When I was a child, I was drawn to the knotty questions posed by Natalie Babbitt books: if you had a chance to live forever, would you want to? Do we sometimes cherish what we claim to fear? I also loved Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy, about an intrepid young woman who was forever finding herself at the center of international conspiracies. In retrospect, I think my love of both of those authors prophesied my enduring interest in fiction that braids the personal, the philosophical, and the political.
In high school, I remember being stunned when, in a discussion of The Sun Also Rises, a classmate pointed out that a message between Jake and Bret just exceeded the word limit for the cheapest telegram price. I was almost as impressed by the fact that she had noticed this detail as the fact that Hemingway had written it, and it made me realize that books might contain all sorts of things you didn’t see at first. Around the same time, I found a list of the best books of the century (as determined by, I think, the American Library Association) posted in my high school, and I decided somewhat randomly to start working my way through it. By the summer before college I had made it to Rabbit, Run, which I despised, and Lolita, which I experienced as a major life event (as every Nabokov novel I’ve read since then has been). I think it began to dawn on me then that beyond questions of talent or accomplishment or canonical import were questions of aesthetics and taste that shaped every reader’s personal, subjective relationship with a book; it was a revelation to understand that just because these novels had been deemed more or less equally significant by the American Library Association did not mean they were going to be equally significant to me.
In college, I tried majoring in English, philosophy and political science in various combinations; during one of my semesters as an English major I read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, which was the first book I came to truly love only by studying it. My reading outside the classroom was constant, uninformed, and arbitrary. One of the consequences of this was that I managed to read early novels by Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen while largely unaware of the success of their later ones; those books made me conscious for the first time that there was a distinction between reading an amazing writer and reading an amazing book.
In my twenties, I began to read more intentionally, and to identify the overarching values shaping my reading and my writing. I started to understand that what I loved about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was in fact the same thing I’d loved about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose years earlier: I loved idiosyncratic fictional voices—so much so that I wanted to write them. Reading George Saunders and David Foster Wallace made me realize that, both as a reader and a writer, I would always rather be interested and slightly incredulous than bored and totally convinced. And it was only at graduate school that I finally discovered the female authors who would become hugely important to me: Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith, Paula Fox, Jennifer Egan. It still makes me sad to think about how long it took me to find them; it’s a reminder that the continued relative invisibility of female authors doesn’t require readers who are misogynistic—only readers who are careless.
My most interesting recent experiences with books have come from teaching and writing about them. This year I had the chance to review Sam Thompson’s beautiful and strange debut, Communion Town, for The New York Times, and I know that the personal determination I felt in unraveling its almost surreal complexity informed my tremendous admiration for it. And this spring, I had the thrill of teaching Nabokov’s Pale Fire—which is my favorite book, in part because I’m convinced that no one has entirely gotten to the bottom of it yet. There’s something terribly exciting in the idea that there is more to see in a book than has been seen so far. It makes reading feel like an extremely urgent endeavor—which it always is, but it’s good to be reminded.