What’s the last great book you read?
Han Kang’s 2014 historical novel, “Human Acts”, and Osip Mandelstam’s 1925 memoir, “The Noise of Time”.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
The language can be laborious or overworked, while the narrative and vision are thrilling. And glorious language, cleverly structured, can dominate what is limited and banal, even venal. But a book that leaves you completely cold can still meet all the formal criteria for greatness. In that case, I’d resort to a quieter, more stuffy word, like “major.” “Major” means respect without rapture. “Great” needs rapture.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I am a child, curled up on a sofa or in the living room chair, believing that I will never be interrupted, that I have unlimited time to read and dream. The setting can change: a solarium, a park, a lawn, a beach, everything works. The thing is, I’m on my own, with what the book and I have to offer.
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
Books that were once my solitary finds or that I proudly shared with a small kindred group are widely available in one form or another. For now, the arc of literary history seems to lean toward justice as a collection of global lore and achievement. But here are two moving and beautifully crafted books from Eakins Press that I wish I knew better. One is “Louis Armstrong: A Self-Portrait”, by Richard Merryman. The other – sadly now out of print – is “Lay This Laurel: An Album on the Saint-Gaudens Memorial on Boston Common, Honoring Black and White Men Together, Who Served the Union Cause With Robert Gould Shaw and Died With Him July 18, 1863 .” The essay is by Lincoln Kirstein, the photographs by Richard Benson.
Do you consider certain books as guilty pleasures?
I like good and great thrillers, but when I read a bad one that still traps me, against my will, in relentless mechanisms of intrigue and suspense, my ego tells me: “You are better than that .” And my ID says, “Not today. Go with it.”