What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” which my grandmother gave me when I was 9 years old and very impressionable. These were surely the books that inspired me to write, and Alice is the protagonist with whom I’ve most identified over the years. Her motto is, like my own, “Curiouser and curiouser!”
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Our great American tragic-epic, Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous “leader,” the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry. And to balance this all-male adventure, “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.”
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I was trained to consider “disappointment” of this sort a character flaw of my own, a failure to comprehend, to appreciate what others have clearly appreciated. My first attempt at reading, for instance, D.H. Lawrence was a disappointment — I wasn’t old enough, or mature enough, quite yet; now, Lawrence is one of my favorite writers, whom I’ve taught in my university courses many times. Another initial disappointment was Walt Whitman, whom I’d also read too young (I know, it’s unbelievable, how could anyone admit to have been “disappointed” in Walt Whitman? Please don’t send contemptuous e-mails).