What books are on your night stand?
I don’t have a proper night stand and I don’t usually read before bedtime. However, my metaphorical night stand includes “Moby-Dick,” “Don Quixote,” three of Virginia Woolf’s lesser-known novels (“The Voyage Out,” “Night and Day” and “The Years”) and the complete work of Beatrix Potter. I listen to the audiobook of one of these books at bedtime. As I’m familiar with the texts, I don’t ever worry about missing something while falling asleep.
What’s the last great book you read?
I read “A Change of Climate,” by Hilary Mantel, for the first time last year, and right away reread it twice. It’s an early to midcareer novel by Mantel, which is, unfairly and yet inevitably, overshadowed by her later work. “A Change of Climate” is on a short list of novels that I keep together as regular rereads, along with J.M. Coetzee’s “Life & Times of Michael K,” Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World,” William Trevor’s “Fools of Fortune” and V. S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”: books that tackle many shades of evil and goodness, none of which fits neatly into any ideology and all of which challenge ready-made narratives. They are not comforting or enchanting; rather, written out of a dire kind of clarity, they are novels that leave no space for wishful thinking.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
The first time I met Edmund White, in 2016, we started talking about Elizabeth Bowen’s “The House in Paris,” which was important for both of us for different reasons. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we recognized the kindred spirit in each other right at that moment, and we have not stopped talking since then. At the beginning of the pandemic, Edmund and I started a two-person book club, and over the past three years, we’ve read a long list of books. We meet every day (nearly every day) on Skype at 5 p.m., taking turns to read aloud passages we love, always pretending to be surprised if we underline the same sentence.
What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Princeton?
Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping.” I once asked some students how fast they could read, and one of them said she could cover 100 pages in an hour, so I decided to use “Housekeeping” to teach the students how to do slow reading. (Books written to be consumed at one sitting or in a day don’t interest me.) We read a chapter a week, and the students keep an extensive reading journal. They read not by scanning the text or summarizing the gist of a chapter or making conclusive and/or judgmental statements. Rather, they read word by word, sentence by sentence, and they ponder over an unfamiliar word choice, a fleeting gesture, the shadow of an image, and the ripple of a sentence seen in the following sentence. The collection of their thoughts, observations and questions is very touching. It’s a testament to the art of reading with not only five senses but also with memory and imagination. And I hope it’s the most important thing I can teach my students: not merely the crafts of writing but the importance of paying close attention, to the world in a book and to the world beyond a book.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Patricia Highsmith, Beryl Bainbridge and Eileen Chang: brilliant writers and deliciously difficult women. None of them would accept — I would be a nobody to them, as I imagine most people would be to them. But if by miracle this dinner could take place, I, a happy nobody, would not have to worry about my hostess’s duty of entertaining them. Rather, I would be like a mouse in a rice jar (as the Chinese saying goes), fulfilling the dream of the best kind of people watching (author watching). Would they talk with one another? Would they charm one another? Would they even acknowledge one another? What a devastating and delightful dinner party I could have!
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
“The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath and the entire body of work by Roald Dahl. They are meaningful books for my children, but I haven’t read them.
What do you plan to read next?
I think the question for me is always: What do you plan to reread next? Encounters with new books — both recently published and older books read for the first time — happen by serendipity, and there is never a good plan, but rereading comes with a plan. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about livelihood, so I’m planning to reread some novels in which characters are engaged in making a living: “Villette,” “David Copperfield,” some Balzac novels. I can put “Moby-Dick” here too, though that would be a bit like cheating, as I reread “Moby-Dick” all the time.