New York Times By the Book Interview With Sam Lipsyte

From a New York Times By the Book interview with Sam Lipsyte:

What books are on your night stand?

“Consolation,” by Deborah Shapiro, “The American Mercury Reader,” edited by Lawrence E. Spivak and Charles Angoff, “Golden Age,” by Wang Xiaobo, translated by Yan Yan, “Animal Joy,” by Nuar Alsadir, “Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications,” edited by John Danaher and Neil McArthur, “Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber,” edited by Robert Polito, “Swann’s Way,” by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis, “The Face of Battle,” by John Keegan.

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Complete Gary Lutz.”

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

I know we are supposed to challenge the idea of the classic, except maybe the Big Bacon Classic at Wendy’s (bless you, Joe Wenderoth, for writing “Letters to Wendy’s,” itself a classic), but sometimes I’m just amazed at how certain works hold up. The “U.S.A.” trilogy, by John Dos Passos, is still saying some very urgent things in often startling ways.

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

I’m reading a really good novel or short story or essay or poem in my favorite battered, shredded armchair, the one we drape in blankets because the wooden frame is visible through the dirty upholstery but is still so damn comfortable. The sun comes through the window behind me, which makes my wristwatch reflect a disc of light on the wall, which makes my cats, 2-year-old brothers, take turns leaping and smashing into the wall trying to capture it. The rhythms of the sentences blend with the rhythm of the feline thuds and all is well in my world.

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

Well, I’ve been evangelizing about one for over 30 years, so I hope I’ve helped get it a little more known. “Inner Tube,” a novel by Hob Broun, was first published in 1985. Broun became a paraplegic in the course of writing it and finished this book and his next, a wonderful collection of stories called “Cardinal Numbers,” by blowing through a plastic tube at letters of the alphabet. “Inner Tube” is a sharp, strange, moving book about memory, suicide, Cold War America, and the deep effects of modern media and culture on the psyche. It’s also very funny, powered by a mordant but also poignantly yearning voice.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I don’t really think about that too much. I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing, but I also like how certain things will seep into my work based on some random reading. I read and my characters often read as well. I’m not a border guard. When I’m deep into writing a piece of fiction, I will often read passages from some of my favorite writers to remind myself how some people really just know how to give it up, by which I mean give up their secret dreaming selves, with honesty and artistry. Their example lifts me, emboldens me, when I am feeling depleted and paltry.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I’ve somehow associated all pleasure with guilt. This is no way to live, and it’s made me seek too much pleasure or shun it all together, depending on the day you catch me. So, let’s have none of this guilty pleasure business. If you mean do I ever read “crappy” books for “fun,” the answer is no. “Crappy” books are those without style, without charge, without a distinctive voice or view, whether they are generic thrillers or solemn prizewinners. They employ a bunch of stock phrases to convey information nuggets from A to B. Perhaps I desire the information, but the experience doesn’t exactly equal pleasure, guilty or otherwise. I’ll read about nearly anything. But the how is always the question.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

“The Adulterants,” by Joe Dunthorne.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

In college I had a job in the library slipping these metal strips into the spines of books that would set off the alarms. A friend wanted me to “forget” to slip some in certain books so he could steal them. But I wouldn’t do it. It felt wrong, antithetical to the civic spirit of a library, even if it was a private university library. So, in this case, a lot of books came between us. But the uncanny thing is that the “friend” was me!

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

The Eridanus Supervoid. The Count of Tilly. “Good” carcinogens. Truth is, I still prefer certain central subjects, as cataloged in the chorus (and title) of the ’80s English rock band the Godfathers’ anthem to pessimism, “Birth, School, Work, Death.”

What moves you most in a work of literature?

When writers put themselves in jeopardy, make themselves vulnerable, leave their vantages undefended, and then use the freedom that arises from this to really deliver their felt realities with syntactical freshness, I am moved. Nail your heart to the wall with one beautiful, devastating hammer stroke. Then drive another nail in. Now crack a funny joke about it. I am moved as a reader because I also have a heart, and I’m scared, but now I know I am not alone. That’s the commiseration literature can bring.

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

Yes. (And I can’t be the first to answer that way, but there is no other answer.)

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

Horses, history, spaceships, motherhood, Gowanus bars, essays on post-human intimacy, poetry about the numinous toenail clippings of monarchist baristas, metafictional narratives about 1970s mall design, racing form cut-ups, absurdist picaresques featuring problematic celebrities, short fiction from the quiet desperation school, it’s all welcome. It just needs to be alive. The only genre I avoid is bored certainty.

How do you organize your books?

There is a vague tilt toward the alphabetical, but there’s also the question of rank, so that it kind of resembles a European football league system, with promotion to more prominent shelves for books I either currently admire or consider deeply formative, and relegation to bedroom and closet shelves, or even storage, for others. It’s always exciting when a book I’ve owned for years but never read, or started at the wrong time, or put down for some other reason, gets another look and earns a spot on the living room shelves in rapid, thrilling, sudden-death fashion. Thus, the legends of my bookcase are born.

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

“The Blue Cliff Record.” In the few years since the publication of my last novel, “Hark,” which took satirical aim at the mindfulness movement (or, to be fair, its relentless monetization), I’ve been meditating and listening to lectures on Zen Buddhist koans, which I pay for on an app. Go figure.

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

My grandfather Sidney Irving Lipsyte was a New York City public-school teacher and administrator. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of an immigrant tanner, and was the most voracious reader I ever knew. He loved literature, and most of my early reading outside of school came from books he let me pluck from the shelves of the cramped labyrinth of a library he’d built by himself beneath his house, a warren of overstuffed bookcases organized by subject — fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, psychology — and, here and there, old wooden chairs and even a tiny desk at which to study them. He was my model for a reading life. Still, there was a particular book he was perhaps reluctant to part with. One Thanksgiving when I was little he hauled this giant, nine-pound orange book to the dinner table. It was the third edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia — an entire set in one volume. I think he’d assembled it over time, mailing away for each section. He was very proud of it. He hadn’t seen me in months and didn’t know that I’d recently made improvements in my reading abilities, and he announced to the family that he would give me the book if I could read a few sentences from one random entry perfectly. I don’t remember the topic, but I remember the glorious feeling coursing through me during the homestretch of the passage when I sensed I was going to succeed. I also can’t forget the half-admiring, half-crestfallen look on my grandfather’s face when he knew he had to part with his tome. I loved that pumpkin-colored behemoth and leafed through it constantly as a kid. It’s still on my shelf beside my desk and reminds me of one of my greatest teachers.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

When I was 12 my favorite book was “The Bastard,” by John Jakes. This is no longer the case, though maybe I should give it another look. I recall a scene in a French hayloft that may have been my first real erotic encounter with a novel. But these days I sometimes remember E.M. Cioran’s line about how one should “write for gladiators.” And we are all gladiators, in the sense that these next moments could be our last, whether or not we’ve been issued the sandals and the tiny shield or even just enjoy Russell Crowe cosplay. My taste now runs toward work that acknowledges the dire undercurrents precisely so we can really revel in the human comedy. Also, as my teacher Gordon Lish once said, “There is no getting to the good part.” It all has to be the good part. And it’s not that every book I read must accomplish this. I just want the feeling that the author tried.

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

Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot, to give them another shot after their one disastrous repast. Kanye West comes for dessert.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Most of the Quran. Most of the Bible. Most of “Das Kapital.” I’m a pathetic dipper, a chipper, when it comes to these books that have shaped so much human history. I guess I’d rather read “The Man Without Qualities” again, which contains lines like “The least one may therefore expect of a great author is that he should drive a great car.”

What do you plan to read next?

There is not enough room to list all of the books I plan to read next. But, to paraphrase Mike Tyson, everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face. By a book.

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