New York Times Interview With Alan Lightman, the Physicist Who Craves Books on Philosophy

From a New York Times By the Book interview with Alan Lightman:

What books are on your night stand?

“A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles, “At Random,” by Bennett Cerf, “The Pope at War,” by David I. Kertzer.

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

“Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Bleak House,” by Charles Dickens.

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

My ideal reading experience is the same as my ideal writing experience. I like to be in a quiet and serene space, without phones ringing in the background or other distractions. As long as the place is quiet, I can be anywhere, because after a few minutes I have disappeared into that magical realm where we lose awareness of who we are, where we are, our bodies, even time. It is a purely creative space. If we are the writer, we are listening to our characters speak, not telling them what to say, but listening. If we are the reader, we are bringing our own life experiences to the scene and using those experiences to help create the scene. Good books are not completed until they are read by a reader, and each reader completes the book in a different way.

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

That’s a tall order, because I don’t know what books most people have read. But a book I love that receives very little attention these days is “Far Away and Long Ago,” by W.H. Hudson. It’s Hudson’s memoir of growing up in the pampas of Argentina in the mid-19th century and contains the most gorgeous descriptions of flora, fauna and landscape that I’ve ever read.

You’re a physicist as well as a writer. Who writes especially well about science for a lay audience?

Some of my favorite science writers, not in any particular order, are James Gleick, E.O. Wilson, Janna Levin, Lewis Thomas, Rachel Carson, David Quammen, Natalie Angier, Richard Feynman, Mary Roach, Steven Weinberg, Marcia Bartusiak.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

In David Kertzer’s magnificent history of Mussolini and Pope Pius XII during World War II, “The Pope at War,” I learned that Mussolini, who was no friend of the church, ordered many thousands of church bells confiscated in order to be melted down for war munitions.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

As a scientist, it would be natural for me to say the subject of science, but there are already many wonderful books about science. I wish more authors would write about philosophy in an accessible and meaningful way, as does the writer Rebecca Goldstein.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Our lives are so brief, and in those few years there’s only a limited amount we can see and experience. Great works of literature can partly compensate for these limitations by allowing us to travel to different places and times in our minds. I am moved by those mental adventures in a book. I also love complex and troubled characters, and difficult moral situations. Of course, I always appreciate good dialogue, which is so hard to write, and skillful scene setting.

How do you organize your books?

I organize my books by fiction and nonfiction. The fiction books I arrange by author, and the nonfiction by subject matter. There are about 20 books that I cannot do without, and whenever I go somewhere for more than a month, I try to take them with me if possible. These books keep me company. They remind me of places and experiences I’ve had in my mind. Some of these essential books are: “Mrs. Dalloway,” by Virginia Woolf, “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez, “The Periodic Table,” by Primo Levi, “Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino, “The Character of Physical Law,” by Richard Feynman, “The Blue Flower,” by Penelope Fitzgerald, “The Trial,” by Franz Kafka.

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

“The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” by Sogyal Rinpoche. Although I do not believe in rebirth, I have come to admire many of the elements of Buddhism, such as being present in the moment, accepting the impermanence of existence, and being able to observe the world and your own behavior from outside of yourself, in a humble and egoless manner. My wife meditates every day and has introduced me to Buddhism. Our house is littered with books on the subject.

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

When I was a child, I began my lifelong schizophrenic passions for both science and the arts, and my reading reflected that combination. Some of the books I read in science included the physicist George Gamow’s “Mr. Tompkins” series (“Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland,” “Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom,” etc.), in which a fantasy reality allows a timid bank clerk to experience the effects of relativity, quantum physics and the atom. I also loved the science fiction romance novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which a young fighting man is mysteriously transported to Mars and falls in love with a beautiful Martian princess. These books combine both science and romance. I also read the science fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein. As a child, I loved the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and began developing an ear for the sounds and cadences of words. I read John Fowles’s “The Magus” soon after it came out and was fascinated by the idea of psychological illusions.

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

I would invite Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller and Gertrude Stein. It would be a memorable party. All of them were deep thinkers. Stein, who led salons of writers, artists and intellectuals at her apartment in Paris, would make sure the conversation never lagged. She and Fuller could probably bring out the shy and delicate Dickinson. Stein and Dickinson were both subversive in their own ways and might appreciate each other’s poetry. Margaret Fuller was a leading journalist and intellectual. She would have lots of interesting things to say about the world of today, including the polarization of American society. I would like to hear how Fuller, who was possibly more worldly than Stein and certainly more worldly than Dickinson, could get the others to comment on the issues of today.

What do you plan to read next?

I’ve just started “Circe,” by Madeline Miller. Miller is a classics scholar and brings that knowledge to imagine the life of Circe, who was a sorceress. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Circe seduces Odysseus. He is so infatuated with her that he lingers with her for a year on his way back home from the Trojan War. Miller’s writing is poetic.

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