‘By the Book’ goes inside the minds of writers

WASHINGTON — “What are you reading?” It’s a question asked by friends meeting over lunch, by strangers on an airplane and among co-workers gathered around the office water cooler.

Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, says the question is such a great conversation starter because “we can talk about something that’s about ourselves, but it’s not directly about ourselves.”

“It’s about our passions and our interests, it’s about sharing our likes and our dislikes,” she says.

And while book reviews are important for providing insight on what one can expect from a book, a personal recommendation is more likely to prompt someone to read a book.

“I think that a lot of what gets people to read something is word of mouth … that’s often what gets a person to go out and get the book from their library or the book store.”

A few years ago, Paul went to see author David Sedaris at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and while on stage, Sedaris did something he often does when he speaks: he recommended a book to the audience.

“I thought that was so generous, and I also thought, ‘You know, I would be likely to pick up a book that David Sedaris reads.’”

This inspired Paul to find out what other writers — some of the world’s most prominent literary figures — read, recommend and have on their nightstands. In 2012, she started “By the Book,” a question and answer feature in the Times’ Sunday Book Review that gets at various writers’ favorite books, least favorite books, most influential books and even their recommendations for the president.

Of course, the feature also exposes confessions of guilty pleasures, as well as gripes about the books the authors did not find particularly good.

“We think we know authors when we read their work, but we don’t actually know them, and I think these kind of interviews where you’re asking them questions beyond, ‘What’s your latest book about?’ that get into their mindsets, their tastes, their interests — they say a lot about them,” Paul says.

Her latest collection, “By the Book” complies 65 of Paul’s most intriguing, surprising and enlightening interviews with writers and artists spanning the genres. The book offers a glimpse into the preferences of everyone from Sting to Ira Glass, to Joyce Carol Oates, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Katherine Boo and Anne Lamott.

“Just last week we had Bruce Springsteen,” Paul said at the time of the interview. “And who would have known that he had just finished reading ‘Moby Dick?’”

While Paul says picking her favorite interview is difficult (“That’s like picking children,” she says), she says the ones she likes the most are the ones that surprised her — such as her interview with Hilary Mantel.

“While she is this very … literary, historical, well, she’s worked in a number of genres, she loves self-help books. She calls herself a ‘self-help queen.’ It was so surprising,” Paul says.

“In each interview there’s always one or two answers that I read and I’m like ‘Really? Who would have thought that? It’s so odd.’ I just think that it reveals a lot about people when you ask them [questions] like, ‘What’s the book that you read when you were little that just stuck with you?’ Or, ‘What book made you want to be a writer?’ Or, ‘If you could get the president to read one book, which would it be?’”

Colin Powell was another interview that Paul remembers most for its surprise effect. When she asked him who is the author he would most like to meet, dead or alive, his answer was J.K. Rowling.

“He didn’t say Shakespeare, which is something that a lot of people would say,” she says. “He said, ‘J.K. Rowling.’ And the reason, he said, is because he just wanted to find out from her what it was like to go from being on public assistance, writing your novels on the napkins in cafes, to being the most read and recognized living writer today. What was that transition like? I thought that was so interesting.”

“By the Book” also features sidebars, scattered throughout the book, to show common influences, themes and opinions from the wide-range of authors interviewed.

“To see them collected together reveals a lot about literature, the literary scene right now, and also about the authors. You can kind of compare and contrast,” Paul says.

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