Notables Talk About Their Favorite Books
See NPR's Books of Summer 2002 for more reading recommendations from NPR, member stations and listeners.
This summer, Weekend Edition Sunday is talking with well-known people from various professions about their reading life. What are they reading now? What are their favorite books? How much do they read, and why? Here are their answers.
Harold Bloom, literary critic
Hear the interview with Harold Bloom, Sept. 1, 2002.
Yale humanities professor Harold Bloom's summer reading has kept him in a familiar place. He's assembling a massive literary anthology, to be called The Best Poems in the English Language. So the 72-year-old critic has been re-reading the masterworks of the Western poetic tradition, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Hart Crane.
But for Harold Bloom, this isn't work. "I have always on principle refused," he says, "to make any distinction between professional obligations and reading for the deepest kind of pleasure.
Bloom started reading poetry with passion at the age of 8, and he knows many of his favorites by heart. He says he's delighted by how much continuity he's found as he's traveled this summer through the work of great poets such as William Blake and Robert Browning.
"The more deeply I have been re-reading them, the more deeply my sense is confirmed that poetry matters, and has always mattered, because it answers the deepest aesthetic and cognitive needs and manifests the most extraordinary aesthetic and cognitive values."
Bloom says another important lesson revealed by his poetic journey is that the best poems "light up in different ways in different times." Last September 11, his thoughts turned to Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses," which describes the elderly hero setting off with his mariners for his final voyage. "We are not now that which we were," the poem reads in part, "though much is taken, much abides."
Poems by Geoffrey Chaucer, Hart Crane, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Robert Browning, and others.
Phil Jackson, basketball coach
Hear the interview with Phil Jackson, Aug. 25, 2002.
Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson is known for giving books to his players. He tailors his choices to fit the players' personalities, and usually, to help them solve a problem or to better understand something about themselves. And quite often, the aim is to make them better basketball players.
When he was coach of the Chicago Bulls, he gave Dennis Rodman The Perfect Vehicle, a picture book about motorcycles. "He loved motorcycles and he wasn't a reader," Jackson explains. Rodman loved the book.
More recently, he gave Laker Mark Madsen Riders of the Purple Sage because the book depicts the Mormons in the Southwest, and Madsen is a Mormon.
He gave another Laker, Ukrainian Stanislav Medvedenko , the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You'll Go!. "It's a great book for guys who are just learning the language and learning to read," Jackson says.
Jackson says Shaquille O'Neal is the one player who takes him seriously when he tells players he expects a report upon completion of a book. Jackson gave him Siddhartha, Herman Hesse's take on the life of Buddha, and O'Neal told him, "I understand why you gave this book to me. It's about a guy with everything -- a lot of money, a lot of women -- and still can't find the pleasure in what he's doing."
Jackson's own reading list of late includes several books about American Indians. He spends much of his summer in Montana, and he spends much of his time there reading.
One such book he recently read was Tony Hillerman's The Wailing Wind. "He weaves a good mystery story around a lot of Native American culture," Jackson says.
He likes books about Indians, he says, because "We glibly accept a lot of things that are foreign, but here in our own country we have a lot of native American cultures that are still flourishing," and deserve more attention.
A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally
It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain
The Cold Six Thousand, James Ellroy
Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand
Hotel Honolulu, Paul Theroux
Kay Redfield Jamison
Kay Redfield Jamison, author/psychologist
Hear the interview with Kay Redfield Jamison, Aug. 18, 2002.
Not surprisingly, Kay Redfield Jamison finds some of the research she has to do to be rather depressing. The author of books about mental illness -- including 1995's renowned An Unquiet Mind -- reads a lot of accounts by and about depressives. For 1999's Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, she had to read many suicide notes and related material. "It was horrible, actually," she says. "It was just unrelentingly grim."
But now Jamison is working on a book about exuberance among scientists, and her vocational reading list has brightened up considerably. "I've been very interested in the enthusiasm level of scientists," she says, "because I think scientists have a bad reputation as drones who are just sitting around test-tubing and labbing all day." To study up, she's reading books by Joyce Poole (Coming of Age with Elephants) and Hope Ryden (Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers), as well as books by and about naturalist John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and others.
Although these works are far sunnier than suicide notes, they are still work. And Jamison says she still needs to relax. "To put my mind in a hammock," she says, "I've been reading Hawaii by James Michener. He's not the world's greatest poet, but he is a great storyteller, so it's nice to sort of unwind with that."
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, A. Alvarez
The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron
Hawaii, James Michener
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne
Coming of Age with Elephants, Joyce Poole
Lily Pond: Four Years With a Family of Beavers, Hope Ryden
Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate
Hear the interview with Billy Collins, Aug. 11, 2002.
U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins contrasts his reading habits with the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who read Greek in the morning, Latin in the afternoon, and Italian in the evening.
"I'm not that structured," says Collins. "And my summer reading list looks more like what you probably see when you look into someone else's shopping cart, and you wonder what kind of person would buy lightbulbs, a banana, and some dog food."
That list includes 52 McGs by Robert McG. Thomas, the New York Times obituary writer; The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol; and An Imaginary Life, David Malouf's novel.
Collins bemoans the state of contemporary poetry, but he says he's not averse to picking out the best of it for his own purposes. "John Updike said that the real motive behind reading is not to learn, but to steal," he says. "My poetry-reading essentially amounts to just pillaging stuff..."
There is, he says, a good news-bad news element to contemporary poetry: more people are reading it, but they are all poets. "It's like going to the ballet and looking into the audience and seeing that everyone is wearing a tutu," he says.
Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Clark Blaise
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
An Imaginary Life, David Malouf
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
About Town, Ben Yagoda
Loverboy, Victoria Redel
Amy Sedaris, writer/comedian/actor
Hear the interview with Amy Sedaris, Aug. 4, 2002.
For a while as a young girl, Amy Sedaris didn't read much. "I remember thinking, 'I can't read anything other than my brother'," she says.
Her brother, as it turns out, is none other than David Sedaris, the writer and comic monologist who first gained fame on NPR with his "Santaland Diaries," which depicted his experience playing an elf at Macy's in New York.
Amy Sedaris is accomplished in her own right as a comic, playwright, and star of the short-lived Comedy Central cult favorite Strangers with Candy. It was her brother who encouraged her to pick up a book. "David really taught me how to read," she says. He told her: "Hey if you're interested in something why don't you read about it?"
She's always enjoyed her brother's twisted tales of family life, but not for the same reasons as most of his fans. "To me, they're not weird stories," she says. "That's exactly what happened. I just assumed everyone's family is like that."
But she recently read Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs' strange and disturbing childhood memoir, and she sympathizes more with her brother's fans. "Now I understand. It's the first time I understood that," she says.
Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
Raising Cain, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan
Blue Angel, Francine Prose
The Easter Parade, Richard Yates
Jackie Collins, author
Hear the interview with Jackie Collins, July 28, 2002.
Jackie Collins may be the ultimate summer author, and she loves the fact that people think of her that way. "I feel great about that," she says. "I did the Today show recently and (wacky weatherman) Al Roker came running across the set and he said, 'oh, it must be summer, Jackie Collins is back with a new book!'"
But what does this writer of summertime books read in the summertime? Pretty much the same things she reads in the wintertime. That includes a lot of light fiction, especially when she's traveling, and sometimes heavy non-fiction, especially when she's not. "People tell me I'm a very popular airport read," says the author of 22 books. And she knows why: people like light, fast reads while they are traveling. While she was on the publicity tour for her latest book, Deadly Embrace, she read and enjoyed Billy, Pamela Stephenson's biography of comedian Billy Connolly. "I was on the same plane with Robert Wagner and Jill St. John," Collins says. "So I gave Billy to Robert to read, and then I picked up a book that I'd gotten at the airport because it looked kind of fun, called Her by Laura Zigman," an edgy romantic comedy.
Collins' assessment: "I think women will identify with this book because it's fast and it's funny and not a heavy read."
Collins says she doesn't read when she's deep into writing. "I find it's impossible," she says, "because you pick up other writers' rhythms."
Many critics have written Collins off as lightweight or even exploitative, but her reading list, at least, is quite varied. She is now reading American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us by Steven Emerson and Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden's account of the Colombian drug lord. She cites Charles Dickens and Harold Robbins as her two biggest influences.
"I think there should be all kinds of writers, and they should be very much accepted," she says. "Because it's so ridiculous to just accept literary works when perhaps a more commercial writer like myself or Harold (Robbins) or Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steele will get people in the bookstores. And as long as people are reading, that's a good thing."
American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Steven Emerson
Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden
24 Hours, Greg Isles
Billy, Pamela Stephenson
Her, Laura Zigman
Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man, Dan Anderson and Maggie Berman
What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, Art Linson
Long Lost, David Morrell
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
Alice Waters, chef and restaurateur
Hear the interview with Alice Waters, July 21, 2002.
Alice Waters, executive chef and owner of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., has been re-reading all the novels of D.H. Lawrence, whom she hasn't read for 30 years. "It was a real revelation to pick up these books and find that I was equally drawn to them as I was 30 years ago -- maybe more so now," she says.
When it comes to books about food, Waters prefers such authors as M.F.K Fisher and Elizabeth David -- writers who offer inspiration as opposed to mere instruction. She's currently reading Life a la Henri, the memiors of chef Henri Charpentier.
Waters says the most important current book on food isn't a cookbook, but Fast Food Nation, journalist Eric Schlosser's expose of the fast-food industry. "To see that this book is being read -- it's a bestseller -- is very, very encouraging to me," she says. The book helps people to see that "the decisions that they make about what to eat are changing the world -- and can change the world if they make the right decisions."
Waters is currently promoting her book Chez Panisse Fruit. Her earlier books include Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook and Chez Panisse Vegetables.
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
What She's Reading Now:
Life a la Henri Henri Charpentier
James Billington, Librarian of Congress
Hear the interview with James Billington, July 14, 2002.
It should come as no surprise that the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, is a voracious reader. "Reading is my life," he says, describing books as "very sacred" things.
"Reading," he continues, "is a form of conversation. Mute witnesses from the past are a lot better guides to the present than a lot of these talking heads who don't even allow one another to finish a sentence."
As a professor at Harvard and then at Princeton, Billington specialized in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. It was Russian literature that drew him there. He still returns to the novels of Dostoyevsky. "He wrote the greatest detective story ever written, Crime and Punishment," Billington says. "He wrote the greatest political novel ever written, The Possessed. And then he wrote the The Brothers Karamazov, which has most of what's in religion and most of what's in Freud."
Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress, a position he has held since 1987, when he was appointed by President Reagan. His own books include The Icon and the Axe, Fire in the Minds of Men, and The Face of Russia.
The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Autumn of the Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga
An Enemy of the People, John Gabriel Borkman, Rosmerholm, and The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen
The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler
What He's Reading Now:
The Innovators: The Engineering Pioneers Who Made America Modern, David Billington
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro
A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne, Father M. Owen Lee
Li-Young Lee, poet
Hear the interview with Li-Young Lee, July 7, 2002.
"For me, reading is like combat," says poet Li-Young Lee. "That's part of the enjoyment. When I read Plato, at every sentence I stop and knock on the sentence. I'm arguing with what I'm reading… The writing of a sentence is a sacred activity. You realize the sentence is a great tool, an outgrowth of human utterance." Most popular fiction, he says, "is hard for me because I can't stand the sentences. I don't mean to sound snobbish."
It may come as something of a surprise that a man with such passion for literary wordcraft -- and such disdain for the best-sellers list -- finds great merit in, of all things, comic books. But Lee does. "I love the Hulk," he says. "The whole thing about dissociated anger in the form of a green human being." He also loves Spider-Man because of "the symbolism of swinging over the abyss (an aspect he says was missing in the recent movie)."
The poet, whose books include Rose and The Book of My Nights says he has "given up on reading systematically." His house, he says, "is just a mess. Books are all over the place."
American Sonnets, Gerald Stern
What He's Reading Now:
Creation Myths, Marie-Louise Von Franz
The Sermons of Meister Eckhart
Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu
The Complete Stories, Franz Kafka
Richard Posner, judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Hear the interview with Richard Posner. June 30, 2002.
Despite the voraciousness and velocity he applies to his reading, Judge Richard Posner demurs from any suggestion that he is a "speed reader."
Maybe it's just semantics. "I'm not a speed reader… speed readers skim and scan," says the judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, best known for his role as a mediator in the Microsoft antitrust case. "I read quickly, but not anything super fast." But when asked what's he's reading this summer, he rattles off a long and impressive list of books. And at the end of this list, he pauses, and points out that this is only a partial list. He doesn't yet know what he'll be reading later in the season.
As a supplement, Posner is a big fan of recorded books -- listening to them on his commute in Chicago. "In some cases," he says, "the experience is really superior to reading." He cites works where dialogue is important, particularly when it's written in dialect, which can be hard to read. He enjoyed Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn on tape, and also James Joyce's The Dubliners.
Like a lot of people, he had to get used to the idea of recorded books. "There's a transitional period," he says. "But after a while, you become acclimated to it, and it's terrific."
The Outcry, Henry James
Red Square and Havana Bay, Martin Cruz Smith
We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young, Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway
What He's Reading Now:
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Ides of March, Thornton Wilder
Cicero, Anthony Everitt
Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism, Robert Brandom
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Singer
Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens
Why Terrorism Works, Alan Dershowitz
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute
Hear the interview with Francis Collins. June 23, 2002.
A quick glance at Francis Collins' reading list reveals that the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute is fascinated by the points at which science intersects religion -- specifically, Christianity. One book examines similarities between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Another tries to reconcile belief in God with belief in evolution.
Can a person believe equally in both? "I firmly believe you can," says this man of deep faith who also has a reputation as one of the world's top scientific minds.
Collins mostly reads scientific journals, so he has limited time for "pleasure" reading. Still, he's usually reading something, and he finds pleasure almost exclusively in nonfiction. "I enjoy (fiction) on those occasions maybe if I do have a summer vacation, I might take along a book of fiction," he says. "But oftentimes I find I'm hungry for a nonfiction experience of some sort, that I've been waiting for the chance to dive into."
Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, Jon Cohen
Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Kenneth Miller
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Armand Nicholi
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley
The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome, John Sulston
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
What He's Reading Now:
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond
Wendy Lesser, editor, Threepenny Review
Hear the interview with Wendy Lesser. June 16, 2002.
It's no surprise that Wendy Lesser reads a lot. What may be surprising, though, is that the editor of the acclaimed Threepenny Review literary journal admits to being "an unregenerate skipper of boring or slow passages."
Really? This lover of prose, this connoisseur of wordcraft skips through books? "If I'm reading something for the first time and I'm really desperate to find out what's going to happen, I'll skip -- not many pages -- but just the rest of the paragraph. I don't necessarily recommend this as a way of reading, but I do it when I'm just reading for fun."
Maybe she should recommend it. "For fun," Lesser reads one or two novels per week. (This does not include all the reading she must do for her work.) And skipping passages hasn't hurt her any. "I managed to get all the way through graduate school with a Ph.D. without anybody detecting this fact. I did it much more massively in grad school -- I would read the first and last chapter of something and take an exam on it. You can do that. I'm not proud of that."
What She Recommends:
The Pit, Frank Norris
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
The Comfort of Strangers, Ian McEwan
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
Dancing with Mister D: Notes on Life and Death, Bert Keizer
What She Plans to Read This Summer:
The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne
The Explorer, W. Somerset Maugham
Forms of Talk, Erving Goffman
Judith Jamison, dance director
Hear the interview with Judith Jamison. June 9, 2002.
"Reading is standard," says Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "I insist that my dancers read."
"Reading is essential," she continues. "Because how else to you learn to use your imagination?"
On the proverbial desert island, Jamison says she would wish to have "anything by Toni Morrison, anything by Dr. Maya Angelou. I would probably take the poetry of Sonia Sanchez." She likes biographies, too. "There are so many people I'm interested in whose lives have influenced so many people. Even if they're outrageous lives. Even if they've gone to ridiculous extent of egotism or egoism or whatever you call it -- I'm still interested in what made them outrageous."
What She's Reading Now:
Love on Trial, Earl Lewis, Heidi Ardizzone.
African Ceremonies, Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher
Baryshnikov in Black and White (photos), Mikhail Baryshnikov
Pat Schroeder, lobbyist/former Congresswoman
Hear the interview with Pat Schroeder. June 2, 2002.
Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder says she's a "recovering politician," but judging by her response to a simple question about her favorite books, her recovery seems to be progressing a tad slowly.
Schroeder is now head of the Association of American Publishers, the book industry's main lobbying organization. But she was reluctant to rush into a list of favorites.
"I always get in trouble," she said. "Because whenever I mention one, it's like, 'why didn't you mention mine?' I'm reading a whole lot of different things. I just finished The Lost Children of Wilder, (Nina Bernstein's expose of the foster-care system) which I adored. I love Jean Auel. I love Pat Conroy. Caroline Kennedy has a new Profiles in Courage. And I could go on and on and on, and every time I mention a name, I'm getting in deeper trouble."
Any titles she'd suggest? "I haven't read anything I wouldn't recommend," she said.
The Shelters of Stone, Jean Auel.
The Lost Children of Wilder, Nina Bernstein
David McCullough, author/historian
Hear the interview with David McCullough Morning Edition, May 26, 2002.
David McCullough is one of those people -- you either envy them or you are one of them -- who reads several books at once. Several titles threaten to topple his nightstand, usually histories, mysteries and historical novels.
Reading, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is not only thinking -- it's living. "Reading is to extend the experience of being alive by a quantum leap," he says. "Try to imagine what it would be like to be illiterate -- not to be alive."
What He's Reading Now:
Arundel, Kenneth Roberts
The Case Has Altered, by Martha Grimes
Autobiography, Edward Gibbon