How Writers Read (Vol. 4)

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Photograph by Teju Cole

I’ve never really worried about writer’s block. I think of breaks from writing more as “installing important updates,” focusing on input rather than output. But lately I’ve been going through a period of reader’s block, a new and frustrating experience. I haven’t been in the mood to read books or even articles. This got me thinking about the reading habits of writers; I wondered how they differed from my own. So I asked thirteen questions to ten writers I admire, working in different genres, in an attempt to discover how writers read.

—Elisa Gabbert

11) In general, how do you decide what to read next? Do you think about diversity when choosing what books you read (i.e. do you try not to only read books by white men)?

ALICE BOLIN: I do think about diversity, or maybe I just gravitate towards books by women? Usually I just get on a kick and just read lots of books by one author or about one subject.

TEJU COLE: I don’t think a whole lot about color when I chose what to read—maybe that kind of diversity just comes my way without my having to consider it—but I do think about gender. I’m sick of men. Aren’t we all? And even in this sickness, we are socialized to give men and male work far more space than they really should have. And it’s also important to me to read well beyond what’s part of the American conversation.

DARCIE DENNIGAN: I like a lot of white male authors. But the most interesting contemporary work is definitely being written by women. I don’t on purpose seek out women writers, but probably every book on my wishlist right now is by a woman. 

I don’t think about diversity when I choose books (unless I’m reading in order to create a syllabus), but now that you’ve asked the question, I admit that in ignoring that issue and not actively seeking books written by people from other cultures and races, I’m closing myself off. Or worse. Worse.

JORDAN ELLENBERG: I do think about that. I try to read a reasonable number of books by women (it’s easy not to, if I don’t think about it) and I try to read some books in translation. I try to read some books written before I was born.

GRAHAM FOUST: I wander around my house or office or the library and ogle the books. I think I think about “diversity.”

RUTH GRAHAM: I don’t think at all about diversity, for better or for worse. Some of my all-time favorite authors are white men, though I suppose in general I gravitate more toward women’s stories. This year so far I have read 15 books by women and 7 by men. (This doesn’t include reading for work.) I should probably try to read more books by men!

My only real nod to diversity of any kind is that if I’ve read a couple of mystery novels in a row, I try to choose something else even if I’m in not in the mood. It seems like a good habit to take on deeper stuff even if my instinct is to keep plowing through (delightful) fluff.

J. ROBERT LENNON: I don’t really think about that sort of diversity in choosing my personal reading, no. Race and gender and class and sexual orientation are very important, obviously, both in literature and out in the world, and I do engage with them, sometimes passionately, in my personal and professional life, especially when it comes to supporting a friend or student. But they’re not usually prominent parts of my engagement with reading and writing. Any human story, engagingly told, is interesting to me, regardless of its origins. I do care very much about stylistic diversity, though, and this generally leads me to end up reading all over the race/gender/class/orientation map anyway, as these factors strongly affect the way writers use language. I do carefully consider that kind of diversity when making a syllabus, and when discussing books in class; some young people might otherwise avoid literature that doesn’t seem specifically aimed at them. For whatever reason, my taste does seem to lead me to read more women than men, and most of my literary heroes are women.

As for what to read next: it’s generally based more on whim and available time than anything else.

ADA LIMÓN: I have to say that I don’t actively try to think about diversity, but I do think I’m naturally drawn to female writers and books that explore non-traditional narratives. Also, because I’m interested in Latino/a poetry, I do find myself gravitating to books by authors of color. But I don’t do it consciously. When I’m reading I’m generally thinking of what I want to feel like at the moment. Sometimes I need to feel like the world is full of magic and all I can read is Neil Gaiman; sometimes I need to feel like I’m absorbing new knowledge, and all I can read are essays and literary criticism. I choose a book for how I believe it might make me feel. It’s like picking the right companion for the right mood.

LEIGH STEIN: I read more contemporary literature than classics, and I read more women than men. Racial diversity in my reading list is something I think about, though admittedly something I should be more proactive about including.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Mood is usually the deciding factor for me: I feel like that kind of voice or style or story right now. I do try very hard to read widely in all ways. I keep a reading log—mainly because I have a terrible memory—and so I can see that I naturally tend to read more books by women. I tend to read quite a bit of literature in translation. I do check in with my log periodically and if I feel like I’m reading too narrowly in one way or another, I make an effort to break those patterns. 

12) How important is it to you to read popular books that everyone else seems to be reading (the hot new book, the latest award winner, etc.)? Do you read more recent books or more older books?

ALICE BOLIN: Oh man, I usually avoid hot new books because they disappoint me so bitterly.

TEJU COLE: No way I’d have read my own novel (if it wasn’t mine) until about three or four years after it came out. I’m just not that on the pulse of things. There are exceptions to this, but many of them have to do with reviewing or blurbing.

DARCIE DENNIGAN: It doesn’t matter what the hot new books are or which books win awards. Those awards are indicators of something, but not of a book’s potential worth to me individually. I just want to read the greats. And the weird, a-categorical, and challenging. I mostly read in order to think. 

JORDAN ELLENBERG: It’s important to me to do the opposite of this. Popular books don’t need me to read them. What do I have to offer them? Nothing their many other readers aren’t giving them.

GRAHAM FOUST: If someone I trust recommends something I will usually give it a shot. I don’t pay attention to too much else, though I did drink the Knausgaard Kool-Aid because of the general buzz. I am not entirely sure I can go another three rounds with it, but we’ll see.

RUTH GRAHAM: I like to be part of “the conversation” (ugh) to a certain point, but also there are a billion older books I want to get to and life is short. So I guess it is medium-important to me to read the book of the moment? I live way out in the country, so for me that conversation about new books consists of the Internet and my husband, both of which are way more in touch with contemporary literature than I am. That said, I won’t read a new “cool” book if I don’t think I’ll enjoy it; the pleasure of bragging about having read a hot new book is not enough to motivate me on its own. That pleasure is real, though.

J. ROBERT LENNON: That’s not very important to me. I do read more books written in my lifetime than I do other books, but I also often like to wait a decade before I read something everyone seems to like. Sometimes people like books, in part, because their authors overstate the importance of our cultural moment—they flatter us. I’m also sometimes afraid to read a hot new thing, because I might very well dislike it, and then I’ll want to talk about it, and talking about it will lead to a bunch of arguing.

ADA LIMÓN: I like reading books that reflect a national mood or books that everyone is drawn to at the moment. It makes me feel like I’m getting a sense as to what my fellow readers desire in their entertainment. The only time I’m really resistant is when I’m told that I have to read something by too many people. It’s the stubborn kid in me that doesn’t like to do what I’m told, or what might be good for me. I also have a hard time reading a book when I know it’ll be gut wrenchingly sad. The world is already so sad, and if the dog dies in the end, I’m not going to want to read the book. In the end, it may be amazing, but it’ll take me awhile to grit my teeth and dive in if I know I’m going to be emotionally leveled.

I do love reading the classics, too. Going back and revisiting old favorites is a real pleasure. Or picking up something everyone says is wonderful and lifting the cover the first time. I’m constantly reading an incredibly well-known book for the first time and saying inane things like, “You know, Virginia Woolf was awesome.” There are just so many books to read, I try not to feel pressured by it.

LEIGH STEIN: I want to read what everyone is talking about so I can participate in the conversation. By everyone, I think I probably mean my Twitter friends.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Not very important to me to read the popular thing. I am either interested in it on my own or I’m not. I do tend to read more recent books—say things that were published within the last 5-10 years—though I have a major soft spot for the NYRB Classics.

13) What are you reading right now? What’s your favorite thing you’ve read recently?

ALICE BOLIN: The hot new book of a few years ago, Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, which I have been loving and still ineptly trying to get through for many months. I also have been reading along a lot with my students, so lots of Ashbery, Lorca, James Wright. My students are going to start reading Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle this week and that’s the best thing I’ve read like ever. The thing I’ve forced everyone I know to read this year is Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

TEJU COLE: Reading Song of Solomon and In the Skin of a Lion, both for the first time. Rereading Dalloway. There’s three books right there that’ll restore any young novelist’s humility. I’m also reading a stack of poetry books (Sarah Lindsay’s Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower—everybody should read this one, it’s ferociously good; tender and supersmart) and a stack of photography books. Seferis every summer. Summer’s over, right? But I’m reluctant to put him away.

DARCIE DENNIGAN: I’m re-reading Jane Eyre right now because life has been difficult lately and I wanted to escape. And it’s working. The best thing I’ve read in the past year is Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends. It’s like totally feminist in the smartest, most complex way I could never imagine.

JORDAN ELLENBERG: Of the books I mentioned above, the Grace Paley and the Daniel Pinkwater are the ones that keep making me want to stop what I’m doing and go quote them to people. Going back a little farther, I was crazy about Mark Leyner’s The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack, which I think of as a novel designed to be ungooglable.

GRAHAM FOUST: I just finished Giorgio Vasta’s Time on My Hands and re-read Peter Handke’s Crossing the Sierra de Gredos. Right now I am reading Donald Antrim’s new book and Patrizia Cavalli’s selected poems (in translation), as well as obsessively re-reading Sara Nicholson’s The Living Method and the poems of Richard Crashaw.

RUTH GRAHAM: Right now I am reading Moll Flanders for the first time, and I’m really enjoying it, although I’m still in the sexy part, so we’ll see. For mysteries, my absolute favorite right now is PD James. My favorite new-ish literary novels I’ve read this year have been The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which I regret not reading when it was brand-new and everyone was talking about it, and my Twitter friend Gabe Roth’s totally delightful novel The Unknowns. As for older stuff, I loved the first two volumes of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, written in the 1920s and set in 14th-century Norway. I picked them up because I have been thinking about how few post-19th-century literary novels feature female protagonists whose primary ambitions are marriage and children, when in reality those conventional desires seem enormously common and worth taking seriously. I asked for recommendations for books like that on Twitter and a couple of smart people recommended them. Thanks, Twitter!

J. ROBERT LENNON: I liked your book very much! I also loved Jo Walton’s fantasy novel Among Others, a bunch of Rachel Cusk I found at a friend’s house where I was staying, the new Karen Joy Fowler, Patricia Lockwood’s and Dorothea Lasky’s new ones, and that crazy Tao Lin novel. Colson Whitehead’s gambling book was a hoot. I really enjoyed recent rereads of Sense and Sensibility and George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. But mostly I’m reading comics right now. The entire run of Fantagraphics’ MOME magazine, some utterly disgusting but weirdly compelling horror comics by Josh Simmons, the Saga books, Solanin, the new book by the Scott Pilgrim guy. I’ve got a deal going with WORD Brooklyn; they have my credit card number on file and they send me new graphic narrative stuff every month. Those ladies are the best.

ADA LIMÓN: Well, it’s new book day today. So I’m debating what to read. It’s very exciting. It’s like the first day of school (yes, nerd Ada is revealed). My friend Josh Malerman just wrote a book called Bird Box and it’s supposed to be excellent and incredibly scary. I keep putting it off because I’m not good with frightening things, but I really want to read it.

Oh how to pick a recent favorite. I just finished the anthology, Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls, which was awesome. And Rankine’s Citizen is truly stunning.

LEIGH STEIN: My favorite book that I finished most recently is Random Family, which was as immersive as a TV drama, and just a journalistic masterpiece.

LAURA VAN DEN BERG: Right now I am reading Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back. This year my most beloved reads include J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Kathryn Davis’s Duplex, and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation.

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See Volume 1

See Volume 2

See Volume 3

Alice Bolin is a poet and essayist living in Southern California. You can find her on twitter @alicebolin.

Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He is the author of two books: a novella, Every Day Is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Darcie Dennigan is the author of two poetry collections, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse (Fordham University Press) and Madame X (Canarium Books). She teaches at the University of Connecticut and is a cofounder of Frequency Writers: A Writing Community for Providence & Beyond.

Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and the author of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, as well as a novel, The Grasshopper King.

Graham Foust is the author of five books of poems, including To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (Flood Editions, 2013) and, with Samuel Frederick, the translator of Ernst Meister’s In Time’s Rift (Wave Books, 2012). He teaches at the University of Denver.

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

Ruth Graham is a contributing writer to the Boston Globe’s Ideas section and a freelance journalist who writes for Slate, the Poetry Foundation, Al Jazeera America, and many others.

J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including MailmanFamiliar,and Happyland,and the story collections Pieces for the Left Hand and See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press). He teaches writing at Cornell University.

Ada Limón is the author of three collections of poetry, Sharks in the Rivers, This Big Fake World, and Lucky Wreck. Her fourth book, Bright Dead Things, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Her work has
appeared in 
The New York Times, Poetry Daily, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

Leigh Stein is the creator of BinderCon, a conference for/by/on women and gender non-conforming writers, as well as the author of two books: The Fallback Plan(a novel) and Dispatch from the Future(a book of poems).

Laura van den Berg is the author of, most recently, Find Me, a novel (FSG, 2015), as well as two short story collections, The Isle of Youth (FSG, 2013) and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009). She is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College.