By the Book
“Supposedly it’s the largest animal-made structure visible from space,” says the journalist and humorist Ian Frazier, whose latest book is “Cranial Fracking.” “I would like to write about it myself, but no editors are interested.”
What books are on your night stand?
I have books stacked 15 or 20 layers deep, on the night table and below it. Many of those books are aspirational reads, and technically inactive. On the top layer, and not inactive, are the New Oxford Annotated Bible; “The Poetry of Robert Frost: Collected Poems”; Joseph Brodsky’s “Collected Poems in English”; “The House on Marshland,” a collection by Louise Glück; “On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads,” by Tim Cope; and “Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York,” by Susan Allport.
What’s the last great book you read?
I just reread “Labyrinths,” by Jorge Luis Borges, whose essays are like humor pieces, only more brilliant, and beyond funny. Some are about heresies and heresiarchs. I like the word “heresiarch.” It’s a good job description, maybe even for a humorist.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Somehow I had missed “The Age of Innocence,” by Edith Wharton. The descriptions of Manhattan in the 1870s — the houses, the streets, the clothes people wore — knocked me flat, especially because you can look at some of the same places today and it’s as if you never saw them until you read her. I like the way her old-time New Yorkers talked. Now that I’m old myself, I plan to affect their style. I’ve started calling Central Park “the Central Park.”
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
A book can be great for all kinds of reasons. I recently read James Fenimore Cooper’s first best seller, “The Spy.” Its subtitle is “A Tale of the Neutral Ground,” and it takes place during the Revolutionary War, in what’s now Westchester and the Bronx. He tackled a painful subject — local neighbor-against-neighbor conflict during the war — and he set it in a highly romantic key, à la Sir Walter Scott. To my mind, it doesn’t work at all, but readers loved it. It was great because of what he tried to do, and especially because of his books that followed it.
“What Is to Be Done?,” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, published in Russia in 1863, is the worst book I ever read. But it was monumental in its influence on the revolutionary generation in Russia. Chernyshevsky saw something huge and powerful up ahead, expressed it clumsily, and changed his country.
Of course, neither of those books is a great work of art. I thought the writing in “The Idiot” was occasionally dumb, but it didn’t matter. The book is a great work of art because of the cataclysmic Dostoyevsky.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Reading a book in the place where it takes place or where it was written. The first Hemingway novels I ever read were Scribner paperbacks that I bought for a couple bucks each at the gift shop in the Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West. I read them in the house where my grandmother lived, a mile or so away. I was 13 or 14. Another example: I had never been a fan of Bellow, but I bought a copy of “Ravelstein” at the University of Chicago bookstore and read it in one sitting in a Chicago hotel — totally thrilling and absorbing. I read a collection of Russian short stories, including “The Shot,” by Pushkin, and “Taman,” by Lermontov, in Nome, Alaska, in a fogged-in hotel a short flight from the Russian border. I’d never had such a wonderful time.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Here again I have to turn to Russia. “The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself” is the autobiography of a priest who opposed the reform of the Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Avvakum Petrovich was a fanatic, a mad fulminator, and he dared the authorities to make a martyr of him, which they finally did. But somehow he kept a sense of perspective about his crazy self. The translation I read, a beautiful little book, was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1924. I like to think the Woolfs got a kick out of Avvakum.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
My close family — my wife, the novelist Jacqueline Carey, and my children, Cora Frazier and Thomas Carey Frazier — are amazing writers, and many of my close friends are writers, too, and I greatly admire them all. I have to single out my lifelong friend Jamaica Kincaid, because her most recent novel, “See Now Then,” is hilarious. Among writers I don’t know well or at all, I admire David Mamet, Thomas McGuane, Annie Proulx, Louise Glück, Les Murray, Julian Barnes, Lawrence Wright, Larissa MacFarquhar, Sally Rooney, Michael Greenberg, and N. Scott Momaday.
Your own writing toggles between deeply researched and reported books like “Great Plains” or “Family,” and more casual humor pieces like those in “Coyote v. Acme” or “Cranial Fracking.” Does your reading lean more heavily in one direction or the other? And who are your favorite writers in each mode?
In terms of volume, I don’t read a large number of humor books, because good ones are rare. The ones I like I read over and over. I read more nonfiction than anything else. Favorite nonfiction writers (here I must veer into the “friends” category) are Janet Malcolm, John McPhee and Joseph Mitchell. Jack Handey’s humor collection, “What I’d Say to the Martians,” can be read again and again. Charles Portis (whom I met once in Little Rock) wrote great American books that are also transcendently funny. In the humor department I also love to read Calvin Trillin, Garrison Keillor and Roy Blount Jr.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of writing do you avoid?
When I’m working I read anything that comes to hand. I don’t avoid anything.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Books about Western gunfighters, outlaws and white-trash border ruffians, such as “The Killer Legions of Quantrill,” by Carl W. Breihan.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
“Untrue Stories of Fiction,” by Jack Handey.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
I can’t think of a book that has come between me and anybody. As for bringing me closer — Janet Malcolm found a set of the 13-volume “Tales of Anton Chekhov,” put out by Ecco Press in 1984, and she sent it to me, and I read it and we talked about it, story by story. She had written a book about Chekhov and edited collections of his stories herself. I had only read “The Island,” Chekhov’s nonfiction book about his journey across Siberia to the prison colony on Sakhalin, and “The Lady With the Dog.” I knew very little about him, Janet knew everything. That was a great last present she gave me.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
In Jonathan Alter’s excellent biography of Jimmy Carter, “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” I learned that the former president and Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, are second 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 half-second cousins, technically. Why neither Carter nor Berry Gordy ever made more of this remarkable fact I don’t know.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I don’t know — how about the world’s largest beaver dam? It’s in northern Alberta, Canada, and very hard to get to. Supposedly it’s the largest animal-made structure visible from space. I would like to write about it myself, but no editors are interested. (Write about it, that is, without actually going there.)
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which 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 in what somebody imagines happened or possibly might happen. But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule — e.g. “The Big Sky” and “The Way West,” exciting historical novels by A. B. 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 in a jumble.
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 inscribed copies. They’re the beginning of a vice-president-related book collection that has fallen short of its acquisitions target.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you the most?
I read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” constantly and loved it so much I avoided “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” because I sensed it was critical of Tom. But then I read “Huckleberry Finn” and re-re-read it; and “Tom Sawyer,” though still beloved, receded into the happy past. Mark Twain is the basic and foundational writer for me.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I don’t think they’ve changed. That is, they continue to fluctuate. I read fiction, then go back to nonfiction. Throughout the swerves I cling to poetry because what with the internet and everything, sometimes I’m unsure what is up with prose. But poetry is always poetry.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
If I could require the president to do a thing, I would go so mad with power — it scares me even to think about it. He should read Emily Dickinson’s “To Make a Prairie” until he has it memorized, then recite it every day. He could always fit it in his schedule. It’s short, only 27 words.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
The thought of setting up this kind of dinner party voluntarily seems madness. But if I had to, I would invite Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and Henry Adams. Leonard and Virginia and I could discuss Avvakum, and I’m sure Adams would know how to talk to the Woolfs, and they could converse while I pretended to do stuff in the kitchen.
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 found “Tristram Shandy” less hilarious than various English departments had led me to believe it would be. It’s basically a sermon, and sermons are among the four things that should never try to be funny. (The other three are in-flight announcements, voice mail messages from your doctor, and ballets.) I did like Sterne’s parody of the rite of excommunication, which I guess falls into the category of heresies. The last book I put down without finishing was Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” but only because it was painfully vivid.
What do you plan to read next?
I just started “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic,” by Jelani Cobb. It’s a combination of a memoir and a history of hip-hop, and it’s fascinating.