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.