A New York Times Interview With Robert Rubin Whose New Book Is Titled “The Yellow Pad”

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “The Book That Changed Robert Rubin’s Thinking About Poverty”:

What books are on your night stand?

I’m always reading multiple books at the same time, switching between them depending on my interest at the moment and my mood. Right now, I have “The Congressional Journal of Barber B. Conable, Jr., 1968-1984,” “Paris 1919,” by Margaret MacMillan, which I’m rereading, and Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” which I just finished.

There’s also “Reading for Pleasure,” a collection of classic short writing edited by Bennett Cerf. That one’s been on my night stand for more than a decade; every now and then I’ll pick it up and read one of the pieces.

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

I like to browse in bookstores. When I’m at home in New York, I’ll wander into Shakespeare & Co., a great independent bookstore not far from us, look through the books on display, buy something, and then sit down someplace and start to read.

My other favorite place to read is on fly fishing trips, where I always bring along a stack of books. At most fishing camps, there’s usually a couple of hours before dinner where guests sit around and have drinks. That’s when I’ll go to my room, look out over the water, and read. It may not make me great company, but so be it.

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

There’s a biography by Victoria Glendinning I really like called “Vita.” It’s about the life of Vita Sackville-West, an author and intellectual who was part of the Bloomsbury Group in England in the early 1900s. In addition to the subject’s fascinating life — among much else, she was Virginia Woolf’s muse and longtime lover — I always enjoy books about that era.

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

I recently finished a book called “1215: The Year of Magna Carta,” by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. What I found so fascinating was that even though the events he describes occurred more than 800 years ago, and involved very different societal customs and structures, issues of personality — self-interest, pride and ego — played the same role they do in major decisions today.

Who writes especially well about economic issues for a general audience?

I’d recommend Roger Lowenstein, a journalist who’s written extensively for The Wall Street Journal and other places. His book “America’s Bank” (which I reviewed for The Times), for example, tells the history of the creation of the Federal Reserve — not always considered the most scintillating subject — in a way that embraces complexity while still being deeply engaging.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

Our political system and government. When I went from the private to the public sector I found that, despite having been around politics for a long time, I had an enormous amount to learn about the way our political system really works. I think that’s true for most people who haven’t been in government. There are already some terrific nonfiction books, such as Chris Whipple’s “The Gatekeepers,” that provide insight into how government and policymaking function, but we could always use more of them. And I think it would be valuable to have more fiction that gives people outside the government a better understanding of our political process in an engaging way.

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

I’m a longtime reader of thrillers and spy novels. The more international intrigue, the better. These will date me, but some of my favorites are “A Coffin for Dimitrios,” by Eric Ambler, and anything by the Scottish American author Helen MacInnes. You’ll find more recent examples of the genre — especially those by David Baldacci and Daniel Silva — on my shelves, too.

I also have two shelves devoted to fly fishing books: narrative accounts, nonfiction travel writing and technical manuals with titles like “Fly Fishing for Bonefish.” People who don’t know me might find that surprising, and people who do know me won’t be surprised at all.

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

I tend to like most genres, as long as the book itself delves into questions of the human psyche. Why do we, as individuals, groups or countries, do the things we do?

One genre I tend to avoid is business books. I’ve spent more than half a century thinking about markets, economic conditions and economic policy — and I’ve found my work in the private sector to be interesting and fulfilling. But for whatever reason, I tend not to gravitate toward how-to books on management.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

That’s easy. “The Underclass,” by Ken Auletta. It follows a nonprofit organization as it attempts to improve the lives of some of New York’s lowest-income residents, and when I read it in 1982, it completely changed the way I think about poverty in America.

This was during the Reagan years, when the notion was that Americans could simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” But Ken’s argument — which I found very persuasive — is that poverty is a vicious cycle, replicated over generations, and that being trapped in that cycle is far more the result of society’s failings than of the individuals’. “The Underclass” led me to believe that trying to break the cycle of poverty through policy and through private efforts is not just right for moral reasons, but is enormously in the interest of all of us, both because of the economic impact of lifting people out of poverty, and because of poverty’s negative effects on social cohesion.

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

Samuel Johnson, because while I only know him through quotes, not through his writings, I’ve always found him amusing and insightful. Edith Wharton, because I find her descriptions and insights about human nature so engaging. And Noël Coward, because he’s Noël Coward.

What do you plan to read next?

I recently received a galley of my friend Drew Gilpin Faust’s forthcoming book, “Necessary Trouble,” an autobiographical work about growing up as a strong supporter of the civil rights movement in a white, conservative Virginia family during the 1950s and 1960s. Drew is an exceptional historian and storyteller, so I’m very much looking forward to diving into her memoir.

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