03 November 2010

Josh Karlen: The WORMBOOK Interview

Being a nosy reader as always I pestered LOST LUSTRE author Josh Karlen with a few questions about what he had been reading lately.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I was deeply immersed in memoir, autobiography, and personal essays while I was writing my book, so the most recent books I've enjoyed have been in these fields, rather than fiction.

I recently re-read after many years Alfred Kazin's WALKER IN THE CITY and rediscovered how extraordinary the descriptive prose is about tenement New York and specifically from the perspective of boyhood. To my mind, Kazin wonderfully pushes descriptiveness to the very limit of what the sentence will bear, and then stops. Its also a fearlessly soulful and tender book.

I've also recently enjoyed Annie Dillard's AMERICAN CHILDHOOD and Rebecca Solnit's A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST for the sheer wonderful writing. And Fitzgerald's THE CRACK-UP. In fact, I've been dipping into Fitzgerald again and finding again how truly great a stylist he was, and what a warm and decent and razor-sharp intelligence shines through his best work.

What was your favorite book when you were 12?

I can't remember what I was reading at that precise age, but generally in the years before adolescence I read TOM SAWYER and HUCK FINN and TREASURE ISLAND and enjoyed them immensely.

What book that you read can you confidently say changed your life?

I'm not sure there was one single book I could name for such a strong impact. I can name a few books that changed the way the way I think about what good writing is, and so they in effect changed my perception the world.

When I was in my teens and starting to write, Hemingway, predictably enough, upended the way I thought about how to write prose. And Conrad, Jack London, Melville made an enormous impression because they presented a whole new range of possibilities of how to live one's life, how to forge a new destiny. In my case, this led me to go to the Amazon on a silly adventure at age 18, so in a sense these authors did change my life in a concrete way.

In college, I remember the absolute shock when I first read Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER, which again upended my ideas of what good writing is both in style and substance--it was an explosion. In my twenties, Orwell's exquisite essays did the same, showing me the power of non-fiction, expertly handled.

I'm not sure any single book could be said to changed my life, but I think strings of books, taken together, combine to open up new ways of thinking, provide examples of how to approach the world as a writer, as a person. For instance, the books of Conrad, London and Melville, or the long list of books of essayists I've read the last few years have had a cumulative effect or opening new avenues of how to look at the world as a writer--and therefore as a person. They are the same thing.

What's the last book you put down without finishing?

I wouldn't wish to identify a specific book that didn't grab me, especially since I often put down books without finishing them. That's in part because as a working parent in NYC, I'm lucky if I have time to finish the newspaper each day. I'm also increasingly impatient with books to either get to the point or, if not, to write in such a way I find too compelling in thought or description to pull away from. Few books grab me that way.

What is your favorite place to read?

I don't have a single favorite place to read--I enjoy reading at home, but I suppose I enjoy reading outside most of all--in a park, on a beach, on a porch, or by a pool. Any place relatively quiet in the sun where I can stretch out and have a soda or coffee. The nice thing about reading outside is that you can take a break and have a swim or throw a ball around with the kids, and then go back to the book refreshed.

Who or what do you think most influences what you read, and why?

When I was younger I preferred fiction, though now I read more essays and memoirs. I still enjoy fiction, but these days, I want essential truths placed right up front and discussed. Life is too short to waste on extraneous issues unless they are written about with extraordinary charm-- but when they are, its wonderful.

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