A New York Times Interview With Literary Critic Margo Jefferson: What’s the Last Great Book You Read?

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Even Margo Jefferson Sometimes Gets Sucked Into a Bad Thriller”:

What’s the last great book you read?

Han Kang’s 2014 historical novel, “Human Acts,” and Osip Mandelstam’s 1925 memoir, “The Noise of Time.”

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

The language might be laborious or overwrought, while the narrative and vision are thrilling. And glorious language, artfully structured, can overpower what’s limited and banal, even venal. But a book that leaves one utterly cold can still meet all the formal criteria for greatness. In which case I’d resort to a calmer, stuffier word, like “major.” “Major” signifies respect without rapture. “Great” needs rapture.

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

I’m a child, curled up on a couch or in the den armchair, believing I‘ll never be interrupted, that I have unlimited time to read and dream. The setting can change: A sunporch, a park, a lawn, a beach all work. The point is: I’m alone, with what the book and I have to offer each other.

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

Books that were once my solitary finds or that I proudly shared with a small kindred band are widely available in some form. For now, the arc of literary history seems to bend toward justice as a collection of global traditions and achievement. But here are two moving, beautifully designed Eakins Press books that I wish were better known. One is “Louis Armstrong: A Self Portrait,” by Richard Merryman. The other — disappointingly out of print now — is “Lay This Laurel: An Album on the Saint-Gaudens Memorial on Boston Common, Honoring Black and White Men Together, Who Served the Union Cause With Robert Gould Shaw and Died With Him July 18, 1863.” The essay is by Lincoln Kirstein, the photographs by Richard Benson.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I like good to great thrillers, but when I’m reading a bad one that nevertheless traps me, against my will, in relentless plot mechanics and suspense-mongering, my ego says: “You’re better than this.” And my id says: “Not today. Deal with it.”

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I want more writers to test the capacities, strategies and varieties of nonfiction, whatever their subject.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

A writer structuring perceptions of the world in a way that feels new to me.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

There’s no either/or here, not aesthetically. It’s a question of my mood and my circumstances. Why am I reading this book? What do I need from it now as a reader and/or as a writer?

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

“Winning Words: Classic Quotes From the World of Sports.”

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

In 1965 my older sister gave me the Dover facsimile edition of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” — the simpler, earlier version of “Alice,” with his handwriting and many of his own illustrations.

“A Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer day” was his inscription. My sister’s intention was to honor the spacious reading days of our childhood. She’d always chosen vigorous adventures like “Kidnapped,” or “The Count of Monte Cristo,” though. This gift acknowledged my reading.

Can you separate a book from its social context?

Yes. Isn’t the challenge when, why and how? To separate isn’t to deny or obliterate. We can read a book for its aesthetics; reread it for the social/political/cultural context. We can do this sequentially or simultaneously. We’re not single-cell creatures. Books make complicated, conflicting demands on us.

Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?

I’ve changed — better to say revised — my opinion of a book based on information about the author and information about myself. I wrote recently about a long, passionate and contentious relationship I’d had with Willa Cather’s novel “The Song of the Lark.” It was, shall we say, racially problematic. For some time I evaded those lapses and prejudices; then I couldn’t. So I took them up. Not to wholly reject the novel. I still wanted to love what was best about it, and I couldn’t do that without taking on what was worst about it.

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

Lots of poetry, which I‘d memorize and recite out loud, to myself or to my mother, especially when we were alone together in her car. “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” The poems in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Edna St. Vincent Millay (especially “Daphne”); Langston Hughes (especially “I’ve Known Rivers”); James Weldon Johnson (“God’s Trombones”). Novels also: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, especially “The Secret Garden”; “Loretta Mason Potts,” by Mary Chase; “Little Women,” of course and every one of the Alcott sequels.

What book would you elevate to the canon, and what book would you remove?

I’ve just been introduced to the work of the Puerto Rican poet Marigloria Palma, translated by Carina del Valle Schorske. Her poems are sumptuous and rigorous, probing and vehemently lyrical. We don’t live in a time of canon scarcity. As long as the books I want in the canon get there, I don’t need to remove those I’d never have picked.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” (the complete, not the edited version). For Wright’s astute and lucid outrage, his refusal to evade, his determination to make his readers hear, see, feel, think and want to act.

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

Well, three of what I assume will be a larger party. Tennessee Williams and Adrienne Kennedy: I want those two to recite their favorite monologues (across centuries and countries) during the evening. My third? Katherine Mansfield. She was acute and adventurous. How would she make her way in this postmodern, postcolonial time amid people she’d never have expected to be dining with?

Disappointing, 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?

I’ll restrain my impulse to punish a living author and speak only of the dead. The last book I was supposed to like and emphatically did not was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I read it after the Broadway play became a hit. I finished it. I fully experienced its ingratiating narrative and mealy-mouthed ethics.

The last book I put down without finishing was John Dos Passos’ “Manhattan Transfer.” It had life as literary history; as art it felt dead.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m just starting “The Frightened Ones,” by the Syrian novelist Dima Wannous. And I’m about to reread “Macbeth,” to be in fighting trim for the movie and the play.

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