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When Writers Pick Their Favorite Books

In a Q&A, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review's By the Book feature, talks about getting writers to talk about books, disappointed film flacks, and how the paper picks its winners.

Writer’s Note: Before we get started, I feel like I should go ahead and warn you: This interview mentions a lot of great books, so you may want to open your Amazon Wish List in another tab for easy toggling. You’re welcome.

The last truly great book Ira Glass read was Michael Lewis’s The Big Short. For Jeffrey Eugenides, it was Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. For J.K. Rowling, it was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Facebook honcho Sheryl Sandberg is a big fan of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Arnold Schwarzenegger really liked Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Junot Diaz liked Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers so much that he answered the “what’s the last truly great book you read” question with a long, heartfelt paragraph about it.

The distinctive element of the New York Times Book Review’s By the Book feature—each week a different writer answers a series of questions about books—is that many of the questions recur in interview after interview. Over the course of dozens and dozens of interviews, the feature has become a sort of Proust Questionnaire for the literary set, a way to get to know authors by comparing their answers on whether they prefer paper or e-books and what big-deal novel they’ve never read. More broadly, By the Book is a barometer of reading tastes, a way to metaphorically peer across the coffee shop and gawk the cover of whatever book Jonathan Franzen or Amy Tan is reading.

In a new book collecting 65 of the interviews, By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review, some writers reveal themselves to be exactly what you’d expect (Malcolm Gladwell describes never having read Tolstoy as a cultural experience in itself) and others not what you’d expect at all (James Patterson’s childhood idol was Peter Pan—Peter Pan!).

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Book Review editor Pamela Paul talks the about By the Book the weekly feature, By the Book the book, the process for picking the recent 100 Notable Books of the year, and how the New York Times Book Review continues to evolve its online presence.

When did you start the By the Book feature?

We started it in 2012.

Do you do most of them by email, by phone, or in person?

As a reporter, I don’t do email interviews at all. Email interviews have creeped into acceptability, but there’s a huge downside to them. You tend to get canned answers. With “By the Book,” I made an exception. It’s hard to remember off the top of your head the most formative reading experience you had as a child or the best short story you’ve ever read.

It doesn’t make sense to ask a writer or a musician, “What’s the best book about music you’ve ever read?” and then have them think the next day, “Oh, no. How could I have forgotten this seminal book?” We want our readers to get a considered answer, and I think these are the kinds of questions that involve a little reflection, so it’s all done done in writing.

Are most of the interviews expanded from the versions that ran in the Book Review?

The responses aren’t shortened or condensed at all. If I ask someone the best books of Civil War history and they give me three paragraphs, we want to run it in full. Even in the print edition, I use the full answer but I don’t use all of the questions and answers. The full Q-and-A runs online, and that’s what’s in the book. There are so many readers of the Book Review who still read it just in print and have never read the expanded interviews as they appeared on the website, so this is an opportunity for those people to see the full interviews for the first time. And for people who have seen them online, seeing them all in one place is a different kind of reading experience.

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Have you had to edit anything out of an interview because it was, I don’t know, lewd or just nuts?

We edit for two things: Accuracy, because it’s not a gotcha column and we’re not out to have someone miss the protagonist of Anna Karenina or screw up a title. And we change things for Times style; if somebody’s British and spells favourite with a “U,” we’re going to fix it to Times style.

My favorite answer to the question of what book the president should read is Dave Barry saying the president should read The Brothers Karamazov so he can tell him how it ends.

[Laughs.] Oh, yeah. The president books are very interesting. People usually name their own books.

And the David Halberstam book [The Best and the Brightest] came up a lot, I guess, with people thinking about Vietnam and Iraq.

Yes, and those answers will change over time as you see people answering to reflect what’s in the current headlines.

I didn’t see a Thomas Pynchon interview. When is that gonna happen?

You know, he is not the most accessible person. But I’ll have to say, I haven’t asked. You never know—some people have said yes that I didn’t expect.

Have any writers said they didn’t want to do it?

There have only been about five people who said no, so we’ve been really lucky. The opposite is more the problem—we have every slot filled for 2015 and some for 2016. I thought I would be going out to solicit people, and there so many people who want to be in there that I don’t get as much free space as I thought I would.

I wanted to ask if you were getting a lot of unsolicited Q-and-As from book publicists and writers.

Hugely. Movie studios and movie publicists are often disappointed. They’ll pitch me a month or six weeks before, and I’ll tell them they really need to come to me about a year ahead of time. There have been some major actors who wanted to be in it, and it’s just not possible to squeeze them in.

Because you want the interviews to be when a book is new or when someone has a new show?

Right, or when a new movie is released.

I saw the Bob Odenkirk interview on the website today, and I guess his show [AMC’s Better Call Saul] is about to start.

His show is about to start, and he has a book that came out from McSweeney’s a couple of weeks ago called A Load of Hooey.

The Jillian Tamaki drawings of each author are really great.

We looked at a number of illustrators who could do portraits. Our goal was to find someone who wasn’t going to do caricatures but would do real portraits that had a distinctive style but wasn’t doing it somewhere else. She illustrated a young adult graphic novel this year with her sister called This One Summer that has gotten excellent reviews.

It’s become one of those things that I know what it is when I see it, kind of like the dot drawings in The Wall Street Journal.

That’s what we aimed for.

She should start charging more now that you’re hooked, right?

[Laughs.] Let’s hope not! Hopefully, we treat her well!

Do you ask a lot of people in conversation the same things you ask in these interviews? Do you ask people in the subway or in the newsroom what books are on their nightstands?

I’m always asking people what they’re reading. That’s a book person question. Are you always asking people what they’re reading?

Oh, yeah. It aggravates my wife that I leer at people to see what book they’re reading. If they’re holding a book where I can’t see the cover, I’ll just bend down to get the right angle.

E-readers have made that incredibly difficult and taken away the fun of eavesdropping on people’s books in the subway.

I’m reading Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style right now, and one of the things he talks about is how reading is one of the best ways to become a better writer, and I wonder how much that’s been a part of developing your own writing style?

Oh, hugely. I absolutely think that the best way to learn how to write is to read. I’m not necessarily the best writer, but I’ve never taken a writing class. All I do is read.

I want to talk a bit about the Notable Books list that you recently announced. Can you tell me the basic selection process?

It’s a very secret formula! We start with every book we reviewed and we don’t consider books we did not review, so that narrows down the pool a little bit. Within that, we mostly consider books that were selected as Editors’ Choice, but not exclusively because there are instances in which we weren’t able to include every book we wanted.

And you’re picking a hundred books, which is a decent number.

It is a decent number, but when it gets down to selecting them it’s very hard. If we only did one book on every cover, that’s already 52 reviews. If we picked half the cover books—which we’re not going to—that’s already half the books before you think about all the other books in each issue.

Do you rely only on Book Review staff and your reviews, or do you include input from the newsroom, critical buzz, etc.?

No, it’s just the Book Review.

Since nobody on staff has read all of the books, how do you navigate that?

It’s a process of elimination. It’s like musical chairs. You just have to keep narrowing it down. And when you’re done with the hundred notables, which is difficult enough, you have to get it down to the top ten. It’s very hard.

Every year I see a lot of biographies of literary figures. Thinking 25 years in the future and how engaged novelists today are with readers on social media and at book events, are we going to see fewer solitary, hermetic writers who are doing their own thing?

I think there’s a wide range. You mentioned Thomas Pynchon; he’s not tweeting. Dave Eggers isn’t out there on social media. There are still a number of authors who maintain a fairly low profile or are intensely private. Michael Chabon isn’t on social media. People’s appreciation of international writers in America has gone up, and if those writers have an online life, it’s not necessarily in English. I still think literary biography is going to be big. Even if it is the people who are more out there, everybody has a public side and a private side.

This sounds like a first-world problem, but it’s hard to find time to read a book. There are so many books I want to read and can’t get to. I can barely keep up.

It’s not easy. Because I keep a record of everything I read, I can see how the demands of work and family have chipped away at my reading rate over the years. I look forward to retirement someday when I can just read all day.

Was there a book after you edited the collection that you finally decided you really needed to read?

I keep the book as a kind of annotated guide of recommendations. I have recently gone back and read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I just read it last week. I also recently read all of Dave Eggers’s novels to prepare for interviewing him last week in San Francisco. I go back and look at these interviews all the time.

How important is the podcast to what the Book Review is doing overall?

I’m often surprised by how many people listen to the podcast. When we do the podcast, we’re in this little room and have no sense of the audience like you do when you’re standing in front of people or posting things online. There was an interesting story recently in New York magazine about the resurgence in podcasts and how technology has enabled people to listen to them in the car when they would traditionally be listening to radio.

You mentioned that the longer versions of the By the Book interviews run online. Are you looking for other things to do online that you can’t do in print?

We have done some videos over the years. One of the most fun video interviews I got to do was when I was the children’s book editor and interviewed Jean De Brunhoff about the Babar books and got to do a video interview with Jane Goodall and the writers and illustrators of a couple of books about her that were geared toward children.

There are some interactive projects that we’re working on that I think will be cool when we get them off the ground. Also, when I became the editor for children’s books, I introduced a weekly online review, and I think that’s been a great addition for our coverage. With picture books, you’re able to show the visuals of the books in a way you can’t really do in print.

The Times likes to move people around a lot. Do you think you’ll be the next Tokyo bureau chief?

My two predecessors were each editor of the Book Review for nine years. If I get to stay for nine years, I’ll be very happy.