Do you have any comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
I always enjoy popular science books — “Mama’s Last Hug,” by Frans de Waal, or “The Song of the Dodo,” by David Quammen, or “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity,” by Carl Zimmer, or “It’s All in Your Head: True Stories of Imaginary Illness,” by Suzanne O’Sullivan — but they’re often less than comforting. When my kids were younger, I loved rereading the books of my childhood with them, and discovering the books of their generation. I’m a big fan of the Lemony Snicket series. Every so often, just because, I reread the books of William Steig — “Amos & Boris,” or “Brave Irene,” or “Doctor De Soto” — and each time they fill me with joy and tenderness. William Steig was a genius.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’m interested in what it’s like to be alive on this earth. I’m interested in human truth. I’m not interested in escapism, and not particularly interested in entertainment for its own sake. Writers can explore life and truth in any genre — Penelope Fitzgerald and Hilary Mantel do this in historical fiction; Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin do it with science fiction; the scriptwriter Sally Wainwright does it in her TV crime series “Happy Valley.” So I wouldn’t rule something out by genre. That said, I gravitate toward the kind of fiction that is of no genre at all, and therefore gets called “literary fiction,” or used to; the kind that is more interested in people and in language than in plot.
How do you organize your books?
Once upon a time the books were alphabetical, by subject — history in one place, philosophy and religion in another, literature in a third, etc. But we’re inundated now, and have been for some time. Books get put where they’ll fit — sometimes two rows deep on the shelf, in the guest room, in the garage, in the bathroom — which means it’s sometimes hard to find a particular volume. I’ll sit still and close my eyes and hope for a vision of its spine upon a shelf.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
We’re in possession of some surprising books, I think, just because we’re in possession of so many. In addition to those we’ve accumulated, we also have books from my parents’ libraries, though we had to give most of them away — things like Glubb Pasha’s “The Great Arab Conquests” or a first edition of Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring,” or Margaret Laurence’s “The Diviners.” I don’t know if we still have a copy of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”; I bought it because everyone else did, I guess. Needless to say, I never read it. There used to be a story, perhaps apocryphal, that someone had put a five pound note in a hundred copies of that best-selling book, about two-thirds of the way through, along with a request that the reader, upon discovering the money, should send a postcard acknowledging it. Supposedly the person never got any postcards at all.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Sadly, it’s been years since people gave me books as gifts. The only person who continues to do so is my remarkable father-in-law, a retired British zoology professor and Anglican minister in his 90s who lives in a small village in Scotland. One of the best I received from him was “At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches,” by Susan Sontag. It’s an interesting book, but what amazed me was the thoughtfulness of the gift, the fact that my father-in-law, who isn’t the sort of person who would read Susan Sontag, realized that I would and did. He doesn’t order books online, either, so he had to go to some trouble to get it.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Chiefly avid. I’d read anything, anywhere. I’d read the cereal box at breakfast, I’d read in cars and on trains and planes. (“Why do you travel like a suitcase?” my father would complain. “Look out the window!”) So many favorites I can’t begin to list them all. I was a kid in Australia, and then in Canada; but really my childhood was in Sydney. Among the books I adored were all the Tintin books (“Tintin in Tibet” is my favorite), the stories of Eleanor Farjeon, the “Swallows and Amazons” series, “Seven Little Australians,” the novels of Ivan Southall (all of them — but I reread “Ash Road” not long ago and it’s still amazing), “Watership Down,” “A Wizard of Earthsea,” anything by E. Nesbit, and perhaps unexpectedly, Eric Linklater’s “The Wind on the Moon,” which my sister and I loved intensely — it’s about two naughty sisters — and which The New York Review of Books wonderfully reissued when my kids were small, so they could enjoy it too.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I’m a more impatient reader, in age. When I was young, I believed in finishing what I started; not so much now, aware as I am of finitude, of how little time we really have. Part of that impatience is with fakery. There’s so much fakery, in fiction as in life. I just don’t have time for it anymore.