The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Simon Winchester: By the Book
December 10, 2015
The author, most recently, of “Pacific”says there’s at least one kind of narrative he avoids: “Sensible people tell me I should like stories with zombies, but try as I might, I don’t.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
A bit of dog’s breakfast, I’m afraid. Top of the pile is Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies,” as I like to go to sleep in good humor. Then there is Witold Rybczynski’s “One Good Turn,” the history of the screwdriver; and a classic Folio edition of Samuel Smiles’s “Lives of the Engineers.” I am on a Stefan Zweig bender just now, so I have “The Post-Office Girl” to hand. And Josephine Tey, “The Singing Sands”: I’m teasing this last one out, so I’m still not sure what happened to the dead man on the train.
And what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
No contest, even though it hasn’t made much of an impact here yet, and maybe never will: “Farthest Field,” by Raghu Karnad. It is an exquisitely written memoir of the wartime lives of the young Indian journalist’s grandfather and two great-uncles, and is so heart-stoppingly beautiful I want all around to read it too.
Which writers — novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Billy Collins; Paul Muldoon; Ian Buruma; William Boyd; Simon Schama; Paul Theroux; Pico Iyer; Salman Rushdie.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading?
I’m unashamedly drawn to tales of the remote, the lonely and the hard — like Willa Cather on Nebraska or Ivan Doig on Montana. The Icelandic Nobelist Halldor Laxness, with his “Independent People,” still is, for me, the supreme example. But I also like railway murder stories and timetable mysteries, especially those involving Inspector French and his Dublin-born creator, Freeman Wills Crofts.
And which do you avoid?
Frankly, anything that has the name Derrida in it.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
I enjoy the bizarre and the fantastic — Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual,” or Borges and his “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which I still think one of the cleverest things I’ve read. I also want to revive the reputation of the detective writer John Franklin Bardin, whose books are so richly insane that you feel your own sanity slipping away as you read, “The Deadly Percheron” being a fine instance.
And which do you avoid?
Sensible people tell me I should like stories with zombies, but try as I might, I don’t.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
“Crossing to Safety,” by Wallace Stegner — Charity’s death I found wildly affecting. There were episodes in “Stoner,” by John Williams, that were inexpressibly tear-making too.
The last book that made you furious?
“Infamy,” by Richard Reeves. The whole saga of the wartime internment of 120,000 Americans, simply because they were of Japanese origin, appalls me still: Reeves has raked it all up again, coherently and angrily.
Tell us about your favorite poem.
“The Whitsun Weddings,” by Philip Larkin. My first editor in 1973, Charles Monteith, happened also to be Larkin’s editor (as well as the man who discovered, on a slush pile, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”). Charles introduced me to Larkin — first not by his poetry, but by way of a tender novel, “A Girl in Winter,” which still I find most moving. Then I started on his poetry, and came to love almost everything he wrote. He spoke to me, as they say. My private vice is railways, and the idea of dozens of newlyweds clambering aboard the same London-bound Saturday train — this “frail travelling coincidence,” as Larkin puts it — I find a model of exquisite observation.
And your favorite fairy tale?
“Rumpelstiltskin.” All that straw.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Not being especially strong or brave, I like tales of those who are: most especially Richard Hannay, the Scots hero of the John Buchan books, all damp tweeds, heather and tobacco, endlessly occupied in saving the world from savagery. He’d be the chap to give ISIS a jolly good biffing, be sure of it. And of all the sad and sour figures I like to loathe? Front and center, Captain Queeg of the U.S.S. Caine.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Enid Blyton, most especially the Famous Five series (I think I was rather in love with the tomboyish Georgina, an admission which won me some rather odd looks in later life). There was E. Nesbit’s “The Railway Children.” And best of all, “Kim”: The first time I visited Lahore I went to find his great brass cannon, Zam‑Zammah, and it was still there outside the museum. Once my voice broke and I got spots, there was “The Riddle of the Sands,” by Erskine Childers, the best of all sailing adventure spy stories, which I must have read a dozen times before I left school.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
No doubt about it: “Coronation Everest,” by James Morris. He had been the London Times correspondent on the successful 1953 expedition. In 1966 I was a young geologist exploring the Congo-Uganda borderlands, read this book in one sitting in my tent and underwent a classically Pauline conversion. I wrote to James Morris asking if I could possibly be a reporter like him. Both of our lives then changed in very short order: I became a reporter for The Guardian; and James Morris became Jan. We remain friends to this day, together with Elizabeth, her wife.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“Why Homer Matters,” by Adam Nicolson. The unseemly business of politics seems to chip away at wisdom and sense of moral compass. This wise and wonderfully reflective book places all human activity in the context of Homeric myths first told 4,000 years ago: I like to think that Washington’s powerful, were they to read it, could undergo some kind of redemption, to the benefit of us all.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dead: W. H. Auden; Anthony Burgess; Christopher Hitchens. (Always assuming, of course, a limitless supply of booze: Auden had a habit of draining every gin and tonic placed on a dining table.) Living: Nicholson Baker, T. C. Boyle, Pico Iyer.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
There are all too many in the last category, but it would be unkind and ungenerous to mention anyone living. “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf, puzzles and defeats me still. But I really cannot stand the all-too-mannered writings of either Henry James or Edith Wharton, heretical though it may be for me to say so, as a newly made American citizen. I daresay there will be consequences: I have to assume that even though I live close by, I’ll not be invited back to the Mount any time soon.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
As if anyone should really care? But in fact I have been lucky to have lived a pretty interesting, world-wandering life, mostly as a foreign correspondent, so I’ll ask for Bob Schieffer, newly retired from CBS. He and I first met in 1982 in Argentina when I was in prison on spying charges, so his first chapter would almost write itself.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
I am of course most grateful of all to those who bought and liked “The Professor and the Madman,” the success of which truly changed my life. Yet I still have great affection for “The River at the Center of the World,” which in commercial terms remains almost invisible. I took some many months in 1997 to journey gently westward into China and Tibet along the 4,000 miles of the entire length of the Yangtze, trying to divine its symbolic importance in creating — and dividing — the immense enigma that is China. It was a journey of great meaning, and I came to love the country deeply. My cool and courageous guide, Lily, died recently, and my admiration for her is matched by my remembered pleasure of a quite extraordinary adventure.
Describe your ideal reading experience.
I recently carried some shabby old Adirondack chairs deep into a discovered clearing in an Eastern white pine forest in the Massachusetts village where I live, and I now come there to read when I can, immersed in shade and birdsong. I read until it is too dark, and then grope my way home to dinner.
What do you plan to read next?
I am mesmerized by the writing and the strange life of T. S. Eliot — so Robert Crawford’s “Young Eliot” must be next on my list. That, and the galleys of the forthcoming official history of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, which will surely be a treasure-house — a thesaurus, indeed — of lexical delights.