By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life

By the Book

One of my weekly/bi-weekly pleasures is reading the Book Review section of the New York Times. A couple of years ago they added a new column that I love so much that it’s now the first thing I read. It’s called By the Book.

The column features an interview with one contemporary writer each week. They don’t ask the normal questions you read in other author interviews, such as the author’s education or writing style or what does his/her desk look like. They ask the writer about the books they love to read. The answers are as varied as the authors themselves. I love it because it tells me that my favorite authors are also readers, just like me.

I’m very excited that sixty-five of the writer’s columns have bee put together into this new book, By The Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life. It was edited by Pamela Paul and illustrate by Jillian Tamaki. Each one of the writers has his or her own chapter. Scattered throughout the book are summary sidebars containing questions and answers from even more writers that have been interviewed.

The interviewer does not always ask the same questions of every writer. I like that they mix it up. The questions range from the books the author is either currently reading to a childhood favorite to books that would surprise readers and so on. The interviewer tries to make it personal. For example, a mystery writer (Lee Child) was asked who his favorite mystery writers are.

The writers featured in this book vary in terms of the genre they represent. I think there might be slightly more literary writers than others, but it’s okay. I’ve been surprised at the inclusion of writers I don’t normally think of as writers. Included among the sixty-five are Sting, Caroline Kennedy, and Emma Thompson. Some of those I really enjoyed reading were those from Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Donna Tartt, James Patterson and David Sedaris.

I picked some questions and answers from a few of my favorites. This is just a ver tiny taste of the book. Each writer has ten or twelve question and answers. I picked just one.

Michael Connelly:
Q: You’ve said that your mother introduced you to crime novels. Which books got you hooked?
A: “She was into P.D. James and Agatha Christie, and I liked it, but I would not say I got hooked in until I started reading John D. MacDonald who was writing about the place where I was growing up.

Anna Quindlen:
Q: If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
A: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Smart people make bad decisions about policy and then compound it by refusing to admit they were wrong. I wish George W. Bush had read it before invading Iraq.

Isabel Allende:
Q: Do you have a standby cookbook?
A: “I cook by memory and instinct, like I do most things in my life.”

Jeanette Walls:
Q: What book might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
A: “My vast collection of books on raising chickens. There’s more to it than you’d think.”

John Grisham:
Q: Who are your favorites among the competition?
A: When Presumed Innoent was published in 1987, I was struggling to finish my first novel. Scott Turow reenergized the legal suspense genre with that book, and it inspired me to keep plugging along. Scott is still the best lawyer novelist.”

Emma Thompson:
Q: What was the last truly great book you read?
A: “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It was a marvel.

Warning: As you can see, the answers in these interviews can lead to an obsessively huge To-Be-Read List. When one of your favorite authors says she or he is reading a certain book, it’s only natural to want to read that book too. The illustrated drawings of each writer is also addicting. All sixty-five writers are pictures on the dust cover. Look at the top row above. Second from the write is another favorite of mine — Amy Tan.

I’ve had the book sitting out at my place for several weeks and already it’s created a stir. I do think this book should be added to the gift list for every avid reader. And while you’re at it, get one for yourself.

Thanks to Henry Holt and Company for my copy of By the Book, published October 28, 2014.

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One Response to By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life

  1. This sounds so good to me!

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