What books are on your night stand?
“The Eighth Life (for Brilka),” by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.
“Tideline,” by Krystyna Dabrowska, translated by Karen Kovacik, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Mira Rosenthal.
“The Dirt on Pigpen,” by Charles M. Schulz.
What’s the last great book you read?
Adrienne Rich’s “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” — specifically, the essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
To me, “Does this book seem like it could change my life” feels like a more useful question than “Is this a book that everybody should read.” I would invite people under 21 to think of the world as a treasure hunt for life-changing books, with clues everywhere — in other books, on the subway, maybe in The New York Times — and then to read as many of them as possible . Quantity is important, because books are a product of their time and place, and the toxic ideas of the time get baked in. Once you read enough, you learn to discard the toxic parts, and keep what helps you.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
The only reading experience I’ve had after 40 that feels truly inaccessible to my earlier self is rereading. As in, rereading “The Portrait of a Lady” at 40, and finding that the most relatable character is suddenly Madame Merle. When I was 20, I saw Madame Merle as a non-character, a “bad person” who existed just to mess with Isabel. Now I can see both readings at once, like a magic eye painting.
I do think Proust gets better after 30. In college, I could barely get through “Swann’s Way,” or really any “literary” book about childhood. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily dwell on such a boring and humiliating time of life. Now, after years of therapy, I can reread “Swann’s Way” and see specifically what the younger me couldn’t face about childhood.
Your first book, “The Possessed,” was a memoir about your love of Russian literature. Have you kept up, and who are your current favorites?
I do have two recommendations for new Russian books in translation: “In Memory of Memory,” by Maria Stepanova, and “Living Pictures” (forthcoming), by Polina Barskova.
I’ve also had some very intense experiences rereading 19th-century favorites. After #MeToo, for example, I reread “Eugene Onegin” and “Anna Karenina” and, although I could still see everything I had loved about those books as a teen, I also saw a message I hadn’t been attuned to before: something like, “Great literature is about a young woman who ruins her life over a guy who isn’t that smart.” Where had such messages led me?
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I look for books that counteract whatever issue I’m wrestling with in my own work. When I was younger, I struggled a lot with anger, and also with archness. I would experience panic and despair, because it all felt so inescapable. For some reason, those feelings melted away when I was reading Haruki Murakami. I must have read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” at least 10 times.
Today, I’m working more against a tendency to get bogged down by evidence and ideas. Books that have counteracted that feeling for me include Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and Sheila Heti’s “Pure Color.”
Your first novel, “The Idiot,” followed its protagonist during her first year at Harvard. Your new one, “Either/Or,” follows her again, this time during her sophomore year. What other campus novels do you recommend?
Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” It’s about an idyllic English boarding school where everyone is doing these amazing art projects, but something seems sort of off, and gradually you find out that all the students are human clones, and their organs will be harvested after graduation. You can read it as a dark allegory for all liberal arts education. I was thinking of this when I was writing “Either/Or.” The narrator is aware of living in a charmed bubble where she gets to devote four years just to cultivating her intellect and specialness her — but there’s a lurking fear that none of it is for anything, it’s just temporary Harry Potter make-believe, and soon everyone will graduate and their bodies will be “harvested” to serve biological or economic purposes.
What are your favorite literary sequences?
Part 2 of “Don Quixote”; Proust’s “Time Regained”; Elena Ferrante’s “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” (the third of the Neapolitan novels).
I love when a sequel doesn’t just continue the events from the previous book, but builds on that book’s existence as an object in the world. By the time Cervantes published Part 2 of “Don Quixote,” Part 1 was so popular that one of Cervantes’s enemies his had already published a parody sequel. In Part 2, Quixote and Sancho are trying to refute the fake sequel, and generally dealing with the effects of fame.
Ferrante’s “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” takes place amid the political chaos of 1968, with Elena promoting her autobiographical first novel about an ill-fated teen crush. I reread “Those Who Leave” in the early months of the Trump presidency, when I was promoting my first novel about an ill-fated teen crush. That was when I decided to write a sequel.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My partner’s favorite book is “Middlemarch.” At the time we met, I didn’t retain a very vivid memory of “Middlemarch,” so I decided to reread it. It was so moving to look for what this beloved person had loved when she was in her 20s — almost like getting to hang out with her younger self. A couple of times, I read passages aloud that made me feel particularly close to her. Later, my partner happened to find her old copy of “Middlemarch,” and it turned out that she had underlined the same passages I had quoted!
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I hope there will be more books written with the goal of decreasing shame, especially shame surrounding childhood. I think shame is a massive and underacknowledged risk to public health.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
One book I still think about is “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” by EL Konigsburg, in which two school kids run away from home and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the perfect fantasy of an autonomous life that is somehow achievable by children. Sometimes, when I’m not feeling the magic of New York City, I can still remember that book and summon up the feeling of potential that the city had for me at that age.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
People might be surprised to see a shelf with almost nothing on it except a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I read that book in 2016 and it really did change my life! I was able to let go of a lot of shame and self-hatred that turned out to be tied up in my accumulated belongings. (This meant learning to discard things without hating myself for being wasteful or ungrateful.) Afterward, I was able to feel more joy and gratitude in my surroundings.
How do you organize your books?
I was about to say that I have so few physical books now that I don’t have to organize them. Then I glanced at the bookcase and noticed Boris Eikhenbaum’s “Tolstoi in the Sixties” right next to Boris Eikhenbaum’s “Tolstoi in the Seventies,” and Shulamit Firestone’s “Airless Spaces” right next to Edith Wharton’s “The Decoration of Houses.” Coincidence? Maybe, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you it doesn’t mean anything that “I Love Dick” is right next to “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking.”
What do you plan to read next?
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, I have embarked on another course of rereading/rethinking 19th-century Russian classics — this time, in light of how they sustain the “idea of empire.” Next up: Pushkin’s “A Journey to Arzrum,” Dostoyevsky’s “House of the Dead,” Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat” and Edyta M. Bojanowska’s “Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism.”
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Reading novels in bed before sleep. I love reading in the dark, which is possible on an e-reader. Occasionally, I manage to drift to sleep while actually reading. That’s when I know I’m living the dream.