What books are on your night stand?
The vast majority of my reading is for author interviews on “All Things Considered.” So as I write this in January, I’m chipping away at a pile of titles with February and March publication dates: “The Exceptions,” by Kate Zernike, about a group of women scientists who fought for equality at M.I.T.; “Four Battlegrounds,” by Paul Scharre, about artificial intelligence and the future of war; “A Sun to Be Sewn,” a slim and brutal work of fiction by the Haitian poet Jean D’Amérique; and “The Great Displacement,” by Jake Bittle, about Americans forced to relocate by climate change. I usually keep more of a balance between fiction and nonfiction, but it varies.
I also have a few books on my bedside table that have sat there longer than I’d like to admit. All three are about the queer trailblazer Harry Hay: “The Trouble With Harry Hay,” by Stuart Timmons; “Radically Gay,” a collection of Hay’s writings edited by Will Roscoe; and a play called “The Temperamentals,” by Jon Marans. I have already read them, but I hope that by sleeping near them every night I will finally make some headway on the Harry Hay project that I’ve been dreaming about creating for a few years now.
What’s the last great book you read?
Abraham Verghese’s next novel, “The Covenant of Water,” is more than 700 pages, and even though it doesn’t come out until May, I devoured it more quickly than many books that were ahead of it in my queue. This points to the gift and the curse of my job. The gift: I get to talk to an author I admire about his brilliant work of literature! The curse: I have no time to go back and read any of Verghese’s previous books, much as I’d like to.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I know that “Beowulf” is technically an epic poem rather than a novel, but I’m going to say it counts. The only version I’ve ever read is the 2020 translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. Nearly every page has lines that I wanted to read aloud. (Go figure — after a lifetime in radio, when I see words on a page my first instinct is to speak them.)
You know how sometimes your memory of a book is inexorably bound to the place you consumed it? I’ll always remember reading this “Beowulf” during a West Virginia cabin weekend in November with some friends. It is a perfect fireplace read; I recommend a collective recitation, passing the book around the room while sipping a strong drink and gazing into the fire.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
On an airplane — hoodie up, shoes off, no Wi-Fi, no distractions. I read “A Little Life” beginning to end this way, on one long flight from South Africa to the United States (in a middle seat). No shade to Hanya Yanagihara, but this is not the way I’d recommend digesting that particular book.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
One thing I love about Tony Kushner is his fluidity. Of course I first got to know his writing through “Angels in America.” In high school I recited a monologue from his adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “The Illusion.” But I am also a fan of his musical collaboration with Jeanine Tesori, “Caroline, or Change,” and his work with Steven Spielberg on blockbuster films from “Lincoln” to “West Side Story.”
As someone who wears lots of hats (I once went in 24 hours from interviewing Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill while wearing a suit to singing with Alan Cumming on Fire Island while wearing a leather dog collar), I admire how much Kushner appears to enjoy hopscotching platforms. Someday I’d like to ask him whether he felt he had to earn permission to do that. I wonder — did winning the Pulitzer make him feel like he could go where he wanted after that, or did he always believe in writing his own ticket?
Do you have any comfort reads?
Sometimes I flip through “The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara” and give myself a little dose of him in the middle of a day. I think “Having a Coke With You” may be the best love poem ever written. I also read cookbooks for pleasure. They demand nothing of the reader, and every page has the promise of a happy ending.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
It is so hard to write books about climate change that people want to read. I once asked Michael Pollan about this. His entire body of work revolves around the human relationship to the natural world, so I asked why he hasn’t yet written a climate change book. He thought for a while and then said — perhaps it’s because he tries to write books that give people hope, and he doesn’t know how to do that with global warming.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote about this dilemma in an insightful nonfiction book called “The Great Derangement.” He proposes reaching back to ideas and themes from premodern literature and ancient myths. Ghosh’s novel “The Hungry Tide” actually inspired me to report a series of stories about climate change from the Sundarbans, a patchwork of mangrove islands straddling the border of India and Bangladesh. So he seems to be doing something right.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I want to view the world through the eyes of someone else. In my opinion, there is no better way to inhabit another reality than by reading fiction. I recently felt this way about the trans women in “Detransition, Baby,” by Torrey Peters, and about the teenagers coming of age in 1970s China in “A Map for the Missing,” by Belinda Huijuan Tang. Reading literature strengthens my empathy muscles better than anything else I can think of.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
If I’m going on vacation, I’ll typically look for a novel that feels effortlessly acrobatic — David Mitchell, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon and Richard Powers all remind me of gymnasts who make it look easy to twirl through the air and stick the landing. I don’t know what their actual writing process is like, but to me as a reader they always seem to be having a good time and make me want to join them.
As for what I avoid, in middle school I was once assigned to write a book report about a biography of my choosing. In my suburban public school library, I found something with a spooky-sounding title. I think it might have had the word “ghost” in it? Far from being about the supernatural, it was a painfully dry chronicle of some great poet’s life, maybe Robert Frost. The details are hazy, but the scars remain. Ever since, I have been unable to pick up a biography for fun.
The only exception is an ostensible biography that actually defies genre. Lulu Miller’s “Why Fish Don’t Exist” might have been my favorite read of the pandemic. It presents itself as a biography of the taxonomist David Starr Jordan, but then it morphs into a multilayered meditation on the dangers of (appropriately enough) trying to divide the world into categories.
How do you organize your books?
John Waters famously said — if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t sleep with them (though he used a word that you won’t often find in this newspaper or on public radio). I respectfully disagree. Rather than accumulate books, I prefer to take a “one in/one out” approach. If a title is wonderful, I give it to a friend. If it isn’t, I put it on the giveaway shelf at work. I have a small number of treasured books at my house, including an autographed copy of “Role Models,” by Waters, but I have no interest in building a personal library of works that I will rarely if ever revisit.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
The German author Michael Ende, who is best known for the novel “The Neverending Story” (on which the 1980s fantasy film was based), also wrote a lesser-known book called “Momo,” published in 1973. It is a fable about a girl who has a gift for listening. One day the Men in Grey arrive in her small Italian-flavored neighborhood. They preach the gospel of efficiency and convince people to eliminate activities that squander time, like daydreaming. Momo is the only one unaffected by their scheme.
I don’t know why the book never really caught on in the United States, particularly as its themes feel more relevant with each passing year. I also can’t recall how an English translation of “Momo” reached me as a kid in Portland, Ore., in the 1990s. Reading the book as a gay Jewish teenager, I think I related to Momo’s outsider status, her apart-ness. As an adult, I love that her superpower is an ability to listen.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I probably shouldn’t make a blanket statement like this, but here goes: I think a fair number of the nonfiction books published today would be just as good or better if they were the length of a long magazine article. To be honest, I even feel this way about some of the book interviews that I do on NPR. The topic may be interesting, but not for 300 pages. (Even so, I have a rule that I will read a book cover to cover before any author interview. So far I’ve kept that promise for seven years.) I am aware that as a debut author working in nonfiction, I am tempting fate here.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Oh, there are so many. “War and Peace,” “Moby-Dick,” anything by Jane Austen — I could go on and on.
What do you plan to read next?
My “All Things Considered” co-host, Mary Louise Kelly, has a book coming out in April, called “It. Goes. So. Fast.” I feel incredibly fortunate to have always shared the studio with hosts who I both admire professionally and like personally. I know that’s not the case in many broadcast newsrooms. My colleagues make my work life better every day, and I don’t take that for granted.