How does your reading inform your own writing process, if it does?
Obliquely. When I’m stuck on something I’m trying to write I turn to other, better writers for inspiration, but only occasionally am I looking for something specific — as when I can’t find my way into an article and go read the openings of a couple dozen pieces I love just to remember how they work. But that’s an exception to the rule. In general, if I’m struggling with, say, a piece of science writing, I’m just as likely to reread Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” as David Quammen’s “The Song of the Dodo.” The point isn’t to find a template for whatever it is I’m trying write; the point is to rekindle my love of and faith in all the things good writing can do.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
I’m not sure I count any pleasures as guilty, with the possible exception of schadenfreude. I adore William James and Henry James, but did I also read E. L. James back in 2011? You bet. More to my taste, however, are some literary inclinations I’ve retained since childhood — among them, a love of mysteries and detective fiction and a fondness for medieval tales of all kinds. Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” is rendered respectable by being six centuries old and T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King” is a genuinely outstanding book, but I have a very high tolerance for what you might call Arthurian trash.
What writers are especially good on father-daughter relationships?
I have the vague sense, which might be entirely unfounded, that father-daughter relationships are underrepresented in fiction compared to mother-daughter, mother-son and father-son relations. Still, Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath come immediately to mind, albeit for the narrower category of great literature about awful relationships; no one wants a father like those in “King Lear” or “Daddy.” In the realm of nonfiction, I was dazzled by the intellectual, emotional and visual sophistication of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir about growing up with her father, a closeted gay man who died, seemingly of suicide, when she was in her 20s. And I was moved by Chimamanda Adichie’s “Notes on Grief,” in part because it is an anti-“Daddy,” an anti-“Lear” — which is to say, it is an adoring portrait of a beloved parent.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
I don’t often write hatchet jobs, but I’m still persona non grata around Walden Pond for a critical piece I wrote about Thoreau, and legions of F. Scott Fitzgerald fans may never forgive me for publicly disparaging “The Great Gatsby” (including Joyce Carol Oates, who likened that act to spitting in the Grand Canyon). But at least one Fitzgerald devotee changed her mind about me, if not about my essay: She read it, she hated it, she met me, she married me.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Meteorites make two significant cameos in my forthcoming book, so I spent some time reading about the asteroid belt, where most of them originate. From Alex Bevan and John Robert de Laeter’s “Meteorites: A Journey Through Space and Time,” I learned this wonderful fact: Contrary to popular depictions in which a spaceship entering the asteroid belt immediately finds itself under bombardment, that belt is so enormous that, on average, any two asteroids within it are more than a half-million miles apart. That fact fits squarely into a category I cherish: information that alters our sense of the scale of existence.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I’m not sure I observe this distinction, since the way to my heart is through my prefrontal cortex.
How do you organize your books?
Obsessively, but it never lasts. A while back, I wrote an essay about my mixed inheritance on this front. When I was growing up, my mother was both alphabetically and thematically fastidious about her books; the shelves for which she was responsible basically required call numbers and card catalogs. By contrast, my father’s organizational strategy involved tossing all the books he read into a pile by the side of the bed, which resulted in an enormous towering menace — literally seven or eight feet high — that we affectionately called “the Stack.” I regret that he never had the chance to write his own By the Book; his answer to “What books are on your night stand?” would have run to 15 pages.