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 can be labored or overwrought, while the story and vision are exciting. And glorious language, artfully structured, can overpower what is limited and banal, even dishonest. But a book that leaves you completely cold can still meet all the formal criteria for greatness. In that case, I would resort to a calmer, more oppressive word, such as “major.” “Major” means respect without rapture. “Great” needs rapture.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I am a child, curled up on a couch or in the armchair, convinced that I will never be disturbed, that I have unlimited time to read and dream. The setting can change: a porch, a park, a lawn, a beach, it all works. The point is: I’m alone, with what the book and I have to offer each other.
What is your favorite book that no one has heard of?
Books that were once my solitary finds or that I proudly shared with a small related band are widely available in one form or another. For now, the arc of literary history seems to be bending in the direction of justice as a collection of global traditions and achievements. But here are two touching, beautifully designed books from Eakins Press that I wish were better known. One is ‘Louis Armstrong: A Self Portrait’ by Richard Merryman. The other—disappointingly sold out 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 photos by Richard Benson.
Do you count books as guilty pleasures?
I like good to great thrillers, but when I read a bad one that nevertheless, against my will, traps me in relentless plot mechanics and sowing suspense, my ego says, “You’re better than this.” And my ID says, “Not today. Take it.”