The way I read

Over at The Millions, Hannah Gersen got the ball rolling:

Several months ago, The New York Times published an essay about a 36-question interview devised to make strangers fall in love. The questions presented here are designed with a more modest goal: to have an interesting conversation about books. But, be warned: if you talk about literature with someone for two hours, there’s a chance you’ll become a lot closer.

…but it’s Terry Teachout’s responses that got me thinking about it. I haven’t played the meme thing in a long while—are blog memes still a thing?—but, if you wanna get a sense of how I read, here you go.

Part 1.

1. What was your favorite book as a child?
Probably Ruth Plumley Thompson’s Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz. I’m not sure how many times I read that book, though I haven’t revisited it in two decades.

2. What’s the last really good book you read?
Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth [the 2001 edition] which I’m going to foist on everyone I know.

3. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?
Fiction. I read too much nonfiction for work, and I like imagining a new world, not just running through the one that exists.

4. Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
Oh hell no. I gave up the schoolboy, “A” student need to finish something I didn’t like ages ago. Usually, I give a book 100 pages to arrest me; I’ll keep going if I’m intrigued, even if—maybe especially if—I’m befuddled or upset by it. But if I’m bored by the book or find its vision of life insufferably shallow or cynical (which often ends up being the same thing), it’s gone. Life’s too short.

5. List your 10 favorite books in four minutes or less. Write it down because you’ll revisit it at the end.
Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville
Pauline Kael, For Keeps
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
George Eliot, Middlemarch
David Lodge, Paradise News
Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game
Daniel Pinkwater, The Education of Robert Nifkin

6. Do you reread books? Which ones?
I periodically reread Armistead Maupin’s entire Tales of the City saga—well, the first six books, anyway. Lodge’s Paradise News gets a reread every couple of years, because I’ve never met a protagonist that feels so much like me, and yet so utterly different, all at once. Horrocks’s Hicksville gets a reread every year.

7. Do you read poetry? Why or why not?
Yep. It’s hard for me, as sensing the musicality and meaning of poetry in my head does not come easily for me. But I’ll spend the rest of my life working through Wendell Berry’s This Day, and I think Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is the southern version of Finnegans Wake that I never knew I needed so badly.

8. Do you remember the first “grown-up” book you read?
I was a nervy reader in my youth, scanning the Lakewood branch library for anything that looked vaguely smutty or seedy (while still being “literary”) by age 10. These three books all run together, in that they felt “adult”—i.e., foreign to my current experience but offering the possibility of a life richer, weirder, and more independent—to me in ways that most of what I read didn’t. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Camilla Carr’s Topsy Dingo Wild Dog (Who knows why I picked it up? Maybe the promise of raunch), and Stephen King’s The Stand (the long, revised version) are the three. I can’t say that I actually like any of those books now. I can’t even remember the Carr.

9. Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?
I don’t think so, unless you count writers with brief oeuvres, such as Ted Chiang (one marvelous collection of short stories, and two novellas), Andrea Lee (two novels, a short-story collection, and a travelogue—though I don’t think I’ve actually read Russian Journal all the way through). I’ve read a LOT of Stephen Dixon, over twenty of his books, and 17-18 books by Wendell Berry, though, in his case, the essay collections have a lot of overlap. In both cases, though, there are gaps. What can I say? I’m not a completist, and refuse to read a book I know I’ll be disappointed by, just to say I’ve done it. (I’m the same way with movies and music, by the way.)

10. How often do you read books that are more than 100 years old?
Rarely. I’m pretty much a reader of contemporary literature and criticism.

11. Is there a type (or types) of book you never read?
Biography or autobiography. Occasionally, I will read a memoir, if its format is oddball and it’s challenging the conventions of memoir, but a straight-up Life of An Important Person—never. Well, not never—I read a pretty good bio, in manuscript form, of a southern writer for work, but I would not have sought it otherwise.

12. How do you choose what to read?
By free association, and recommendations from friends who know me well.

Part 2.

13. What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
The way it’s written. Style will get me a long way.

14. What author, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
James Baldwin, I think, though honestly this is one of those questions I don’t care about. I don’t dream of dinners or cocktails with celebrities very often.

15. If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be?
Shooting hoops and talking shit with Gunnar Kaufman, of Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle.

16. If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
Moist von Lipwig.

17. Have you ever written a fan letter to an author?
Yes.

18. Is there any book that, if I professed to love it, you would be turned off? Is there any book that would impress you in particular?
I’m mostly past the childish and fairly ridiculous stage of assuming that people’s worth are determined by their cultural tastes. There are plenty of assholes who love the same books I do, and plenty of wonderful people who don’t read at all for pleasure, much less read and adore what I do. The idea of fusing personal identity with favorite books/music/movies/etc, is adolescent, reductive, and damaging. That being said, if you mention how much you love Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, a small part of me dislikes you until further inspection.

19. Is there a book you feel embarrassed about liking?
No. I’m past the idea of “guilty pleasures,” too.

20. Are there books you feel proud of liking or having finished?
No. If anything, finishing a difficult book leaves me humbled and drained, not proud.

21. Have you ever lied about having read a book?
Plenty of times.

22. Do you keep track of the books you read?
For 14 years, I did. Oddly, I stopped this year—I don’t know why.

23. How do you form opinions about what you read?
How do I not? Through reading, I guess, and then talking about what I read.

24. What authors do you think are overrated? Underrated?
“Overrated” and “underrated” are useless terms. “Overrated” and “underrated,” compared to what? It’s not a contest.

Part 3.

25. Do you ever read self-help books?
Rarely, though I suppose any reading I do in theology or life philosophy is in some way a plea for self-help.

26. What’s a book that shocked you?
I was shocked by how bad Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes was, after so much praise, and especially because I love so much of his work. But Jesus that book is terrible.

27. If you could force every person you know to read one book, what would it be?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

28. What book would you recommend to me in particular?
I don’t know you.

29. What books/authors have you been meaning to read for years? Why haven’t you read them yet?
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Haven’t read it because I haven’t found the time.

30. What kind of book do you consider “a guilty pleasure?”
See #19.

31. Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees knocked me sideways, and gave me an appreciation of modern and conceptual art, and of ways of looking at the world, that has never left me.

32. If you were terminally ill, what book or books would you read?
Comedies, and lots of them. Probably just go ahead and plow through as much of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as I could, and reread Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

33. Do you have any passages of poetry or prose committed to memory? Can you recite something to me?
Nope. My mind doesn’t work that way, alas.

34. If you could change anything about the way you read, what would it be?
I would read one book all the way through at once, instead of always reading 3-4 books at a time and skipping between each one.

35. Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
Not unless you mean the New Testament, and it’s been a while since that “guided” me in that way.

36. Return to the list you made at the beginning. What titles, if any, would you change after our conversation?
I left out Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, so lop off the Raskin and Pinkwater books, though I love them so.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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