The book I am currently reading
Cervantes: Don Quixote. I’ve read in it before but this time I’m in for the long haul. I’m alternating this with Hot Stew by the wonderful Fiona Mozley, and A Christmas Carol, by you-know-who.
The book that changed my life
There are so many but I’m inclined to mention my first read of The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. Something about the book reopened a part of my brain that had been very active when I was a young Catholic kid – the part that is intrigued by the notion of becoming infinitely empathetic, as, we were told, Jesus was. Morrison’s gaze in that book is so fair and curious and loving and seems to say, or underscore, that yes, we really are all brothers and sisters down here and it’s only our limited vision that makes it seem otherwise.
The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I think it might be the collected works of Isaac Babel, especially Red Cavalry and the cycle sometimes called the “childhood stories”. These stories are wild in language but classic in form. That’s something I aspire to. If a story is beautifully shaped, then its language is felt to be in service to something, and will better know what it is to do. I’d also be lying if I didn’t mention, in this context, the collected works of Monty Python – watching them was the first time I felt that comedy and truth were one and the same thing, and that truth didn’t have to be expressed in traditional or linear or quotidian ways and, in fact, the great truths can’t be.
The book I think is most underrated
I don’t know that we can really consider this book underrated but I get the sense it is underread these days: Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. I love the way the scope (grand) and the tone (comic) combine to make it feel just like real life. And maybe especially so right now, in these bleak, (post- and yet not) Trumpie days in the US. There’s minimal drama, or just neurotic drama (people making trouble for themselves), and, in the book, the enemy of humankind is sloth and incuriosity and arrogance. The difference is that the people in Gogol, though inept, don’t have aggressive intentions.
The book I wish I’d written
A Christmas Carol is my favourite book of all time, in every season. I taught it a few years ago, prepared to be accused of sentimentality, but the class was too busy being collectively amazed by its beautiful structure. It strikes me as a book that is more aspirational than true, but my reaction to it tells me that, at least for me, that may be the most high-level aim of fiction: to cause us to aspire.
My earliest reading memory
My aunt, in Chicago, reading me The Poky Little Puppy and a few other brightly coloured books from that old Little Golden Book series, and the way that a connection was made between the world of the stories and the real world around me; the notion that the idealisation or exaggeration of the real world was a way of celebrating it.
The last book that made me laugh
The aforementioned Don Quixote. I was reading it, started laughing, my wife asked what was so funny, I read that part aloud, we both were soon in tearful irrational hysterics – wonderful, that a book can do that, really. And Cervantes did it, in that case, with understatement – he didn’t go for the easy joke and that made us do the heavy lifting. So, it was the three of us – me, my wife and Cervantes, 400 years dead – working together to create the comedy.
The book I give as a gift
Well, I often “give as a gift”, to my students, my recommendation that they read Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov. I find that this is less expensive than actually buying it for them. But, however he or she comes by it, the reader gets a masterclass in the power of a confined point of view (in this case, the point of view of a murderous attack dog recently “fired” from a Soviet prison camp).
The book I’d most like to be remembered for
For the reasons mentioned above, I’d most like to be remembered for writing Dead Souls. But the world is harsh and has a short attention span and has begun neglecting books for movie and TV, so I doubt that will ever happen.