The Best Book Jill Lepore Ever Got as a Present Is One She Hates

The Best Book Jill Lepore Ever Got as a Present Is One She Hates

Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?

Geez. I change my mind all the time. But based on information about the author? No, I don’t think so. I have a lot of rules about books that I might be reviewing. I don’t read the pitch letters. I don’t read other reviews. I don’t read the blurbs. I just read the book.

How do you organize your books?

People organize their books? At best, I might know which room in the house a book might be in.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

People could find a particular book on my shelves? I sure can never find what I’m looking for.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

My mother gave me her childhood copy of “Little Women” when I was maybe 6 years old. I actually can’t stand that book — the story, I mean. But I love the physical book, the cover, the smell, the welt on the spine, and that it was my mother’s. It still has a yellow hair ribbon of mine in it that I used as a bookmark. I never finished it. It drove me crazy, the daffiness of the 19th-century girl.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read anything then. I have a very strong memory of finding three shelves’ worth of Helen MacInnes in the fiction room at my local library and reading all of those books, for no reason except that there seemed to be a lot of them and it made it easy to stop on the bike ride home from school to pick up the next one. Though I now see on Wikipedia that MacInnes once translated a book called “Sexual Life in Ancient Rome” and, since I also spent a lot of time in that library trying to find where the books about sex were hidden, it’s possible I came to her that way. A strip mall in town had a little store called Annie’s Book Swap where you could get cheap paperbacks, on trade in. That’s where I first picked up a copy of “Is Sex Necessary?” by E. B. White and James Thurber. I believe — but maybe I invented this? — that I traded in my mother’s Fannie Farmer cookbook for that book. Found Toni Morrison for the first time at Annie’s. Carl Sagan. Edith Wharton. Audre Lorde. Vine Deloria. Philip Roth. George Orwell. If it was available as a cheap paperback, it was there, and I read it, if I could afford it. There were lots of nutty popular science writers in the 1970s. Desmond Morris? Those guys. I remember reading a textbook called “Organizational Behavior.” Because I could get it by turning in “The Sun Also Rises” plus “Absalom, Absalom!”

Have your reading tastes changed over time?

Good grief, yes. I can picture the ages of my life by the poetry I was reading, at each stage. The Adrienne Rich years! I suppose that, when I was younger, I read much more contemporary fiction than I do now. Then there was a long stretch where I read mainly 18th-century fiction. I suppose then 19th-century fiction. Then there was a long decade where, like most parents, most of my reading that wasn’t for work involved reading children’s books. “Nate the Great”! Elise Broach! Day and night, Chicka-chicka-boom-boom …

Whom would you want to write your life story?

No historian can possibly wish to be the subject of a biography.

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