Philip Lopate: “President Biden should read ‘The Book of Disquiet’—it would unsettle any certainties he might have left.”

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Philip Lopate Is No Fan of “The Catcher in the Rye'”:

What books are on your night stand?
Proust’s “The Guermantes Way” (I paused at the end of Vol. 2), “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” by Tove Ditlevsen, Vijay Seshadri’s “That Was Now, This Is Then,” Victoria de Grazia’s “The Perfect Fascist” and “The Honourable Schoolboy,” by John le Carré.

What’s the last great book you read?
“Poems: 1962-2012,” by Louise Glück.

Are there any classic novels that you recently read for the first time?
Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit” — not his best, but the prose is magnificent as always, and it has some wonderful depictions of skulduggery….

Which writers working today do you admire most? Vivian Gornick, Rachel Cusk, Cynthia Ozick, Margo Jefferson, Sigrid Nunez, Robert Boyers, Emily Fox Gordon, the historian Mike Wallace, Hilton Als, Louise Glück, David Shapiro, Vijay Seshadri, Lynn Freed, Carmen Boullosa, Charles Simic, Darryl Pinckney, Naomi Shihab Nye, Meghan Daum, Terry Castle, Camille Paglia, Molly Haskell, Edward Hoagland, Sven Birkerts, David Mamet, Annie Baker — and so many others.

You’ve just concluded editing a three-volume anthology of American essays. Do you have favorites among that selection? And were there any revelations?
No favorites, I like them all. But in the voluminous reading I did for the project, I had frequent revelations of largely forgotten, terrific essayists such as John Jay Chapman, Agnes Repplier, Sui Sin Far, Mary Austin, Katharine Fullerton Gerould and Randolph Bourne.

Looking further afield, what non-American essayists do you especially admire?
Natalia Ginzburg, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Octavio Paz, Alexander Herzen, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, C. L. R. James, V. S. Pritchett and Adam Phillips, just for starters….

What books got you hooked on essays as a form?
“Selected Essays of William Hazlitt, 1778-1830,” Charles Lamb’s “Essays of Elia,” Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” “The Orwell Reader.” And of course “The Complete Essays of Montaigne.”…

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have lots of Soho Crime — Janwillem van de Wetering, Qiu Xiaolong, Peter Lovesey, Rebecca Pawel — because my wife, Cheryl Cipriani, is a graphic artist who designed their catchy covers….

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books stick with you most?
I read a lot of baseball books, which I’ve since forgotten. I ate up Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island,” and I still love Stevenson, though more for his essays than his fiction.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?
As an adolescent reader I was drawn to intense, anguished, dramatic writers like Dostoyevsky and Celine. Now I find myself attracted more to calm, ironic ones. Lately I’ve gone on a binge-reading of English women novelists: Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Bowen, all very satisfying….

If you could require the president to read one book, what would that be?
“The Glorious American Essay,” edited by … me. And after that, Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” which would unsettle any certainties he might have left….

Disappointed, overrated, just not good. What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“The Catcher in the Rye,” by J. D. Salinger, didn’t speak to me. Holden Caulfield irritated me massively when I first read it, and I never gave it a second chance. The last book I put down without finishing was Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March.” The prose was too rich for my blood….

What books are you ashamed not to have read yet?
Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brothers.” I love Mann, and recently reread his magnificent “The Magic Mountain.” Meanwhile, “Joseph” sits on my shelf, beckoning yet intimidating.

What do you plan to read next?
That third volume of Proust, and maybe more le Carré.

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