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‘Odd, Unpopular and Reticent’: The Books That Sing to Wayne Koestenbaum


How do you organize your books?

Prose and poetry dwell in separate areas, alphabetized by author. Certain writers defect from category. Boris Pasternak’s prose memoir “Safe Conduct” lives next to his book-length poem “My Sister — Life” in the poetry section. Books in French have their own cul-de-sac. I keep together the books of certain publishers: all of my Green Integer books, for example, are on one shelf. On another set of shelves — the salon des refusés — are the books that depress me too much, or are too miscellaneous and dreary, to be included in the regular area. But I can’t discard these wastrels.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Happiness.” Are you shocked? I was going to mention “For Every Young Heart: Connie Francis Talks to Teenagers,” but that didn’t seem surprising enough.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

My parents gave me a Gallimard “Collection Folio” paperback of André Gide’s “L’immoraliste” for Christmas when I was a teen. I didn’t read it until much later. Some messages take time to detonate.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

When I was younger, I craved novels: “Jane Eyre” and “Sons and Lovers” schooled me in ambivalence, flame, escape. Now, I read more poetry and nonfiction. I seek out books that are odd, unpopular and reticent. But a fluent novel — especially a monologue, in the maniacal mode of Thomas Bernhard — can still sock it to me.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Jean Rhys, Emily Dickinson, Max Jacob.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good. What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t?

Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” is entrancing, but I was disappointed to discover that it was not about fairies and queens.



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