''Half my students had never read a Shakespeare play,'' says the historical novelist, whose latest book is ''Horse.'' ''That set my hair on fire.''

.- What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

I taught writing at Harvard last year and half my students had never read a Shakespeare play. That set my hair on fire.

.- What books are currently on your night stand?

Permanently, three slim volumes of a series called ''A Return to Poetry.'' In each, 10 notable Australians choose 10 favorite poems and say why those poems speak to them.

I dip into these books often and I'm sad they discontinued the series. Alongside them presently I have ''Worn,'' by Sofi Thanhauser, an engaging dive into the human and environmental cost of what we put on our backs; two novels, ''Master of the Revels,'' by Nicole Galland, and ''The Lioness,'' by Chris Bohjalian; and Gish Jen's new short stories, ''Thank You, Mr. Nixon.''

.- What's the last great book that you read?

I am still reeling from ''The Overstory,'' by Richard Powers.

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

Let me whisper this, because I am mortified : '' Middlemarch.''

.- Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

The ''Remembrance of Earth's Past'' trilogy, by Liu Cixin, is full of insight into everything from China's Cultural Revolution to why we have yet to experience first contact, and why we maybe shouldn't want to.

But there's a clunkiness to some of the sentences and I can't know if it's the writing or the translation. Alas, it's too late for me to learn Mandarin in order to get a definitive answer.

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

''No Man on Earth,'' by Walter Moody. The only other person I know who has read it is my son, because I pressed it on him.

.- What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

I think you could read both ''Gilead'' and ''Housekeeping,'' by Marilynne Robinson, as a young person, but you should do yourself a solid and read them again once you've had some tread worn off your tires.

.- Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

''Moby Dick,'' again. Despite Nathaniel Philbrick's persuasive essay on the virtue of the text, that whale just keeps eluding me.

.- What moves you most in a book?

Wit in all its guises. From Jane Austen to Andrew Sean Greer I love a book that makes me laugh while revealing deep truths about human nature. 

.- What will you read next?

'' All That She Carried '': The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,'' by Tiya Miles.

.- What's the most interesting thing that you learned from reading a book recently?

That the plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi, since you can't put a Latin ''i'' ending on a Greek word. Just one of the interesting things I learned from '' The Soul of an Octopus,'' by Sy Montgomery.

 .- Describe your ideal reading experience.

A cold winter day, a steaming lavender-scented bath, any good back, no need to be anywhere else for an hour or so, and no guilt about wasting hot water.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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