The author, whose new novel is ''The Last White Man,'' is making his way through literature chronologically : ''I began with the Sumerian ' Instructions of Shuruppak,' first written in cunei-form on clay tablets."

.- What books are on your night stand?

''The Story of a Brief Marriage,'' by Anuk Arudpragasam, ''The Bad Guys in They're Bee-hind You!'' [ Bad Guys No 14], by Aaron Blabey, '' Principles for Dealing With the Changing World Order,'' by Ray Dalio, and '' The Last Children of Tokyo,'' by Yoko Tawada.

There are many more books on my wife's night stand. Although it is precisely the same size as mine, mysteriously it also seems to be larger. She reads much more quickly than I do.

We often share books, and I consider some of those on her side as also being, in a sense, on mine, but it is uncertain if she entirely feels the same, so I have not ventured to list them here.

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

About five years ago, alongside my more contemporary reading, I decided to read from back to front, historically speaking.

I started with the oldest surviving texts deemed by the sages of Wikipedia and other such online sources to be of the highest value and worked my way forward, intentionally reading chronologically rather than by language or '' civilization '' or genre.

I began with the Sumerian '' Instructions of Shuruppak, '' first written in cunei-form on clay tablets around 4,600 years ago [ It opens : '' In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights ........  '' ], made my way through Egypt's '' The Maxims of Ptahhotep '' and various of the Pyramid Texts, including the '' Cannibal Hymn,'' reached  the Sumerian poems referred to as 

'' Enhedunnah's Hymns ''

[ I was truck by the fact that the first named author in human history was a woman, Enheduanna, and that I did not know this, and indeed that I had never heard of her or her poems before, which raised all sorts of questions in my mind, as it is perhaps now doing in yours], and eventually read ''Gilgamesh,'' written over 4,000 years ago, and while '' Gilgamesh '' is ot exactly a novel [ it is an epic told in verse ], it certainly has much to teach us about narrative fiction, and I wish I had read it before and alongside the ''Odyssey,'' which I read in my first semester in college. They make for quite a pairing.

.- Your new novel is an allegory of racial politics and identity. What writers do you especially admire on the subject of race?

There are far too many to list here. I will just mention five who got me thinking as a young man : Toni Morrison and Cornel West [ both of whom I was fortunate enough to study with in college], and James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe and Edward Said [ all of whom I read and admired around that time].

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

I learned that if you read '' The Great Gatsby '' aloud to your 11-year-old daughter she might not want to stop and go to bed in the middle of a chapter, even if it is getting late.

.- Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

It is not for me to wish subjects on other authors, but I would like to offer an observation.

The dominant modes of mass-reproduced storytelling in our historical moment are the screen storytelling modes : film and, even more, television. By their very nature, these modes tend to emphasize what things look like and how people speak.

They also come to us more fully imagined : They present worlds that appear to be like the world we inhabit.

This suggests to me that literature might flourish by focusing on other things, perhaps less on physical description and dialogue, and perhaps more on how what we call reality is an interior construct, but above all on the possibilities that come from being only partially imagined in its transmitted state.

Written fiction looks nothing like the world it describes. The reader imagines that world from letters and spaces and punctuation marks. Literature, it seems to me, can thrive by opening up the space for co-creation on the part of the reader, by inviting the reader to imagine, by being the mode of story-telling that involves two people playing make-believe together, the reader an active shaper, a dancer in a dance, and not a viewer, seated, observing.

.- What's the best book you've ever received as a gift?

''Storia do Mogor; or, Moghul India 1653-1708, Vol II,'' by Niccolao Manucci, translated by William Irvine, printed in 1907, and was given to me by a friend on my birthday a hundred years later, when this friend noticed that I had referred to events described by Manucci during his 17th-century stay in India [and named a character after him] in my first novel.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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