And I remembered the cry of the peacocks. / The colors of their tails / Were like the leaves themselves / Turning in the wind, / In the twilight wind. —Wallace Stevens
Painful and embarrassing as it is, we booklovers have a common confession to make: We’re unrepentant voyeurs. When we enter a home, we spy on the bookshelves. We ogle Bantams and Nortons and Vintages; we caress (come on, you know it’s true!) Penguins, and pant over the names of authors and the titles of books, and work ourselves into a kind of amorous frenzy. Surely, a library offers a glimpse into a person’s life more intimate than a cracked bedroom door. So what are we to make of Rebecca Steinitz’s color-coded masterpiece? Well, I leave that entirely up to you, you sneaky voyeur, you.
Who are you?
I am a cynical idealist who would rather be reading. (I’m also a writer, editor, reviewer, teacher, mother, runner, ex-academic, feminist, Red Sox fan, and baker of chocolate cakes, but those seem more like answers to the question of what I am.)
Your book shelves are amazing, like a peacock’s tail. Can you explain what I’m seeing?
I’ve finally achieved a long-held aesthetic goal and organized our books by color. A long time ago, we lived in a small apartment where all the bookshelves were in the living room. I would sit on the couch and look at the shelves, which had lots of orange Penguins (they were orange back then) and green Viragos (they were Viragos back then), and imagine organizing them by color. When we moved into our most recent — and hopefully final —
Domination of colors
house, we at first only had room to unpack the fiction, which I alphabetized, per usual, and the cookbooks (my husband is a chef), which are organized by size (the shelves in the pantry are different heights) and use (the ones we use most frequently are most accessible). Four years and one renovation later, I was finally unpacking the rest of the books, which we’d been pawing through boxes to find, and I decided that it was now or never for my color dreams. It’s led to some lovely juxtapositions, like Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, Fast Food Nation, and Goodman’s Languages of Art (red), and Middletown, The Letters of Virginia Woolf (Volume Two), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and Diana: Her True Story (white). So far, we’ve managed to find books when we want them — I’ve got a pretty good visual memory, plus I tried to pay attention while I was putting them away. Fiction is still alphabetical, and I kept a few things out of the system, like travel books, books about writing, and Freud and Shakespeare (because I’m talismanic that way). Everyone who sees it loves it: they really are so pretty.
What was the last book you read? How did you like it?
The last book I read was Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, a biography of the author’s great-grandmother, Idina Sackville, an upper-class Edwardian who divorced five times and spent most of the 20s, 30s, and 40s in Kenya. I read it on vacation and quite loved it — I have an historical interest in colonialism and a sick fascination with the foibles of the British upper class, and I love drama: every morning, at breakfast, I would update my family on the latest developments in Idina’s exceedingly eventful life. But the book also made me think. One of Osborne’s reasons for writing it was to understand Idina and, especially, how she could have left her three- and four-year old sons because of her own desires, and I’m not sure the book succeeds on that front. Ironically I felt like I got a much clearer picture of the psychological makeup of Idina’s abandoned first husband and oldest son (Osborne’s grandfather), both of whom left diaries of which Osborne makes extensive use. Idina comes across as a kind of Lacanian nymphomaniac — a woman of endlessly unsatisfiable desires — but I never quite understood why. Maybe there just wasn’t a reason, though being abandoned by her own father (for a chorus girl) seems to have had something to do with it. Or maybe the issue has to do with the available materials and the limits of biography. Anyway, like I said, it got me thinking and entertained me, which pretty much sums up the benefits of reading.
Who’s the best literary critic at work today?
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be assessing academic or popular literary critics — i.e. Harold Bloom or James Wood, neither of whom I would choose, and both of whom actually occlude the distinction I’m using them to illustrate, so maybe I shouldn’t even try to answer this question… But I will say that I am a huge fan of Jenny Davidson who writes the excellent blog Light Reading (disclaimer: she is a good friend), and that Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England is the best book of literary criticism I’ve read this decade.
You have a stormy love affair with 19th-century diaries. Do tell. Is there a particular work you might recommend to us?
Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick’s diaries (Munby: Man of Two Worlds; The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant) reveal the Victorians’ true weirdness, as well as the details of their everyday lives. He was a middle-class barrister who was obsessed with working-class women. She was a maid of all work. They met in the street one day, fell in love, and eventually married, secretly. She used to black her face and call him Massa and send him her diaries, which has made all sorts of cultural critics go nuts, with good reason, but their diaries are amazing texts of daily life, as well as perversity–only they are best read in manuscript form at Trinity College in Cambridge, where you can appreciate his meticulous print, her rapid scrawl, and the full complexity of how their diaries and lives intertwined. For aesthetic pleasure, Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is a wonderful account of…well, just what it sounds like, with fabulous descriptions of Estes Park, and riding horses across plains in the middles of blizzards, and the like. It’s technically a series of letters to her sister, but really it’s a diary.
Kindle, audiobook, or good, old-fashioned paper pages? Why?
Paper pages. I am not an auditory person: I space out when I’m listening, whether it’s music or words. I recently really looked at a Kindle for the first time, when I started chatting with someone in a café who had one (and loved it). It seems appealing for newspapers and magazines, but I am very attached to the way books and pages let the eye rove — above, below, to the next page, a few pages back, even to the last page, if you’re that kind of person. I’ve also got a strongly visual memory — if I’m looking for a passage, I always know where in the book and on the page it is (i.e. upper right, middle left, etc.), which I imagine wouldn’t work so well with the Kindle. Then again, I think the Kindle is here to stay, and not really worth fighting — though I do think we need to fight to take away Amazon’s power to erase (i.e. text downloading should be like music downloading — once it’s in your system, it’s yours).
When, where, how do you read?
I quote: "Always, everywhere," and "bathroom."
Always, everywhere, and every which way. I can’t enter the bathroom or the subway without something to read. I read tabloids in checkout lines, ads on the bus, pamphlets and brochures in the doctor’s office, cereal boxes at the breakfast table, free newspapers on the subway, endless numbers of online articles and posts whenever I sit down at the computer. And of course books (mostly fiction, memoir, and biography, though I also review a lot of non-fiction), usually several at a time — one in my bag to read while traveling or waiting, two or three on my bedside table to read at night, the ones I’m reviewing or writing about. Sometimes I read intermittently — a few pages here, a few there — and sometimes I will read the same book for five hours without stopping (that usually happens late at night, and I try not to regret it the next day). The only place I don’t read is the car, because I get carsick.
When it comes to marginalia, pen, pencil, or finger in the sand?
I think I must have been taught in high school to use pencil, as a mark of respect for the book (and, perhaps, so that the marginalia juvenilia can be erased when one thinks better of it, though I never do, preferring the palimpsest effect), so it’s generally been pencil. There have been enormous amounts of marginalia, from detailed underlinings and notes on books I’ve studied, researched, and taught, to compulsive circling of typos, even, I must confess, in library books. More recently, though, as I’ve started to read galleys and ARCs, I find myself using pen, to make my notes more visible when I look back for them, but also, I think, to register the difference from a real book.
What was your most memorable reading experience?
When I was a kid, perhaps eight or twelve, I went on vacation with my mother, grandparents, and little sister to an inn in Rockport, Massachusetts. I have no idea why we went to Rockport: we’d never vacationed there before and never did again. We were staying in a cottage, and one night my mom and grandparents went up to the main building for some reason, and I read a book I found in the cottage. It was vaguely based on Rebecca, I realized later, but with a weird incest thing replacing the weird housekeeper thing: a sweet second wife was tormented by her husband’s sister. I remember there was a pond with a big rock on the edge, and the husband and his sister had some kind of spooky matching necklaces, and the sister was driving the wife crazy and threatening her life. It was the scariest thing I had ever read, and I don’t think I’ve read anything since that scared me as much. I got myself into a total state, and it seemed like my mother would never come back, and I really thought I could die of fear.
Decades later, around when the internet went mainstream, someone found a website which had people who would identify books whose titles you had forgotten. Like, you could say “The book takes place on Long Island and there’s a girl named Daisy,” and they would say The Great Gatsby. This was before Google, so it was pretty impressive. I wrote to them about my book, and it turned out it was a Phyllis Whitney novel called The Winter People, and I was kind of mortified. I didn’t read it again. I don’t want to know if it really is that scary, or if it isn’t.
Is there a defect in a novel that you‘d give your right arm to correct? How would you improve it?
I’d like to make Daniel Deronda work. It has the potential to be Eliot’s greatest book, but the Daniel and Gwendolen plots can’t cohere, and Mordecai is too perfect. I’m not sure how I would fix it, but I think the repair would have to start with Mordecai. Oh, and I’d stop Anna Karenina from throwing herself in front of the train. Every time I read the book, I hope that this time she won’t do it, and then she always does!
What book did you avoid reading for a long time only to find out you actually enjoyed it?
A cliché, I know, but Ulysses. I only finally dared to read it while studying for my orals. I expected it to be edifying, but was delighted—and somewhat stunned—to discover how thoroughly enjoyable it is.
Have you ever read a book you initially disliked only to learn later that you really do like it?
I hated Jane Eyre for years, but I eventually realized, on perhaps the seventh or eighth reading (why, you may ask, did I read a book I hated so many times? it was an academic thing, but also, I think, I knew it was important, even though I hated it) that it was Jane I hated, not the book, and I came to quite like the book, though it’s more a respect kind of like than a passionate kind of like.
Is there a book that’s been raved about by many, even by people you respect, but just didn’t get what all the fuss was about, even to the point of questioning your own literary standards?
I thought The Time Traveler’s Wife was stupid — impressively plotted, but totally banal. It didn’t make me question my own literary standards, but I couldn’t believe how many smart, thoughtful people whose taste I usually respect loved that book.
What are your top five favorite books?
Margaret Laurence, The Diviners
Salman Rushdie, Shame
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Keri Hulme, The Bone People
Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries and Vicki Forman’s This Lovely Life are the best books I’ve read recently. The Adderall Diaries is about a murder and the life and thoughts as he covers the murder (that description barely does it justice, but the alternative is about six paragraphs long). This Lovely Life is about how Forman coped with the extremely premature birth of her twins (again, a thoroughly inadequate description). Both are spellbinding reads that address life’s complexities with deep compassion. They are beautiful books.