Tom Perrotta: By the Book

What’s been the best book you’ve read all year?

This hardly counts as breaking news, but I reread “The Scarlet Letter” over the summer and was completely blown away. It was required reading that I’d hated in high school and had successfully avoided ever since. What I realized this time around is that it was probably the introduction that broke my spirit.  The windy preamble called “The Custom-House” was apparently well loved in Hawthorne’s time, but it’s way too long, almost 40 pages in the edition I read, and pretty much impenetrable to the modern reader. Once you get past it — my advice is to skip it completely — the novel itself is shockingly strange and beautiful, with a narrative momentum and emotional intensity that caught me completely by surprise. But I guess there’s something suitably puritanical about the whole package — pain first, pleasure later. I will go as far as to say that “The Scarlet Letter” is a better novel than “Moby-Dick,” even if it isn’t nearly as sprawling and ambitious. Its only real competition is “The Great Gatsby,” another short, nearly perfect book that illuminates something essential about the American character.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I don’t do much reading during the day. I like to read in the evening, preferably while sitting on my screened porch, with a soundtrack of bugs and frogs and passing cars. Reading on planes and trains can be a lifesaver as well. I remember once getting stuck on the runway somewhere, a three-hour delay before takeoff, and losing myself inside James Kelman’s “How Late It Was, How Late,” a peculiar novel about a small-time criminal slowly adjusting to blindness, written in a thick Scottish dialect. The book is amazing, but it’s nearly indecipherable in places and moves at a glacial pace — pages and pages where the main character gropes his way around his apartment, trying to figure out where everything is — and I don’t think I’d ever have had the patience to stick with it if I hadn’t been trapped in a traveler’s limbo, with only that one book to keep me company.

Who are your favorite novelists? 

I’ve gone through numerous phases over the course of my reading life — existentialism in high school, magical realism in college, short fiction in grad school, the 19th-century novel in my 30s, a year or so where I only wanted to read P. G. Wodehouse — but there are a handful of writers I keep returning to, the ones who form my personal canon: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Balzac, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Willa Cather, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, among others.

What’s your favorite genre? Any guilty pleasures? 

I’m addicted to crime and espionage novels, which I mostly consume as audiobooks. There’s something so primal about the combination of a gripping story and a voice in your ear — it reminds me of the way I read as a kid, hungrily, oblivious to my surroundings. But there’s nothing remotely guilty about the pleasure. The writers I like in these genres — Richard Stark, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, John le Carré, Graham Greene, Kate Atkinson — are all remarkable artists in their own right.

Are there particular kinds of stories you’re drawn to? Ones you steer clear of?

This may mark me as a certain kind of philistine, but I prefer storytellers to virtuoso stylists. I’ve never really connected with Nabokov, for example. The first few chapters of “Lolita” are breathtakingly good, but the narrative bogs down pretty quickly. I had to force myself to finish the book, and by the end I could barely remember the excitement I’d felt at the beginning — all that sparkling wordplay just got exhausting after a while. I’m also pretty wary of self-consciously “experimental” writing, though I realize that experimentation and boundary — pushing are essential parts of any living tradition. It’s hard to imagine how groundbreaking a book like “Don Quixote” must have felt at the time of it publication, though it seems so familiar and inevitable now. 

Do you have a favorite suburban novel?

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