What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Two are tied for this trophy. Perhaps the finest book from World War II is Eric Sevareid’s 1946 memoir “Not So Wild a Dream,” which is lyrical without being sentimental. And because nothing is more perishable than the public’s remembrance of a newspaper columnist, savor “America Comes of Middle Age” (1963), a collection of columns by Murray Kempton. His craftsmanship — has anyone ever done more with fewer than 700 words? — caused a 17-year-old from central Illinois, who first read Kempton in The New York Post in 1958, to see that elegant journalism is not an oxymoron.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Alan Furst’s historical novels, set immediately before and during World War II, are my favorite contemporary fiction. Since reading “The Female Persuasion” and “Manhattan Beach,” I will pounce whenever Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan publish novels. The vinegary Lionel Shriver has a bracingly bleak, which is to say cleareyed, take on this era. Ian McEwan never disappoints. Richard Russo’s character Sully (“Nobody’s Fool,” “Everybody’s Fool”) will make you want to visit — briefly, for a beer with Sully — North Bath, N.Y. George Pelecanos’s crime novels are set in Washington, D.C., but have nothing to do with the shocking behavior that is not considered criminal there. Pelecanos’s best are comparable to George V. Higgins’s 1970 masterpiece, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Scott Turow has not lost an inch off his fastball since “Presumed Innocent.” So many superb histories are being written by nonacademic historians, including Rick Atkinson, Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts, Ron Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, Daniel Okrent (“Last Call,” his spectacular history of Prohibition), David McCullough (especially “The Great Bridge,” the story of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge), Lynne Olson (“Last Hope Island”), Richard Rhodes (“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”).
Which genres do you avoid?
Science fiction. Reality is weird enough.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?
Three at a time, one on paper (currently “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson”), one from Audible (currently Sean Wilentz’s “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding”), one on Kindle (currently “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard”).
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works in Two Volumes” (Moscow, 1962).
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
To wean me away from reading only baseball box scores, my father, a philosophy professor, read to me C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, which whetted an appetite that I slaked, decades later, with Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, also set during the Napoleonic Wars. My first adolescent plunge into serious novels was James T. Farrell’s trilogy about a Chicago adolescent, Studs Lonigan.