A Times Insider Column With Book Critic Molly Young: “I just read for 10 hours a day and take notes”

From a Times Insider column by Terence McGinley about book critic Molly Young headlined “Turning Pages, Taking Plunges”:

As a New York Times book critic, Molly Young often reads three to six books at a time. Under that workload, she says, she likes to spend two hours with one book, then change to another. For her, the practice is sort of like moving from a hot steam to a cold bath. “It resets your circulation,” she said. “I like to shock myself between vastly different books.”

Ms. Young, 35, joined The Times from New York Magazine in September and brought her popular newsletter, Read Like the Wind, with her. She is also a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. In an interview, she discussed her maturation as a reader and the moment she began to think like a critic.

Read Like the Wind has a broad format in which you recommend old books and new books. How did it take shape?

I wanted two things: the newsletter to be really short, because I don’t like spending a lot of time in my inbox; and for it to be a mixture of old books and new books because I don’t read books based on their release date, I read books based on my interest in them. Often that comes based on recommendations from friends. So, the idea was, what would it be like if you had a friend who spent all their time reading and could send you all types of recommendations you could skim and see what looks interesting?

Where does a recommendation like “Under the Net,” a 1954 novel by Iris Murdoch, come from?

She wrote dozens of books that were very uneven in quality. I can imagine going to a bookstore and seeing a shelf of Iris Murdoch books and walking away empty-handed. About 10 years ago, I went through an Iris Murdoch phase and read all of her books. One service I can perform as a reading machine is to go through an author’s backlist and pick out the one or two books that may be a good place for a reader to start.

When did you begin to think and read like a book critic?

There was a moment, probably in my early 30s, when I realized that I had read enough books that I had not a sense of mastery but a pile of knowledge that I could be a worthy conduit to books. Something clicked. I felt like a humpback whale swimming through the ocean with my mouth full and I was capable enough to filter the nourishing bits of plankton from the rest. I was finally able to discern what I felt was good from what I felt was less good, and could make an argument. And that couldn’t happen until I read as many books as I had read.

As a critic, do you find yourself having to force your way to the end of a book? Is there ever an instance when you would like to put a book down?

Often. That’s the difference between someone who reads books for a job and someone who reads books for pleasure. It’s a job to power your way through to the end even if you would like to throw it against a wall. But each unsuccessful book is unsuccessful in its own way. It can be instructive. Even with a book that I dislike, my relationship with the book changes as I try to figure out what the author was trying to do. If the writing was not successful, it’s figuring out why.

As a general principle, I don’t think people should feel obligated to finish a book that they’ve started. Life is too short.

You recently reviewed Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Crossroads.” Did you need to know all of his previous books?

I think it really helps. You build a relationship with an author and observe their growth and their quirks, like certain words that they have an affection for or certain patterns of phrasing or structure that they like. When I was reading “Crossroads,” I did go back and read his books — not all of them, because that would be thousands of pages — and I had read them all before. But I went back and spent a couple of hours with each one and reminded myself of what he was doing and what I had loved about it or not loved about it. That helped prepare me to help contextualize “Crossroads.”

How do you read at home?

I have three places in the apartment where I read. I work either at the kitchen table, the living room sofa or in my little office, which is crammed with books. I like to rotate among these three places throughout the day according to the light. I tend to follow the sunlight, like a cat. I basically just read for 10 hours a day, and I take notes.

I was just thinking the other day that I really need to get a wheelbarrow. I’m always transporting enormous stacks of books from one location to another. And I thought, there has to be some kind of tool or implement that would help me do this more efficiently. I realized I was describing a wheelbarrow. So maybe I’ll invest in one.


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