Books

Please Don’t Ask Elizabeth Kolbert How She Organizes Her Books

“I don’t. Often this is a problem,” says the environmental writer, whose new book is “Under a White Sky.”

What books are on your night stand?

On my (metaphorical) night stand are Patrik Svensson’s “The Book of Eels,” Yaa Gyasi’s “Transcendent Kingdom,” and the galleys of Jim Shepard’s new novel, “Phase Six.”

What’s the last great book you read?

The last book I read that really blew me away was Walter Kempowski’s “All for Nothing.”

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

In the early weeks of Covid, when we were stuck at home, my husband and I read Trollope’s “Barchester Towers” out loud. It was kind of a slog, but also memorable.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Whenever I go somewhere new, I try to bring along a book that somehow bears on the place I’m visiting. I read Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams” while camping out on the Greenland ice sheet. That to me was pretty close to the ideal reading experience, but a tough one to replicate.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Weird and Tragic Shores,” by Chauncey Loomis, is a wonderful riff on the classic Arctic explorer narrative. It’s about Charles Francis Hall, an American newspaper publisher who insisted on going looking for survivors of the last Franklin expedition long after it had become clear there weren’t any. Toward the end, almost by accident, the book becomes a murder mystery. I’m sure most Arctic-philes have heard of it, but it deserves a much wider audience.

What do you read when you’re working on a book?

Being a journalist is a bit like being a magpie. You’re always on the lookout for something shiny — a phrase, a fact, an insight — and you never know where you’re going to find it. When I embark on a new book, or on a new article, I try to read as much as I can on the subject. I live near a college library, and often I’ll look up one title and then just roam the stacks, letting one call number lead me to the next. This is an activity I’ve really missed during Covid.

What writers are especially good on the natural world?

There are so many — too many for me even to start to list. That said, there are certain works I keep coming back to: “Walden,” “Desert Solitaire,” Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us,” Annie Dillard’s “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” John McPhee’s “Encounters With the Archdruid” and “Annals of the Former World.” Anyone writing today faces the problem that what counts as the “natural world” has become pretty vexed. Some of the after-“The End of Nature” nature writers I think have had the greatest impact are: Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, Rebecca Solnit and E. O. Wilson.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was recently reading about chimps’ grooming habits in Carl Safina’s “Becoming Wild.” The social interactions between high- and low-status chimps are every bit as complicated as those you’d expect to see at a college mixer.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

This isn’t a subject, exactly, but I wish there were more popular science books written by scientists. I really enjoyed — and learned a tremendous amount from — “Stuff Matters,” by Mark Miodownik, who’s a materials scientist. The same goes for: “Gathering Moss,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant ecologist; “The Evolution of Beauty,” by Richard Prum (ornithologist); “Your Inner Fish,” by Neil Shubin (paleontologist); “The Forest Unseen,” by David George Haskell (biologist); and “Lab Girl,” by Hope Jahren (geobiologist). All these books opened up the world to me in a new way.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Kafka once wrote, “We ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it?” I think it’s true that the very best works of literature, several of which were written by Kafka himself, leave us wrecked and, at the same time, more alive.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I particularly like books that fool around with genre — works in which the subject and the style don’t line up neatly. One of my favorite novels is Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” I’m also a big fan of Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout.” In nonfiction, too, I’m drawn to books that play with convention. I really like Robert Sullivan’s “The Meadowlands,” which is a wilderness book set in a Superfund site. Two other books that play interesting games with the norms of nature writing are “Insectopedia,” by Hugh Raffles, and “Moby-Duck,” by Donovan Hohn.

How do you organize your books?

I don’t. Often this is a problem.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

For the heroine, it’s probably Oedipa Maas; I admire her intrepid cluelessness. For the villain, I think it’s Fred, the dachshund in E. B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig.” Fred has a ghoulish curiosity that’s hard to resist.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

As a kid I read indiscriminately, mostly to avoid boredom. I made my way through Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables. I read Highlights and Mad magazine. I loved “The Pushcart War,” “The Egypt Game,” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I don’t think there’s any book I’ve read more times than “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

In my protracted adolescence, I was drawn to works of overwrought romanticism, like “Wuthering Heights” and “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” I still love both of these books, but in general my tastes have become a lot cooler.

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

Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino and Isak Dinesen.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

In David Lodge’s academic novel “Changing Places,” the members of the English department play a game called “Humiliation.” Participants are supposed to name a book they haven’t read, but that they imagine most other members of the department have. One player names “Hamlet.” He wins the game but loses his job.

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