What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?
I’m rereading “The Portrait of a Lady,” which I do every few years to remind myself that there really is such a thing as elegance, in life and in prose — and to remember how much devastation can unfold around it. I am moved by Henry James’s ineffable sadness, the belief that human experience is full of loss, and that high morals don’t stand a chance. I don’t entirely agree with that point of view, but I find it galvanizing. I’ve also read a good bit of William James for research recently. I tend not to think that brevity is the soul of wit, and neither do the James brothers, so reading them in sequence makes me feel like a houseguest at a very congenial house.
If you had to name a favorite novelist, who would it be?
I have a soft spot for George Eliot. She achieves scope without ever sacrificing her devastating precision. Her psychological insight accumulates through perfectly observed details, without a trace of pomposity. The way she assembles multiple portraits is one of my great inspirations as I try to construct my own nonfiction. Virginia Woolf is my other favorite. I feel as if she is writing not simply about the mind, but about my mind. Her books are as visceral to me as music. I find that Woolf, like chocolate, requires rationing; I could easily become emotionally obese if I let myself consume her work too often.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
The J writer, or Yahwist, of the Torah. I’d want to ask him what he intended to be literal and what he intended to be figurative. And I’d point out that confusion around this question has had a toxic effect on the rest of history.
(To read the full interview, please visit the New York Times website.)