Roth, who, in the eye of eternity, were still working the day before yesterday?
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like and didn’t?
Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.” It is good or good enough (“You’re likable enough, Hillary”) but it isn’t Rousseau’s “Confessions” or Gosse’s “Father and Son.” The extravagant praise it received seemed excessive to me. Obama himself is another matter. I came to intensely admire and appreciate him over the years of his presidency. I believe he is a great man.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
An avid reader, to use Robert Gottlieb’s wonderful phrase. I read everything in sight. I read the Grimm fairy tales, “Heidi,” “Little Women,” “Emily of New Moon,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “The Snow Queen”; I went to the library every week and took out the four books you were allowed to borrow. I liked contemporary romantic novels with hints of sex (“he unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse”). My father would give my sister and me classics for birthdays and Christmas — “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Les Misérables,” “David Copperfield” among them. I didn’t differentiate between the adult masterpieces, the cheesy adult books and the children’s classics. Bookish children are not critics. They just like to read.
What do you plan to read next?
I plan to go back to “Bleak House,” which I put aside during the holidays. It was like a boulder that was standing in the way of shorter books that were in the house, tempting me with their bigger type and smaller ambition. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s cozy (though by no means trivial) new No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel, “The Colors of All the Cattle.” Now I am ready to return to the wild terrain of Dickens’s great work.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I love all of Jane Austen’s major heroines — Lizzie Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood — and one of Tolstoy’s heroes, Prince Andrei. I also very much like Ántonia Shimerda, the heroine of Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” A favorite antihero or villain? There are none. I follow the author’s direction to despise him or her. On second thought, I must confess to a sneaking liking for the antiheroine Lizzie Eustace — as Trollope himself surely had.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I like books in the genre that could be described as the bee-in-your-bonnet genre, books in which the author has an obsessive thesis, and argues it so brilliantly that you come away completely convinced and elated by the erudition that has powered the argument. Some examples are: Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” Leo Steinberg’s “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion,” Ted Hughes’s “Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being” and Edgar Wind’s “Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance.” Among the genres I avoid are books on bodybuilding and moneymaking.
What’s the last book you recommended to someone in your family?
The 13-volume edition of Anton Chekhov’s stories translated by Constance Garnett.
When do you read?
All the time.
An expanded version of this interview is available at nytimes.com/books.
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