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"Yes," she laughed, "I had a number of such boxes."

"And we both are interested in the Joseph Cornell boxes." (Ms. Krauss did her master's thesis at Oxford on Cornell.)

"Yes, that's right. Isn't that weird? The Cornell boxes changed my life when I first came across them. This idea that you could collect things and create small private universes that fit into a box was so beautiful and satisfying.

"I have this wonderful photograph that somebody gave me of Joseph Cornell's workspace that shows all of the boxes that hold his supplies. The boxes filled with buttons and spools and shells are labeled in his messy handwriting. There's something so dreamy about that, for a child. I had boxes like that long before I even knew about Joseph Cornell."

"And in high school, you were a great lacrosse player."

"Great might be an exaggerated word for what I was. I liked to run around; I don't know how effective I was. I was willing to try anything when I was in high school, in terms of school plays and sports. It wasn't until later, luckily, that I had to specialize in life."

"Did you read a lot as a child?"

"Obsessively. I had nobody to guide me. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I remember in seventh grade being on this family vacation and coming back on a plane -- it was a transatlantic flight -- and finishing the last pages of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. God knows how I got that, but it ended by rocking my world in seventh grade. When I was 12 my mom gave me Portnoy's Complaint and I wondered whether she'd forgotten the Italian whore scene. I had such an eclectic reading experience as a kid, but more important than what I was reading was the feeling. I had this corner in my room, on the floor, where I read. And my parents let me read at the dinner table. So, books went with me. One wonders about these things later, but luckily it worked out."

"Did you feel transfixed while you read?"

"Oh, yes. I felt accompanied. It's not that I was so lonely, I had an older brother, but the houses were far apart where I lived, so we didn't have neighbors. There was a sense of solitude to my childhood. I definitely had that feeling...there's that line where someone says, 'I felt different from the others, and the difference hurt.' Reading for me was the sudden feeling of company, and it also was this entry into a world that was larger than mine and where things had meaning and where they didn't necessarily feel like they had in everyday life. It was this great revolution and relief and joy -- mostly joy -- to suddenly discover books."

"And poetry."

"Yes. That came later. One of my favorite writers, when I was a kid, was A.A. Milne; I knew him by heart. But poetry of a different order came when I was in high school. Like 14 or 15. This was the most wonderful potent thing that I'd ever found, and I immediately wanted to read it.

"Poetry is so intimate and goes right to the essence; towards the deepest, central matters, and it's so hard to get there in life. Even with conversations, with your closest of friends, it's very hard to go to the heart of the matter. As soon as you open a book of good poems, you're there in that vibrating little place."

Ms. Krauss received her B.A. from Stanford. How did she decide upon a West Coast university?

"Oh, it was the most exotic place that I could imagine. I visited first and that was my first time ever in California. I got off the plane. I still remember the shuttle bus to the hotel near the campus where I was staying. The windows were open, and there was this incredible smell of flowers. I was sure that this was paradise, and why wouldn't I go to school here? It was a big fight for my parents to let me go, and I had to promise to come back to New York for every vacation, which I dutifully did. But it was this new freedom being out there and totally on my own. A beginning is what it felt like.

"In retrospect now I think if someone had whispered in my ear, 'You are going to be lucky enough to be a writer,' I would have said, 'Oh good, then I'll study evolutionary biology and oceanography and take dance classes.' But being a reader and loving books, majoring in English was the obvious thing, automatic almost."

We talked then about Ms. Krauss's new book. "People have asked me about The History of Love, if it's about writers or writing, and I always say, 'Yes.' But actually, in a way it's even more about reading and the power that a book can have in your life.

"I feel first like a reader and then like a writer. That's the order it happened, and that's the way I feel. If some force said, 'You have to choose. You never get to read again or you never get to write again,' I could make that decision in an instant. I would gladly give up writing if I could keep reading. It's too lonely an existence without it."

"Why did you decide not to get an M.F.A.?"

"I never had any inclination to study writing in any formal way. Maybe I knew instinctually that I wouldn't survive. I certainly wouldn't bloom in that environment. I need to feel alone when I'm writing and that what I'm doing is a private labor. I don't talk about my work with anyone while I'm doing it, and I certainly don't show it to anyone. It would shrivel up and die. It would be the end of things for me. Something essential would be lost. I mean, to me, it's a secret.

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