What books are on your night stand?
On my night stand? They’re crowded out by 15 pairs of reading glasses! Behind a lidded cup of licorice tea, there’s a selection of Emily Dickinson poems, a spilled-on paperback “Selected Poems,” by Adam Zagajewski, “What the Living Do,” by Marie Howe, “The Beauty of the Husband,” by Anne Carson, and Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf. And “The Spinoza of Market Street,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I’ve been craving Singer stories lately.
What’s the last great book you read?
The last great books I’ve read are great books I’ve reread. “War and Peace,” “Middlemarch,” “To the Lighthouse.” I feel “Great Expectations” coming on.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I’m reading Cather’s “My Ántonia” for the first time. It was published nine years before “To the Lighthouse.”
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Truly badly written, no.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
A lazy day. Nothing due. Home, with food in the house. No plans. My dog asleep nearby. Wordless music in the background, or Marian Anderson singing lieder (I don’t understand German). I like rain. I like isolation.
But it hardly matters.
I can read Henry James in a dim room near the ocean on a beach day without feeling I’m missing life.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I don’t think I have a favorite book that no one else has heard of. The books I read and love get passed on, and that’s also how I find books. That being said, there’s a vast difference between books one has heard of and books not many people have read.
By that count, it’s worth calling attention to “The Art of Asylum-Keeping,” the first book by the Bancroft Prize winner Nancy Tomes, which traces the founding of psychiatry as a discipline and reminds us how relatively recently we kept mentally ill people chained in basements or caged outside, with the belief that they, “like animals,” were not sensitive to extreme heat or cold. Animals are also sensitive, as any dog owner knows.
Your new novel, “Commitment,” is about the way a single mother’s depressive breakdown affects her children’s lives. What writers are especially good on mental illness?
Oliver Sacks, who worked for decades at Bronx Psychiatric Center, started me on this book. His 2009 essay “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum” read — to me — like an elegy. The piece was written as the introduction to a haunting book of photographs, “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Health Hospitals,” by Christopher Payne. Dr. Sacks traced the complicated, sad, paradoxical history of how we treat mentally ill people, contrasting the long era of institutions with what happened afterward. The idealistically founded state hospitals, through overcrowding and underfunding, sometimes became snake pits, described in accounts of the time, but sometimes, he argued, they offered sanctuary, a smaller world for those who could not live easily in this one. The book opened a vista for me, an image of an alternate life for someone I deeply loved.
Then, I came across a slender book of Joshua Lutz’s photographs, called “Hesitating Beauty,” which includes pictures of the photographer’s mother (who eventually had to be hospitalized) in stages of her life — from her beautiful youth to her later days as a patient, wearing a wristband that reads Haldol.
Another odd lovely book is called “The Lives They Left Behind,” in which the authors, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, along with the photographer Lisa Rinzler, consider suitcases left behind in a state hospital attic. The suitcases remained because their owners never departed. They died in the wards and were buried in the hospital cemetery.
Elyn R. Saks’s memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold,” is the most hopeful book I’ve read by a person with a severe mental illness. It’s a romantic vision: Elyn as the indomitable Nancy Drew of schizophrenia.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
“Middlemarch.” I once wrenched a promise from a young fiancé to read it. The marriage ended more than a decade later, with the novel still unread. I tried a second time. Certain men are constitutionally incapable of reading one of the greatest novels ever written.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” I learned not to overvalue endings and to counter the human tendency to fear loss more than valuing gain.
Dr. Thomas Kirkbride’s book (which is also an architectural plan), “On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane,” includes hundreds of details (from the height of ceilings to soiled clothes hoppers) that went directly into the planning of most of the state mental hospitals built in the second half of the 19th century.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Sexuality among older people. Falling in love with people who are not beautiful.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Saying goodbye forever to the being whom you love most.
The border between realism and the afterlife.
How do you organize your books?
I don’t. I should. I want to. There are tall towers of books on the floor of my bedroom that I’m reading right now for the novel I’m writing.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Too many to name without forgetting someone who means the world to me and then feeling terrible.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Several. “Married Love,” by the British paleobotanist Marie Stopes, which was one of the first books to discuss birth control openly. I found it in a giveaway box. It’s a manual for couples about how to have a happy marriage by cultivating a satisfying sex life. When Stopes tried to publish “Married Love,” academic presses and mainstream publishers thought the subject too controversial. It was eventually financed by a Manchester businessman and birth control activist (whom Stopes later married) in 1918 and immediately sold out. U.S. Customs banned the book as obscene until 1931, when Judge John M. Woolsey (the judge who lifted the ban on James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” allowing for its U.S. publication) overturned the decision. “Married Love” is somewhat technical; it argues that women’s sexual desire rises during the period of days before menstruation, but it also advocates a more equal relationship between partners. In a 1935 survey of American academics, to pick the 25 most influential books of the previous 50 years, one respondent ranked it ahead of Einstein’s “Relativity” and Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” and John Maynard Keynes’s “The Economic Consequences of the Peace.”
I also own “Beauty Over Forty” and “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.”
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A tiny book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. My mother gave it to me when I was a child.
Have your reading tastes changed over time?
I certainly hope so. The first time I encountered Virginia Woolf, for example, I felt a sort of visceral class anger.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I’d invite my former teachers Seamus Heaney, Thom Gunn and Josephine Miles. It would be wonderful to know them as an adult.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I put down lots of books without finishing or liking them, but I sometimes come back to them later and discover that I’d missed everything. I once told my Columbia graduate school classmates, who were undoubtedly embarrassed for me, that Clarissa Dalloway was a rich silly wife.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
No one should be ashamed of what they haven’t read. Anyone who claims they’ve read everything is lying. That being said, I could have made better use of the hours I spent reading serial mysteries from the Stratemeyer syndicate. I didn’t even read them for the mysteries; I read them for the feel and texture of the Bobbsey Twins’ and Nancy Drew’s family lives.
What do you plan to read next?
Besides the 11th draft of my next novel? You tell me.