The author, most recently of ''This Is Your Mind on Plants'' frequently disagrees with a friend about novels : ''Arguing about books does not come between people, it brings them closer.''

What's the last great book you read?

.- ''The Overstory,'' by Richard Powers, is a book that, the further I am from reading it, looms larger and larger in my imagination. My uber-subject as a writer is our species' engagement with nature, and in ''The Overstory'' Powers has done something no one else has done [outside the science fiction] : Displace the human in favor of other species in a realistic narrative about people and the natural world.

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

.- Yes! ''Giovanni's Room,'' by James Baldwin. My mother recommended it, and I was astonished by how powerful it is. And by how a prominent Black writer could claim the freedom to write a novel in which race doesn't figure at all. Could that happen now?

Describe our ideal reading experience [when, where, what, how].

.- A Sunday afternoon in the recliner in my living room, reading a hardcover novel in the bright late - day California light.

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

.- David Lenson's ''On Drugs'' is the smartest book I've read on the role of psychoactive compounds in our lives and culture. Written during the height of the war on drugs, it starts from the premise that getting high is just something humans do, and the different ways we do it reflect differing attitudes towards authority, capitalism and culture.

Your work often highlights the intersection of agriculture and nature. Do you have favorite science and nature writers ?

.- Wendell Barry has been a formative influence ever since I began gardening and writing about our entanglement with nature back in the 1980s. He showed me a path out of the usual dualism - culture or nature - that has dominated American writing about nature since the Puritans. Plus he showed me how to construct a sturdy sentence.

This is a great moment for natural history writing. Merlin Sheldrake's ''Entangled Life'' and Andrea Wulf's biography of Alexander von Humboldt, ''The Invention of Nature,'' were both full of revelations as well as gorgeous prose.

What do you read when you're working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

.- There are two distinct phases. While I'm researching and reporting on a book, I'm reading all sorts of stuff - works of history, science and philosophy that shed light on the subject at hand. But as soon as I start drafting a chapter, I stop reading anything that bears directly on the subject and start reading fiction, exclusively.

At that point I don't want to take in any more information and I do want the rhythms of great prose to be the last thing I take in before falling asleep. I think it helps with the next day's writing. Plus, getting to read fiction purely for pleasure is the carrot I hold out for myself as a reward for the work of reporting and writing.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? 

.- I have a good friend whose taste in fiction is diametrically opposed to mine, to the point where If he hates a well-reviewed novel, I'm more likely to pick it up, rather than less, because the odds are I'll like it. We'll argue, nut arguing about books does not come between people, it brings them closer.

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

.- Probably the fact that the coffee break was invented, or formalized, at a neck-tie company in Denver in the 1950s as a solution to a problem with quality control and productivity. The idea that an employer gives you time off to consume a drug the company provides free of charge should tell you all you need to know about the ties between capitalism and caffeine.

I learned about this in a terrific work of history published last year : ''Coffeeland,'' by Augustine Sedgewick.

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

.- I loved boy series like the Hardy Boys, but had a serious thing for Pippi Longstocking.

How have your reading habits changed over time?

.- I would say I have less patience for lousy prose, which I used to put up with if I wanted some information or ideas.

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

.- The very idea makes me slightly nauseous. All writers? Much better to mix it up, add a painter, a scientist, maybe an entrepreneur. But I always wanted to be at the table with Philip Roth, who was a neighbor in Connecticut I never summoned the courage to invite over. Allegedly he was a hilarious dinner guest.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

.- ''War and Peace.'' It will happen this summer. Or next.

The World Students Society thanks author Michael Pollan.


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