Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
A. Email! Does anybody say anything else? Though I do find that if I want to write or exercise first thing in the morning, it is very wise for me not to turn on the computer; that said, it is usually an irresistible temptation.
Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?
A. Digital subscription to The New York Times. I read the LRB through my university library digital subscription but have a paper subscription to the NYRB, which I do usually (contrary to what seems the general practice) read pretty thoroughly. Both of those sites have a few free articles out of each issue with the others behind a subscriber paywall; I’m lucky I can get them through the library, and am always regretful when there’s a great piece I’d like to link to on my blog but that isn’t freely available online. I am a regular reader of The New Yorker, still in its paper edition. I subscribe to a few professional journals, some of them by way of membership in organizations, but I must confess that I don’t read them regularly, just scan contents when they arrive to see if there’s anything interesting (PMLA, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Eighteenth-Century Fiction). I believe I currently have a subscription to The Paris Review but I think I may have let n+1 and A Public Space lapse: it is not to their discredit, it is simply a function of the fact that increasingly I read things online rather than in paper format. I am not really a magazine person but I do also get a couple things (Outside, Swimming) as a function of memberships in the USA Triathlon Association, US Masters swimming, and the New York Road Runners. I don’t read any periodicals on mobile devices, though I read a lot of novels and narrative nonfiction on my Kindle.
Q: What is the best article you’ve read recently?
A. I read a funny article (I followed the link from a Facebook friend) at The Nation: it’s called “The Grand Flattery Seminar,” about the so-called “Grand Strategy Seminar” taught at Yale by John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy and Charles Hill. Casting my mind back, I think my favorite recent New Yorker piece was Burkhard Bilger’s story on the training of New York City’s canine police force.
Q: What books have you recently read? How do they stand out?
A. I loved Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” novels for the aphoristic savagery of their prose. Katharine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book because of the nature and extent of her reporting. Two other novels I read and enjoyed greatly were Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama; both of these could be categorized as neo-noir with fantastical components, but they’re totally different from each other and strikingly memorable. This spring I was teaching a seminar on Richardson’s Clarissa, so I was rereading a good chunk of that every week; it is an extraordinary novel, not as much read as it should be due to its extreme length, but I have a fantasy that Vintage or the Modern Library will publish a beautiful reader’s edition (like the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace, only probably in two or three volumes in an attractive box set) that will let it reach readers who know that Proust is on their bucket list but don’t realize yet that Clarissa should be also.
Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?
A. Not so much. In graduate school at Yale in the 1990s, I still went to the library periodical room regularly and perused journals in and around my field, but I think that’s partly the sort of reading you do more of when you’re first orienting yourself towards a discipline; I am perhaps slightly remiss in the extent to which I don’t follow many professional journals of literary criticism. Nowadays, of course, I read most articles online as PDFs (or, often, print out the pages and read the paper copy).
Q: You’ve written both novels and academic works, do you find the two realms very distant?
A. I find them fairly continuous, in that it is a lot of trouble to write any sort of book and I wouldn’t bother to write a novel if it weren’t that it is a very good way of working out what I think about something, just as an academic book is a very good way to define and explore the dimensions of an argument and an archive.
Q: What is your next book project?
A. It’s called The ABCs of the Novel, and it is still completely and lustrously unwritten. I aspire to write a major book about fiction on the order of works by Erich Auerbach or Wayne Booth (there’s grandiosity for you), but I am more of a sideways associative thinker than either of those two and I imagine my book will take a quite different form. One of my favorite critical books of recent years was Roland Barthes’s The Neutral, lectures from the 1970s only published this past decade in English by Columbia University Press in a very good translation by Rosalind Krauss: in practice I would imagine (or perhaps hope is the less hubristic word) that my book would have more of that sort of feel.
Q: The book as object: Is it a pleasure, necessity, anachronism?
A. Words and ideas are a necessity. The book is a delivery system. I get irritated with the really die-hard book traditionalists: I love books, of course, and I still read a lot of books as books (in particular, anything nonfictional where one actually cares about being able to use the index, or anything I might teach or write about, in which case I want the superior ability to scan back through and have a sense of the whole that comes from being able to flick through actual pages). But I do a large proportion of my pleasure reading on a Kindle, and I think that some near-future e-reading device that makes better use of the unit of meaning of the page (I don’t have an iPad, but may get one from the point of view of PDF-reading utility) will probably assume an even larger role in my reading life.
Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?
A. I love blogs, and I am only sorry that the culture seems to have moved away from them towards social media, which have their virtues but which are not a writerly medium in the same sense. I read blogs through Google Reader and have a fairly wide variety in my feed: triathlon blogs, literary blogs, science- and design-related blogs. My dear friend Amy Davidson (no relation) writes the Close Read blog at The New Yorker, that’s one I especially enjoy; I like the group triathlon blog at Endurance Corner; and I am also quite partial to Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution. Academia is a good home for those of us who like to spend much of our time thinking about things, but it’s undoubtedly the case that conventional academic life doesn’t have a huge amount of space for Tyler’s sort of really wide-ranging curiosity, and I like the way that a blog can provide a public medium for this sort of exploration and synthesis.
Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?
I set up a Twitter account quite a while ago, but I really can’t figure out what I would do with it, and I don’t like the feeling Twitter gives me as a reader of being peppered with little pellets of stuff: it’s not relaxing. I do think some people are doing amazing stuff on Twitter: Elif Batuman’s BananaKarenina is very good, and novelist Teju Cole is truly a genius of Twitter. Everyone should ‘follow’ him!
Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?
A. Well, I read a ton of novels that have nothing to do with work, but I don’t consider that at all a guilty pleasure, just a necessity of life. I guess I’d say Facebook is my guilty pleasure. It’s shallow in a way that’s frustrating—there’s nothing really interesting to read there!—but it’s a very good way of having some notion of what’s going on in friends’ lives if one isn’t a phone person, which I’m not. I am also a member of what I can only describe as a semi-secret internet cabal; the discussion forums there are a surprising source of interest and solace, but if I told you more, I might have to kill you. . . .
Sketch by Ted Benson