What are you reading?
“Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. My wife gave it to me. Basically, [the author] asks the question, ‘Why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs and Incas instead of the other way ’round?’ He’s an anthropologist, and he answers from an anthropological point of view, looking at the way people spread out from Africa years ago, with Europe and the Middle East being settled before Australia and the New World. Basically, people had a head start: domesticating animals, coming up with defenses against diseases, developing technology. And so the Spanish, with 120 soldiers, were able to defeat 80,000.”
Compare it to other books you’ve read.
“I read Diamond’s Collapse, which was about why some societies are able to maintain themselves for centuries and others are very quick to die out. Say, why the Vikings didn’t make it in Greenland but the Inuit did.”
Do you have a favorite author?
“I like a couple of books by Sinclair Lewis — he’s the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was very American, and although he wrote his books in the ’20s, they would be relevant today. I liked Elmer Gantry — it was a good book about religion.”
What book has been most life-changing for you?
“I wouldn’t say it was life-changing, but I read Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, which was about conditions in Boston’s inner-city schools. And after that, I taught at a school in New York for a while. It was interesting that there could be a system that was so screwed up.”
Do you read any newspapers or magazines?
“I subscribe to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. I like The New Yorker a little better. I like the Malcolm Gladwell articles — I’m reading one of his books now. He’s always asking interesting questions and analyzing things in an interesting way. In The Atlantic, I sometimes think the articles by Sandra Tsing Loh are kind of over-the-top — like, ‘I’m going to write this because I write for The Atlantic, and look at how interesting and cool I am for having this idea.’ She writes about marriage, and she cheated on her husband and he left her, and now she’s living amongst friends. She writes about reading to her kids in the car because she has nowhere to go, and it’s, like, ‘Okay, that’s all well and good because you write for The Atlantic and you can afford these things.’ There was a cartoon in The New Yorker where someone says, ‘She’s a bad mother who says she’s a bad mother but really thinks she’s a good mother.’ I thought, Ooh, that’s directed right at her.”
Do you talk to your friends about reading?
“Mostly my wife. We just moved from Anchorage, and we went to one book club there. When I was a teacher, I had a book club with another teacher; we’d go to the bar and drink beer and talk about the book.”
Do you ever get into heated debates?
“Mostly it’s nice — ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it that way…’ But when we read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, I said, ‘Wow, this guy — it’s bad what he did’” (i.e., fabricating details in a memoir). “And this girl was, like, ‘I don’t think it’s that bad.’ But when I read it, I said, ‘This isn’t true. You don’t do these things and then write about it and act like you’re a good guy. It just isn’t true.’”