The scholar and author, whose new book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” is “not engaged by books which I think of as ‘parlor people’ literature.”
What books are on your nightstand?
The pile is embarrassingly high. It includes Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” William Carlos Williams’s “Patterson,” Margaret Walker’s “On Being Female, Black, and Free” and Philip McFarland’s “Sojourners.” And over a dozen more. It’s like a tapas plate reading spread.
What’s the last great book you read?
Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” is a masterpiece. It is a complex epic story rendered with sensitivity and emotional nuance. That combination of vastness and particularity is spellbinding. And I also appreciate what it taught me about the history of Korean people in Japan. I lived in Japan last summer and I could “see” that history through the lens provided by the novel.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
José Saramago’s “Blindness.” I read it a few years ago but I regretted that I missed so many years of knowing his writing. He transformed my conceptions of both the political and psychological novel.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love to read in a comfortable chair, sitting in front of an open window while it is raining, preferably torrential rain. The scent, the breeze and a book: a perfect combination.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Marie NDiaye is globally recognized so this probably isn’t a great answer. But when I ask people in my circles if they’ve read “Ladivine” they usually say no. I find her style (spare, eerie, symbolic) to be such a distinctive companion to the subject matter (race, assimilation, class, immigration). I am both made uncomfortable and wholly captivated by her writing and insights.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” It is a novel that crisply and potently explains the ravages of empire and colonialism. It is specific to Nigeria yet has global implications. For a young person, it gives essential tools for analyzing and interpreting an unjust world.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
As someone who is glad I broke the rules of age appropriateness when it came to reading when I was young, I’m loathe to say someone shouldn’t read a particular book at a young age. But there are some works that are difficult to fully grasp without having experienced deep heartbreak or major life disappointment. I’d put Magda Szabo’s “The Door” in that category. It’s stunning in terms of both its depth and subtlety when it comes to the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper who is stoic, imaginative and intensely prideful.
You recently wrote a biography of Lorraine Hansberry. What writers do you see as her descendants today?
In terms of playwrights, Lynn Nottage and Kirsten Greenidge. Their voices are distinctive, but they both share Lorraine’s gift for an extraordinary crafting of ideas and arguments through authentic personalities and language. Their work is masterful.
What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Princeton?
W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” is a gift that keeps on giving: social history, legal history, Jim Crow, sociology, philosophy. I would venture to guess it is one of the handful of most widely taught books in African-American studies courses across the country. I also love teaching the Jorge Luis Borges short story “La Lotería” for thinking about law and punishment.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
Ideally, both. I think the best books unlatch something within, and that requires both intellectual provocation and emotional disarming. That’s what keeps me reading.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Adult male canaries learn a new song every year in order to attract mates. It’s like a ritual of annual renewal through beauty. I love it. It’s one many facts in this book by Moheb Costandi called “Neuroplasticity,” but I’m taken by the poetry of it more than the science.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The feeling of astonishment, being knocked off kilter, is what makes me vulnerable as a reader. Vulnerability is the key, for me, to be deeply affected by the story.
How do you organize your books?
Very loosely by genre, which is constantly disrupted because I pull multiple books off the shelves every day and don’t return them to where they belong. It’s a problem because there are thousands of books in my home and office. My lack of discipline always threatens a slide into chaos. A house of books is even more dangerous than a house of cards! Also, I like the way color coding looks, but I’m not meticulous enough for that.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Probably Federico García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding and Other Plays” in Spanish. I studied Latin American literature in college and even though I’ve lost a lot of my Spanish, there are still works that I prefer in the original.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift? And the most inappropriate book you’ve received?
When I was 12 years old, the New Orleans poet Quo Vadis Gex Breaux wrote my mother a letter in which she said I should be reading Octavia Butler. That was one of the best gifts of my life, period.
It’s not exactly inappropriate but I’m irritated when people give me Bibles. I’ve read both the Catholic Bible and the King James, cover to cover, several times. But there’s something about being gifted a Bible that feels overbearing. Maybe it’s because when my grandmother was still alive she complained about it as a gift “for old people.”
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
My favorite heroine is Pilate Dead from Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” She’s a fallible guru who is guided by love. She is the cornerstone the builders rejected, strange and beautiful. My favorite villain is the count from James Thurber’s “The 13 Clocks.” “I’ll slit you from your guggle to your zatch” is one of the best nonvulgar threats I have ever heard.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a voracious reader as a child. I read everything from Archie comics to Virginia Woolf and Richard Wright. In terms of children’s literature, Mildred D. Taylor’s novels about the Logan family in Mississippi during Jim Crow were my favorites. They reminded me of my own family and taught me social and political history at the same time.
What book has had the greatest impact on you?
I can’t choose a single book, but Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” is one of them. It’s at the pith of modernity, before everything has been settled in terms of social relations, and all of these different types of people have been thrown together in human encounters that are at turns, violent, remarkable, and creative. It answers “how” and also asks “what if?”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Pablo Neruda, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin: three geniuses with sensuality, humor, a sense of play and deep commitments to humanity. I would bring a lot of liquor with me and a notebook.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Every time I try to read a Jane Austen novel it feels like a terrible slog to me. I’m not engaged by books which I think of as “parlor people” literature. Austen and Henry James are the two literary greats whose books I just don’t like at all.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
If we could bring him back, Gabriel García Márquez. There’s a lot of magic and captivating personalities in my life-world. And so much love in the thicket of tragedy. He would get it. Or one of my sons. They’re both beautiful writers and they see a lot more about me than I know.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m reading Sarah Broom’s “The Yellow House.” She’s a beautiful writer.
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