Interviews of writers

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Reading the New York Times’ “By the Book” Feature

by the book

One Sunday ritual I enjoy is reading The Book Review in the New York Times, where I can reliably find a feature called “By the Book.” In this column, famous people (mostly authors, but sometimes actors, singers, artists, etc.) answer pre-submitted questions about their reading habits, prejudices, and insights.

For me, “By the Book” is a great resource for books I want to explore and possibly read myself. Granted, some columns are richer than others, depending on the person interviewed. But I’ve also learned, over the weeks, that some of the Times‘ stock questions are better than others, too. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  1. What Books Are on Your Nightstand? Always the opening volley, this question brings answers that are sometimes valuable, sometimes not. I often pick up ideas for books to read here, true, but many searches show the books to still be in the “advanced reader copy” phase. I also find that interviewed subjects use this question to promote books by friends, relatives, and people they owe favors to. When this occurs, it’s fairly easy to connect the dots with a little research.
  2. Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most? Here, subjects most typically offer established contemporary authors along with their reasoning. That said, some will use it as an opportunity to promote a black sheep, dark horse, or unjustifiably unknown author worth checking out. The Times’ sometimes adds to this question by focusing on the specialty of the subject. For example, an artist might be asked to pick authors who write about art.
  3. What’s your favorite thing to read? And what do you avoid reading? Here subjects often delve into genre or take pride in NOT delving into genre. Some admit to prejudices agains certain genres while other profess an open mind. As for the “avoid reading” question, at times “By the Book” will be more particular and ask about authors the subject avoids or dislikes, making it politically dangerous to specify a living author. Most subjects duck this question or choose a disliked writer who is conveniently dead.
  4. What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing? This question goes to writers only. I read every word because, as a writer myself, I find it interesting the way various authors separate (or don’t) “church and state.” Meaning: Some, if writing historical fiction, as an example, will refuse to read another writer’s historical fiction. Instead they’ll read a completely different genre, one lonely out in left field like poetry. Their reasoning is often fascinating and insightful. You can (and should) learn from all kinds of writing, so any writer who avoids a genre does so at his/her own risk.
  5. What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently? Another favorite, this question often begs trivia gleaned from nonfiction books. Often I say, “Huh,” and move on, sure to forget the interesting nugget I just temporarily learned. Ah, well. At least I had fun temporarily learning it!
  6. What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of? Another chance for the subject to demonstrate his or her breadth as a reader. Another chance for me to follow up by researching the little-known title. Sometimes I even buy it.

  7. What moves you most in a work of literature? A great question because there is such a wide variety in replies. Also, it’s a thoughtful question. Ask it of yourself. It’s not easy to pin down, especially if you go beyond stock answers like “plot” and “character.”

  8. How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night? I often skip this because I often don’t care. Do you scratch your chin with your right hand or your left? Do you stand in the shower facing the spray of water or facing away? Ho-hum.
  9. How do you organize your books? Another section I skip. This might interest detail-oriented or obsessed sorts, but spatial guys like me don’t care about Dewey or his bloody Decimals, much less the alphabet, colors, or sizes of book spines someone uses to pretty-up their bookshelf. As the prophet Charlie Brown once professed: “Good grief!”

  10. What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves? I’m back in for this question, although the irony in the answer is usually lost on me because I don’t know the subject enough to fully appreciate the surprise. Instead, it becomes another oddball author or oddly random book title for the pondering.

  11. What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift? Here’s a chance to name drop. The subject will often choose a book, of course, but also offer the name of the gift-giver and the reason the book was so special. Interesting. And difficult to answer. Think how YOU would answer it, especially if you have been gifted so many books over the years.

  12. Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain? I read this answer to see if it jibes with any of my favorites: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Levin (or whatever his full name is, in Anna Karenina), and Jake Barnes. As for villains, I don’t have any favorites, but relish the chance to read about some that I might read up on.
  13. What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most? These two questions are separated. You could argue that answers are of interest only if you care about the subject being interviewed. It provides history to the development of that subject, after all. and thus would prove meaningful to you. But often it’s predictable fare that I skim over or skip entirely.

  14. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? Good God. A fruitless question, given the current presence in the White House. Many subjects use it as a predictable chance to say, “Why bother? The president can’t read.” Others will gamely offer a book and a reason, usually with political knives sharpened. In case you haven’t noticed, most writers are a liberal lot.
  15. You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite? I call this the “Barbara Walters” question, kind of like “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Too cute for its own good, in other words. I’ve yet to read an answer that’s particularly compelling. Like uploaded internet photographs of cats or food people are about to eat, it falls under the category of hashtag who cares (#whocares?).