From a New York Times By the Book Interview With Author Anand Giridharadas

From a New York Times By the Book interview with Anand Giridharadas headlined
His Fantasy Literary Dinner Party? He Already Threw It.”:

Some time ago, I bought a pair of red, can-shaped Italian night stands with tiny curved drawers. I thought they would lend me glamour. Books don’t fit on or in them, however, so I keep a towering pile on the floor, which, between us, is straining my marriage. In the pile now are Joan Didion’s collected nonfiction, James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time,” “Inside U.S.A.” by John Gunther, and — my current focus — John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I should have read before but I hadn’t, probably because it was assigned.

Reading “The Grapes of Wrath” offers such a powerful reminder of the way that literature can unabashedly engage in politics at no cost to either pursuit. Steinbeck’s lyrical explanation of the way a brutal new capitalism was unfolding makes me think that we need but don’t yet have enough such literature for the new capitalist frontier of our own time: the platforms and algorithms of Big Tech.

My ideal reading experience was before having children. I’m picturing a beach on a warm island, a gripping work of narrative nonfiction, with a mezcalita and my wife, Priya Parker, at my side.

Having children — ours are now 4 and 7 — makes reading harder. It was, until they were born, my default activity when I didn’t have anything else specific to do. But now I am more often mediating a fight over a pipe cleaner. I sometimes wake up an hour before everyone else and read then. Or at night, but I too often fall asleep.

The time Priya and I cracked the code on Reading While Parents was when we invented the shell game. We sat a hundred feet apart on a beach and each whipped out a book — she, “My Brilliant Friend,” and then the rest of the Neapolitan novels; I, some early books in the Knausgaard odyssey, I think — and convinced our then toddler son to carry a shell from Mama over to Papa, then another shell from Papa to Mama. And so on for, like, four hours. He was slow back then, so each round trip could take several minutes. Don’t tell me I never invented any parenting techniques.

My third book, “Winners Take All,” on the billionaire class and its weaponizing of do-gooding to tighten its grip on power, was partly inspired by a fellowship I had at the Aspen Institute. After the book came out, I was mysteriously disappeared from my fellowship class’s online discussion forums and told my voice would no longer be welcome at the institute.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, for showing that you can change the national conversation and the teaching of history and even this venerable newspaper with the power of keystrokes on a laptop. Maggie Nelson, for stretching our imaginations about identity. Katherine Boo, for demonstrating how to write about people as if they were more real to you than yourself. George Packer, for combining indefatigable reporting with a refusal to give up on the country. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, for giving marginalized subjects so much dignity. Clint Smith, for showing how we can be honest about our past but magnanimous about how hard it is going to be for millions to let go of problematic, cherished illusions. Åsne Seierstad, for cinematic storytelling built on obsessive reporting. Masha Gessen, for their siren warnings to ward off autocracy before it is too late. Parul Sehgal, for elevating book criticism and updating it for our more global and plural age. Michael Lewis, for making complex storytelling look easy. Svetlana Alexievich, for the confidence to let her subjects speak for themselves. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for putting his finger on the nub of the American ailment. Adam Serwer, for reminding us that today’s fascism wasn’t born yesterday. Larissa MacFarquhar, for profiles that make me love her subjects and resent Larissa. Jhumpa Lahiri, for fearless self-reinvention.

In “The Persuaders,” I ended up writing about several people who themselves have written books. It was daunting but unavoidable, because I was looking for people doing the best thinking about how the cause of democracy can overcome right now.

I write about Alicia Garza, a leading activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, whose book “The Purpose of Power” takes her own progressive movement to task for what she views as a tendency toward insularity. I write about the scholar Loretta Ross, the author of “Reproductive Justice” and other books, who is doing vital teaching about how the pro-democracy cause can be thicker-skinned and more capable of strategic grace. I write about Linda Sarsour, who wrote a book called “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders,” who makes surprising connections between her conservative Muslim upbringing and the upbringing of millions of white Americans and men who today feel unprepared for the new world that is dawning — a connection that helps her be empathetic about the transitional anxieties quaking the country. Diane Benscoter, who wrote a book called “Shoes of a Servant,” is a former cult member turned cult deprogrammer, and she has a lot to teach us about how we can win back some of the far right’s dupes. George Goehl is a veteran community organizer who has worked extensively in rural America, and his newsletter, “The Fundamentals of Organizing,” is a great way in to the philosophy that underpins his work: the idea that people are conflicted and many-sided and can change if you listen and show respect while also standing firm in your values . Anat Shenker-Osorio is a messaging expert who I hope will write a book on her method of persuading not by diluting one’s vision but rather by playing to the base’s passion and inspiring that base to woo the moderates in their lives.

In my own writing, I have always been interested in psychological transitions — from Indians buoyed and bewildered by the arrival of globalized capitalism to down-and-out white communities in Texas feeling like they were losing their way of life and centrality. I don’t think there is nearly enough writing today on the psychological transitions Americans of all backgrounds are going through because of the distinct but interlocking upheavals of globalization, demographic change, social progress on race and gender and sexuality, the rise of China, technology, social media, and more. I want to read more on how stress and confusion in private inner life relates to political unrest.

In my world of narrative nonfiction, interiority: the writer’s ability to inhabit the character so that it is no longer just the character who is being described from the outside but also the world that is being re-described through the character’s eyes.

Katherine Boo did this so powerfully in her Mumbai masterpiece, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I still remember her description, through a low-income character’s eyes, of walking into a hotel and seeing rich women “carrying handbags as big as household shrines.” There is in that phrase so much labor that has been done to push the writer’s experience of the world to the margins and the character’s way of seeing to the center.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc does it in “Random Family.” George Packer does it in “The Unwinding.” Isabel Wilkerson does it in “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Of late, we’ve had an important but also sometimes facile debate about who gets to tell what stories. My answer grows out of reporting like that mentioned above. If you are willing to do the grueling work to de-center your own way of seeing and bring the other’s way of seeing to the fore, then I say: Write about whatever the hell you want.

I have tried by color, and I have tried by genre, and nothing is perfect. But I was recently inspired to try something new: I pulled out all the books that belong to the genre of narrative nonfiction I aspire to work in — Boo, LeBlanc, Packer, Gessen, Lewis, Alexievich, Wilkerson, Tom Wolfe, V.S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer, and others. I put them together on a single shelf where I see them every day. And that has really worked on me. It reminds me of the particular community of writers I longed to be part of as a young person starting out, and it keeps me oriented when I’m feeling lost.

When I was starting out, I was hungry to know how the best nonfiction writers did it. I was an obsessive student of their technique. So I read nonfiction relentlessly and almost exclusively.

I now allow myself more fiction. I probably should have allowed it in sooner, but, honestly, I was so afraid of how hard it would be to make it as a writer, and all I wanted was to unlock the formula.

This is not a hypothetical for me. I once organized a literary dinner party with three writers, dead and alive (all alive at the time), and it was, well, a lot.

V.S. Naipaul, who taught me what became my nonfiction method through his books, was passing through Cambridge, Mass., where my now-wife and I were living. On a lark, we invited him to dinner through his publisher. He accepted.

I also invited the African American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the India scholar Ashutosh Varshney and some grad school friends.

Naipaul shows up, and immediately his wife calls off dinner because she says his legs cannot handle our third-floor walk-up. I understood. But, also, you guys, I was a young aspiring author and had convinced V.S. Friggin’ Naipaul to come over for dinner, and I wasn’t going to let go. So I offered to help carry Naipaul up the stairs into my apartment, which I proceeded to do along with George Andreou, his publisher. It was strange and beautiful to carry the man who had taught me to write.

I want to go deeper on Hannah Arendt, George Orwell and James Baldwin — you know, given [gestures at everything].

I am itching to read LeBlanc’s long-awaited book deep inside the world of comedy. And Philip Gourevitch’s forthcoming one on Rwanda and reconciliation. And Suketu Mehta’s on New York City.

And maybe some spy novels. When you finish writing a book, you deserve a little fun, right?

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