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 might be laborious or overwrought, while the narrative and vision are thrilling. And glorious language, artfully structured, can overpower what’s limited and banal, even venal. But a book that leaves one utterly cold can still meet all the formal criteria for greatness. In which case I’d resort to a calmer, stuffier word, like “major.” “Major” means respect without rapture. “Great” needs rapture.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I’m a child, curled up on a couch or in the den armchair, believing I’ll never be interrupted, that I have unlimited time to read and dream. The setting can change: A sunporch, a park, a lawn, a beach all work. The point is: I’m alone, with what the book and I have to offer each other.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Books that were once my solitary finds or that I proudly shared with a small kindred band are widely available in some form. For now, the arc of literary history seems to bend toward justice as a collection of global traditions and achievement. But here are two moving, beautifully designed Eakins Press books that I wish were better known. One is “Louis Armstrong: A Self Portrait,” by Richard Merryman. The other — disappointingly out of print now — 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 count any books as guilty pleasures?
I like good to great thrillers, but when I’m reading a bad one that nevertheless traps me, against my will, in relentless plot mechanics and suspense-mongering, my ego says: “You’re better than this.” And my id says: “Not today. Deal with it.”