I can’t think of a book that got between me and anyone. As for getting closer – Janet Malcolm found a 13-volume set “Tales of Anton Chekhov”, published by Ecco Press in 1984, and she sent it to me, and I read it and we talked about it, story of history. She had written a book on Chekhov and edited collections of his stories herself. I had only read “The Island”, Chekhov’s non-fiction book about his journey through Siberia to the Sakhalin penal colony, and “The Lady with the Dog”. I knew very little about him, Janet knew everything. It was a great last gift she gave me.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?
In Jonathan Alter’s excellent Jimmy Carter biography, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” I learned that the former president and Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, are first cousins. Carter’s mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, was the granddaughter of James Jackson Gordy, a slave owner who fathered a second set of Gordy children by a woman he enslaved. Jimmy Carter and Berry Gordy share a great-grandfather and are therefore technically second cousins. Why neither Carter nor Berry Gordy have ever done more of this remarkable fact, I don’t know.
What topics would you like more authors to write about?
I don’t know – and the biggest beaver dam in the world? It’s in northern Alberta, Canada, and very difficult to access. It is supposedly the largest structure created by animals visible from space. I would love to write about this myself, but no editor is interested. (Write about it, i.e. without going there.)
What genres do you particularly like to read? And what do you avoid?
I generally avoid science fiction and historical fiction. I’m more interested in what actually happened or is likely to happen, rather than what someone imagines has happened or could happen. But that’s not a hard and fast rule – for example “The Big Sky” and “The Way West”, exciting historical novels by AB Guthrie Jr. Also, “Dune” (not “Dune Messiah”).
How do you organize your books?
Some are organized by subject, like the American West or fishing, but most are jumbled up.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“Standing Firm”, by Dan Quayle, and “The Gift of Rest”, by Senator Joe Lieberman, both copies engraved. It is the beginning of a collection of books related to the vice president which did not reach its objective of acquisitions.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors have marked you the most?
I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” constantly and liked it so much that I avoided “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because I felt he was criticizing Tom. But then I read “Huckleberry Finn” and reread it; and “Tom Sawyer”, although still loved, has moved away into the happy past. Mark Twain is the basic and fundamental writer for me.