Calvin Trillin: By the Book

Calvin Trillin: By the Book

The humorist, memoirist and journalist likes the way H.L. Mencken expressed himself, for instance in his definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

What books are on your night stand now?

“The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead; “My Darling Detective,” by Howard Norman; and “The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty.

“The Underground Railroad” has been on my night stand for a while. It had a terrific reception, but I hesitated about beginning it because of reading that it has some elements of magic realism. As a reader, I’m pretty earthbound — resistant to the magical or to changes in history or to leaps into the next century. (Yes, of course, there are books that have broken through that resistance — Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” for instance, and W. P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” and Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader.”) Now my reading group has selected “The Underground Railroad” as our next book, so, judging from the reviews, I may be in for yet another exception.

Howard Norman is an American novelist who tends to set his novels in Canada — thumbing his nose at the publisher’s sales force — and he’s the author of one of my favorite novels, “The Bird Artist,” which is set in a Newfoundland outport in 1911.

I’m looking forward to “The Sellout,” because so many people have found it funny.

What influences your decision about which book to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

The aforementioned book group, which meets roughly once a month at someone’s house over dinner, has an influence — or, something between an influence and a mandate. We just read fiction. (The other rule is that the hosts can only serve takeout.) Also, both of my daughters and their husbands are good readers, so I sometimes get tips from them. I happen to live only a few blocks from a first-rate independent book store, Three Lives, in the Village; the people who work there actually read books and have opinions about them.

Also, I must admit that I’m influenced to some extent by the length of the book. Not having any interest in flower-pressing, I tend to skip the 600-page tomes. Of course, there are exceptions here, too. Jerome Karabel’s “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” is nearly 600 pages long (before the notes and index), and it held my interest the entire way.

What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?

“Moby-Dick.” I may have read it in college — although the fact that my memory of it is dominated by a vision of Gregory Peck shouting “Cast the mainsail” makes me think that I might have taken the easy way out of the reading assignment.

Of all the subjects and forms you write in — humor, poetry, memoir, fiction, food and travel writing, journalism — which is your favorite to read?

When it comes to a couple of forms, there’s not much correlation between what I write and what I read. Although I write light verse, I’m not a regular reader of what my family calls grown-up poetry. I sometimes write about eating, essentially as a way of writing about other things and making jokes, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about food.

In memoir and nonfiction, I’m attracted to books that shed light on a place or a community or a culture or a period. Memoirs that do that for me include Russell Baker’s “Growing Up”; Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club”; André Aciman’s “Out of Egypt”; John Mortimer’s “Clinging to the Wreckage”; Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” In nonfiction, it’s been books like “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” by Anne Fadiman; “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” by Harry M. Caudill; and “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” by John M. Barry.

When it comes to fiction, I’ve been attracted to the novels of first-generation writers — writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang-rae Lee and Junot Díaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — whose books often reflect the clash between American culture and the culture of the country they or their parents came from.

Which genres do you avoid?

Here, too, there are exceptions. For instance, I would say that I avoid historical fiction, but some of my favorite novels would be categorized as historical fiction. One is “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” by Wayne Johnston, a fictionalized account of Joey Smallwood’s efforts to bring Newfoundland into the Canadian federation, and another is “J. G. Farrell’s “The Siege of Krishnapur,” which is about a mutiny during the days of the British Raj.

There are no exceptions in science fiction.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?

I like holding the paper book in my hand, but I also read books sometimes on an electronic device. I find the electronic device particularly convenient for travel. You can keep it loaded up and be confident that you’re not going to end up on a long plane ride with nothing to read. Before electronic readers, I spent 15 years traveling every three weeks for a series of New Yorker pieces, and I sometimes found myself making a last-minute dash to the newsstand to snatch a novel off the paperback rack. In those days, I used to say that the 175-page mystery, written with a sense of place, was put on earth to lighten the load of the weary traveling man. I can’t say the same for what seems to be the current fashion — the 400-page mystery, which leaves a lot unread at touchdown.

How do you organize your books?

In floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the living room, there’s a start at organization — a section for nonfiction books that originated in The New Yorker (heavy on Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling), a section for humor. There’s a similar start in my office — reference books, books about language, books on the South and other regions of the country. I regret to say that the other bookshelves in the house do not reflect a serious follow-up to those starts.

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

One shelf in the living room has about a yard’s worth of books by or about H. L. Mencken. I got interested in him when I was in college. Although I don’t agree with some of his views, I still love the way he expressed them — his definition of Puritanism, for instance, as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

I’m fond of Mordecai Richler’s protagonists, who tend to be sardonic, somewhat self-destructive boozers. My favorite is probably Jake Hersh, from “St. Urbain’s Horseman.” That may be because “St. Urbain’s Horseman” is my favorite Richler novel, and it may be because the bathroom scene during a visit Jake makes to his English solicitor’s house makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. I can cheer myself up on a gray day with that bathroom scene.

Among villains, I like the evil duke in James Thurber’s “13 Clocks,” a man who punished what he perceived as improprieties among the suitors of the fair Saralinda by slicing them from their guggle to their zatch and feeding them to the geese.

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

I don’t remember reading any of the childhood classics. I do remember reading the works of Richard Halliburton, an adventurer who chronicled his travels in books like “Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels.” And I was particularly keen on the works of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote about the collies he had at Sunnybank farm. At the time, Terhune’s books were thought to reflect roughly the values of the Boy Scouts of America, but decades later the Yale historian Gaddis Smith wrote in The Times that a closer reading showed them to reflect “racial intolerance, the arrogance of wealth, the equation of poverty with inferiority, the worship of violence in the guise of law and order.” I took that as evidence that I wasn’t a terribly analytical little boy. Unfortunately, that evidence came too late to prevent me from becoming an English major.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

A book. Any book. All the way through.

Of your own books, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

The most personally meaningful is “About Alice,” the book I wrote about my wife, who died in 2001. It would be difficult to pick a favorite of the books I’ve written, because of the apples-and-oranges problem created by having written books in so many disparate forms. A publishing house publicist might be tempted to pass that off as an indication of versatility. The other way to look at it is that I never got my act together.

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