Why Sarah Bakewell Tends to Avoid Thrillers and Mysteries

What books are on your night stand?

There are no visible ones, because bed is one of the few places where I read e-books: They are so good on a low light setting in the dark. By this means, I’m currently drifting darkly down the Mississippi with Jonathan Raban’s “Old Glory” — my second reading of this sublime book.

My day stand (or coffee table) has a lot more books on it — ridiculous quantities, because I keep buying them, or borrowing them from libraries, and I tend to jump from book to book instead of following each one calmly to the end. Among others, I’ve been reading my way through the biographies by Victoria Glendinning: of Jonathan Swift, Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Bowen and others. She’s so good: Every page is full of the sharp, tasty details that make a biography absorbing, as well as interesting thoughts on what these details reveal about the subject.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Old Glory” is passing one test of greatness, which is whether you can read it again a year or two after the first time, and be just as enthralled as before — or more so.

A great book for me recently has been Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” which I started during the pandemic and have slowly continued. I’d tried bits before, but this time he got me, partly because I paid close attention to the original language, much helped by footnotes and glosses. It has been sheer joy, not just for the hilarity and variety and the insight into medieval life, but for that glorious language. “Stint thy clappe!” (“Stop your gabble!”) is something I’m never going to say to Chaucer. My favorite character is, of course, the Wife of Bath, with her many husbands, her gay scarlet clothes and the young clerk she fancies because of his fine legges and feet. She is also well read, able to cite bookish authorities when she’s arguing with men. I’m looking forward to reading Marion Turner’s new “biography” of her, “The Wife of Bath.”

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Yes: Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones,” which I enjoyed a lot. Also, this may not count, but I just read Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and was delighted by its witty narrative voice as well as by its conjuring of an eerie underworld. The reason it may not count is that I must surely have already read it in my childhood or teens. Mustn’t I? Or did I just listen to the prog-rock concept album by Rick Wakeman? Hard to be sure.

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

It’s either reading on a train, or in a pub. My ideal scenario starts with going into a used bookstore and finding something wonderful by pure serendipity, then taking it off somewhere to start reading it straightaway. It’s better than taking it home and having to add it to the pile with all the other exciting, serendipitous purchases I’ve made in the past and not read yet.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

That’s asking for trouble; whatever I say someone will have heard of it, and will think it’s as common as muck. But I’ll risk it, with a book I discovered by the used-bookstore/pub method. It’s by David Karp, goes under the variant titles of “One” and “Escape to Nowhere,” and appeared in 1953 during the high era of American existentialist paranoia. The hero, a professor, lives in a society that has mysteriously infused deep conformity of mind into all its citizens. But here’s the twist: The professor himself has no idea that he is anything other than totally conformist too, until the authorities arrest him because they detect some sign of individualism of which even he is unaware. Unpleasantness ensues, in the usual dystopian tradition — except that it goes a step further, right into the depths of the subjective psyche, adding extra vortices of self-doubt.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I am in awe of those who can lucidly communicate scientific subjects to an eager but somewhat dim general reader (i.e. me). Recent authors who astound me with their clarity, humor and enthusiasm for their subject include Katie Mack, who wrote about the end of the universe in “The End of Everything,” Helen Czerski, whose “Storm in a Teacup” is a revelation for someone like myself who failed to learn basic physics at school, and Ed Yong, with his two exquisite books on microorganisms and on animal senses: “I Contain Multitudes” and “An Immense World.” There are many other writers I admire too, in different fields. But anyone who can write so appealingly about scientific complexities deserves the hats-off prize, in my view.

Who writes especially well about philosophy for a lay audience?

Julian Baggini and Nigel Warburton are two philosophers who excel at communicating concepts and conundrums in an engaging, lucid way. I also love “Witcraft,” by Jonathan Rée, an account of English-language philosophy from the 16th to 20th centuries — using a definition of philosophy wide enough to include such writers as Shakespeare and George Eliot. It’s a book you can immerse yourself in and return to repeatedly, and full of wit in every sense.

Do you have any comfort reads?

I do; Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” comes to mind.

If I’m struggling to get to sleep, I find anything with strong visual imagery is good, because it takes over the brain so comprehensively. This applies even if the imagery is horror-movie stuff. For some months, my late-night read was Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove”; its sequence of suffocating dust storms, cattle stampedes, and people meeting their deaths in water writhing with deadly snakes just soothed me right off to dreamland every time.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

A noise-reducing surface added to a British motorway was made using pulped romance novels. A song recorded by George Formby Jr. with the title “Bless ’Em All” was an old First World War soldiers’ song, except that the verb in the original chorus was not “bless.” The jurors in the “Lady Chatterley” trial had to read the novel, but were not allowed to take it home, so their room was furnished with leather armchairs to enable them to read in situ. Cleopatra was a billiards player (or so says Shakespeare). The word “tragedy” in Greek meant “goat song,” though whether this was because the actors dressed as goats or because competition-winners received a goat as a reward is still up for debate. The stars, if seen from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, don’t twinkle.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I avoid nothing, though I am wary of tightly plotted thrillers and whodunits because — never mind guessing the solution — I often can’t understand that solution even when it’s explained at the end.

On the other hand, I am a fan of science fiction, even when the science involved is beyond me. I like the hard stuff: I recently reread Robert L. Forward’s “Dragon’s Egg,” which does an amazing job of imagining what life on the surface of a neutron star might be like. (Short answer: very flat, and extremely fast-moving.) But I also like such fantastical authors as Cordwainer Smith (in real life a C.I.A. psychological warfare expert), whose stories are built around such delightful nonsense as spaceship pilots who steer ships manned by cats through telepathic contact. Somehow, he makes you believe it.

I love travel books, especially those by opinionated, charismatic writers like Rebecca West or Dervla Murphy. I love ancient literary gossip, music books, eccentric memoirs by ghastly people — bring it all on!

How do you organize your books?

Most of them are organized with sinister precision by genre and author, except that biographies are by subject and history is roughly chronological. I can’t help it; I’m a librarian. Not only that, but I tend to spot anomalies. If someone has moved a book out of order, I fix it with my gimlet eye almost as soon as I walk in the room. Of course, this leads to people moving my books around for fun, to see if I’ll notice. (And sometimes I don’t.)

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

Every year, I receive a book of stories, memoirs, drawings or clerihews, as well as a wall-calendar of splendid literary caricatures, all created by my generous and gifted friend in Seattle, Brad Craft. Nothing can ever beat that.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

As a child I read books manically, greedily and repeatedly, and loved anything with an animal in it. My two favorite series were Willard Price’s gung-ho stories about two brothers collecting wild creatures for their father’s zoo, and the “Adventure” series by Enid Blyton, which sent four children and a parrot into dangerous situations up a river, out to sea, inside a hollow mountain and away with a traveling circus.

By my early teens, I was grabbing any book for adults that came within my reach, and making whatever skewed, half-baked sense of it I could. Woolf’s “The Waves,” Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Luke Rhinehart’s “The Dice Man,” David Niven’s “The Moon’s a Balloon,” a bit of Shakespeare — it all went into the ravenous maw. I do remember being more perplexed than usual by “The Sex-Life Letters: Fascinating Correspondence From Today’s Men and Women About the Variety of Their Sexual Attitudes and Experiences,” edited by Harold and Ruth Greenwald. I think that had animals in it too.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I’ve long liked both philosophy and biography, but the balance keeps shifting toward the biography end. In my 20s, a night in with Heidegger was my idea of fun. Now, given a choice between contemplating the being of beings and finding out, for example, that Vita Sackville-West’s mother once papered an entire room with used postage stamps — well, it’s the stamps every time.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I think Mary Wollstonecraft, Bertrand Russell and Zora Neale Hurston would make a lively and enlightening combination, though they would probably all talk at once.

What do you plan to read next?

A friend has just recommended Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus,” so that’s in prime position. I’ve got my eye on more novels by Compton Mackenzie, because I so much enjoyed his “Vestal Fire,” a piece of comic bizarrerie set among the sexual outcasts of an island like Capri before the First World War. But who knows what I may find myself reading in the pub before then?

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