A friend asked me recently how I managed to read all the things I recommend in my Friday newsletter.
Was this newsletter a collective effort, he asked? Was there some committee of like-minded readers who consumed a great deal of material and then sent me their recommendations?
I have no assistants, no committee, I told him. Recommendations from others don’t make it in unless I’ve actually read them. The only secret is that I love to read, I read all the time, and I do it very fast.
It’s the only superpower that I’ve ever possessed. I am not a fast writer, thinker, or runner. No sport has ever come naturally to me. And anything to do with math has always been a brain-melting struggle.
But reading just happens. Often it’s the literary equivalent of snack food, quickly consumed and forgotten. Once in a while, however, it feels like a new gear has suddenly slotted into place within my brain, triggering productive motion toward a better understanding of the world and the people in it. It’s one of the best feelings.
So yes, what you get from this newsletter is really me: a list of things I read that were meaningful or delicious literary snacks — with all the useful, eclectic or flawed suggestions that process may produce.
(My taste is particularly flawed when it comes to Kazuo Ishiguro, many of you haveut to informed me. My goodness, the outrage I provoked a few weeks ago by saying that his work was for me! I’m sure Ishiguro would be gratified to know that he has such passionate defenders, but I suspect he wouldn’t mind that I haven’t connected with his novels — he does not write like an author who wants to please everyone, which I mean as the highest possible praise.)
Ultimately, the Interpreter is a column about understanding the world, and I understand the world by reading. Sharing my reading list is a way of inviting you to understand it along with me.
My extracurricular reading this week turned out to be very spy-focused. I’m not quite sure what that says about my worldview or state of mind, but I regret nothing:
The death of the literary editor Robert Gottlieb sent me back to the “Art of Editing” by Larisa MacFarquhar in The Paris Review. She talked to Gottlieb and some of the authors he edited, including the spy novelist John le Carré. His contract for “A Perfect Spy” required Gottlieb to take him to lunch, in retaliation for Gottlieb’s stinginess with book advances. “I arrived in New York, and there was Bob,” le Carré said, “a rare sight in a suit, and we went to a restaurant he had found out about. He ate extremely frugally, and drank nothing, and watched me with venomous eyes as I made my way through the menu.”
I also really liked this piece about John le Carré by John Phipps in the L.A. Review of Books. It’s ostensibly a review of a memoir by one of le Carré’s former lovers, as well as a volume of le Carré’s own letters, but it’s really about le Carré’s skills and limitations as a writer. “Fluency was the gift he couldn’t get beyond,” Phipps writes, “the one that fashioned both the pleasures and the defects of his novels.” (We should all have such defects, mate.)
Then I read this really excellent essay by Rosa Lyster in Gawker about le Carré’s female characters, most specifically Lady Ann, the beautiful and unfaithful wife of his most famous protagonist, George Smiley. I was thrilled to finally find someone giving the extremely peculiar George-Ann marriage its due. Once you scrape off the thick oily scum of le Carré’s misogyny, their pairing is just so fascinatingly weird.
All those, naturally, sent me back to the source. Le Carré’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is one of my favorites, and I’ve been idly diagraming the chapters as I re-read, tracing how the rotating shifts in perspective set the pace of the plot.
That paired well with “A Spy Among Friends,” by Ben Macintyre, which I picked up after a reader recommendation a few weeks ago. It tells the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet double agent who likely inspired the main villain of “Tinker, Tailor.” The book shows how Philby exploited the reflexive classism of Britain and its intelligence service. It ends up being a portrait of how an era lasted far too long, and then came to a sudden, traumatic end.
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
Kristie Miller, a reader in Washington, D.C., recommends “Snobbery: The American Version” by Joseph Epstein:
I read it quite some time ago, but, as you requested books on snobbery, I remembered it. Epstein made me aware of many secret snobberies I harbor. (Submitting this suggestion might be one.) He does admit that the best writers on snobbery are novelists.
Nicholas Munger, a reader in Charlottesville, VA, recommends “All the Sinners Bleed” by S. A. Crosby:
Mr. Crosby is without a doubt the most powerful, unique, authentic and riveting voice in the genre sometimes referred to as “Southern Noir” or “Southern Gothic.” His protagonist in this novel, Sheriff Titus Crown, makes an indelible impression and sets a standard for the crime novel going forward.
What are you reading?
Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!
I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) about snobs and snobbery. Thanks to your suggestions, my summer of snob is well underway. But I want more!
If you’d like to participate, you can fill out this form. I may publish your response in a future newsletter.
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