By the Book With Jo Ann Beard: “The Essay That Made Her Want to Write Nonfiction”

From a New York Times By the Book column headlined “The Essay That Made Jo Ann Beard Want to Write Nonfiction”:

What books are on your night stand?

“Dear Miss Metropolitan,” Carolyn Ferrell’s upcoming novel; “Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar; “The Ocean House,” by Mary-Beth Hughes; “Heavenly Questions,” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg; “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” by A. Roger Ekirch; “Mothers of Sparta,” by Dawn Davies; “Memorial Drive,” by Natasha Trethewey; and “Easy Travel to Other Planets,” by Ted Mooney.

What’s the last great book you read?

“I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death,” by Maggie O’Farrell.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Well, I finally finished “To the Lighthouse” after years of starting and stopping. The problem was me, it turns out, not the book, so I’m glad I stuck with it.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

End of day, bathtub, novel.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Junkyard Dogs and William Shakespeare,” by Mark Lamonica. It’s a curated collection of photographs he took of the dogs guarding the junkyards he visited as a sculptor over the years, and paired with quotes from Shakespeare. You cannot read it without experiencing the nobility and exaltation of these creatures — canine and human alike — in their lonely occupations.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque.

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

“How We Die,” by Sherwin Nuland.

What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Sarah Lawrence?

Because I love my students, I frequently have them read Lynda Barry and David Sedaris. And because I worry about them — about how difficult it is to focus and to write and to interpret the strange “Matrix”-like world we are living in, I’ve been having them read Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror” and Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing.” Both books pose their own powerful, artful arguments for living the examined life.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Every page of Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” had something moving and new for me. But my favorite thing was, and I’m paraphrasing, that some fungi may have evolved their psychotropic properties as a way of encouraging and assisting human enlightenment.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

The rights of animals to be free from exploitation, domination and abuse by humans. Kudos to Peter Singer, Jane Goodall, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joy Williams and many others who have managed to be the intelligent and insistent voices of dissent. Someday humans will look back in horror at our treatment of our fellow animals and will wonder why more of us — those who see it — didn’t do our part to stop it.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

When an author illuminates something new about our interconnectedness with the natural world. Example: “Fox 8,” by George Saunders. A small, quick book that’s like a match flaring on a dark night.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I love the essay. My first moment of wanting to be a nonfiction writer was stumbling across an essay by Loren Eiseley called “The Bird and the Machine.” I thought it was utterly thrilling, what Eiseley did in a few pages — and it was about humans and birds and science and the rights of animals to be free of human interference. So, pretty much a perfect storm for Jo Ann.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a lot of books about dog training for someone whose dogs aren’t that well trained.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

I was given an audiobook of “Charlotte’s Web,” read by E. B. White, one of our great American essayists. I had missed out on it as a child, so the story was new to me. The sincerity and humor of White’s reading voice, together with the memories I have of Midwestern farms and the doomed animals I knew as a child … well. I still remember where I was, pulled over on the highway between home and work, when he got to the moment that Charlotte died.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read constantly, voraciously, as though I were actively living those lives instead of my own. It was delirious fun, those Saturdays my mother would come home from a yard sale with a box of random books for us to consume. In those boxes I eventually found all of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Mary O’Hara, Jack London, Albert Payson Terhune. Leading to a lifelong love of dogs and horses and rowdy boys.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Reading as a writer, I’ve become more interested in how graphic novels and memoirs work their magic. David Small’s “Stitches” is a master class in how to use silence, both internal and external, to convey emotion and meaning.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Scott Spencer.

What book are you embarrassed not to have read yet?


What do you plan to read next?


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