Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the new What He's Poised to Do (Harper Perennial). He invites readers to write letters to fictional characters at Letters With Character.
what are you reading now
Raymond Chandler. Whenever I finish a book or have a book published, I go back and reread Chandler, because it's so good. It's problematic in some ways -- the depiction of race in Farewell, My Lovely, which is what I'm reading now, doesn't really harmonize with the modern brain -- but the language is nearly perfect. At one point Marlowe says "the more I know the fewer cups I break." Great. And at another point he is looking at some fancy piece of modern sculpture, and the guy who owns it says to him, "I picked it up just the other day. Asta Dial's Spirit of Dawn." Marlowe says, "I thought it was Klopstein's Two Warts On a Fanny." I wasn't drinking milk when I read that, but if I had been, I would have spit it all over the page.
classic you’ve been meaning to read
Well, my new book, What He's Poised to Do, is a set of linked short stories all about letters and letter-writing, so I tried to read a number of epistolary novels so that I wasn't completely stupid on the topic. Young Werther, of course, and John Berger's From A to X, and John Barth's Letters. The one I have always wanted to read, though, is Richardson's Pamela. I have started it a bunch of times but never gotten more than 200 pages into it before I began skipping around, and it's about six hundred. It is sleazy and claustrophobic and beautifully moralistic, and I want to finish it off.
last book you finished in a single sitting
I found Tom Robbins's Still Life with Woodpecker in the street. Someone had thrown it out. I remember reading it when I was fourteen or so and loving it, so I sat down and read it straight through. It was a strange experience, because it's dated on its own in a sense -- very much a book about culture and counter-culture and the end of the seventies -- but also dated in my mind. I did recover one of my favorite one-liners, which is that sharks are the criminals of the sea, and dolphins are the outlaws.
most treasured book in your collection
In my whole collection? So many for so many different reasons. I have a beat-up paperback of Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. I have galleys of books by friends that I treasure because I treasure the people. I have a first-edition Lolita whose value I am scared to research. I have the Grove Beckett box. My son made a book about sea life in elementary school. That book is great. I am finding this question impossible to answer.
book you borrowed and never returned
Oh, I know the answer to this one! A few years after college, I ran into a girl who was in my class in high school. She gave me her copy of Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe. I didn't return it. In fact, she made a point of contacting me and asking for it, and I think it just slipped my mind. At this point, the crime is nearly twenty years old.
strangest book you’ve ever read
Pierre Guyotat's Eden Eden Eden, from 1971, which is set in Algeria and in theory about civil war but really an inquiry into all matters of atrocity and obscenity -- violence, sex, the limits of language. It's a trip, and not a pleasant one. It was published, but then banned for sale to readers under 18, and a number of European intellectuals, including Italo Calvino, Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Boulez, and Maurice Blanchot tried unsuccessfully to get the ban lifted.
book you’ve planted on a coffee table to impress someone
Ha ha. I try to go in reverse. I have so many friends who are writers or who work in publishing that I try to stay fairly honest about what I'm reading, which is to say that I don't clean up when they're coming over, which means that they see that I am usually reading both "good" books and collections of old comic strips and record guides and all other kinds of nonsense.
if you could subscribe to only one literary journal
Probably it would be the New York Review of Books. I like the feel of it. I was at dinner with some people recently and they were saying that they love the experience of it, and I agreed, but I didn't want to jump in and say "I agree" like some kind of idiot. But I agree.
best thing you’ve read online recently
There is one article I reread and reread and reread, because it's a supremely wonderful piece of bad/weird writing. It's called "Ride the Sales Tornado: Become the Wizard of 'Awes'," and it's from Furniture World magazine.
most anticipated upcoming release
I am eager to read Keith Richards' memoir, even though I have modest expectations for it.
recommended reading list:
Epistolary or at Least Pseudo-Epistolary Fiction I Have Read and Liked
- Letters by John Barth
- Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Ada by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
- Black Box by Amos Oz
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
- Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee
- Summertime by J.M. Coetzee [interviews, not letters, but brilliant]