I spend more time thinking about what books to take with me when I travel than I spend thinking about what clothes to pack, and I’m pretty thoughtful about clothes. Reading is central to my life, both professionally and personally. I have long lists written down of books I want to read, both for work and play, and those two lists overlap. I don’t get involved in book groups because I don’t want someone else picking books for me. I sometimes worry that I read too much.
What books would you recommend?
We all want other people to love our favorite books. When I worked in a bookstore after college, I would try to sell everyone who came in the door Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, whether they came in for a spy thriller or a book on business management. Now I try only to recommend books to someone if I think they are a good fit for that person. I think everyone in the world should read twelve Shakespeare plays and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but even I wouldn’t recommend those to someone I didn’t think would enjoy them.
Do you remember the first book you read or any childhood favorites?
The first book I read all by myself was called Bears, Bears, Bears. Bears on stairs, bears with hair, millionaire bears. You get the idea. I was thrilled, and I still have that little book. As a child, I read and reread The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis was also an important scholar of Renaissance literature, and later when I read Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene, I recognized that he had rewritten scenes from those epics for the Narnia books. I suspect I specialized in Renaissance literature because it already seemed familiar to me when I studied it in college.
Have you always liked to read? Was there ever a person in your life who really inspired you to read?
I don’t remember the precise moment when I became a really avid reader. My father was in the army, and we moved a lot when I was a child. Books are an excellent way for the new kid who hasn’t made friends yet to occupy herself. They’re cheap or free–my mother took me and my brother to the library every two weeks. Lots of adults encouraged me–a school librarian pointed me to the Madeleine L’Engle books, another passion; my third grade teacher loaned me his book of Swedish fairytales; my grandmother read and told me the Brer Rabbit folktales.
Did you read any interesting/memorable books when you were in college?
I took five classes on Shakespeare in college. I latched on to Shakespeare and clung like grim death. I had a summer job at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and I was a volunteer ticket-taker for a free Shakespeare in the Park performance series. And yet I was dumbfounded recently when a student asked me why I like Shakespeare so much. Because he’s awesome! I need to come up with a better answer. I decided to write my dissertation on something not-Shakespeare (okay, one chapter was on The Tempest) because I thought I should take a broader view of Renaissance literature. But I’m back to my first love now.