As the editor of The New Yorker, you read all the time for work, across a huge range of subjects. Does that make it harder for you to read for pure pleasure? How do you distinguish between personal and professional reading?
When I first started at this job, one of my sons, who was very young at the time, remarked, “You don’t seem to read anything anymore with covers.” Meaning I was up to my hips in printed manuscripts, galleys and proofs. It was a good alarm. But I didn’t need it for long. Reading is hardly a job. It is, endlessly, my pleasure.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Why feel guilty about reading of any kind? Because it’s not “Finnegans Wake” or “Being and Time”? I never understood that. I do read an awful lot about music and musicians. Peter Guralnick’s Elvis bio and his magnificent “Sweet Soul Music.” Albert Murray’s collaboration with Count Basie, Quincy Troupe’s collaboration with Miles Davis. Jay-Z’s “Decoded.” Dylan’s “Chronicles.” Angela Davis on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. David Ritz’s biography of Aretha and his collaborations with Etta James and B. B. King. I go through stacks of them, high and low. Why feel guilty about that?
Which genres do you avoid?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I just don’t understand science fiction. Some people can’t bear cilantro — they think it tastes “soapy.” That’s me with science fiction. No taste for it. Perhaps, more shameful: In recent years, I’ve read a lot of books about the natural world. And yet I just can’t get through “Walden.” Please, tell no one.
How do you organize your books?
Are the stars in the sky “organized”? Somehow, I suppose. Our books at home are a half a mess, grouped in random constellations, but just as often scattered. And yet I can usually find them. If I remember we have them.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
The New Testament. And yet I prefer the early, funny stuff.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of “Pale Fire” from my friend and editor, Henry Finder. He also gave me a beautiful edition of a book that falls into the “overlooked” category: Alexander Herzen’s “From the Other Shore.”