The author, whose new novel is ''Commitment,'' doesn't organize her books : ''I should. I want to. ''There are tall towers of books on the floor of my bedroom.''

.-  What books are on your night stand?

On my night stand? They're crowded out by 15 pairs of reading glasses! Behind a lidded cup of licorice tea, there's a selection of Emily Dickinson poems, spilled-on-paperback ''Selected Poems,'' by Adam Zagajewski, ''What the Living Do,'' by Marie Howe, ''The Beauty of the Husband,'' by Anne Carson -

And Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf. And ''The Spinoza of Market Street,'' by Issac Basgevis Singer. I've been craving Singer stories lately.

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

The last great books I've read are great books I've reread. ''War and Peace,'' ''Middlemarch,'' '' To the Lighthouse.'' I feel ''Great Expectations'' coming on.

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

I'm reading Cather's ''My Antonia'' for the first time. It was published nine years before ''To the Lighthouse.''

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

Truly badly written, no.

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

A lazy day. Nothing due. Home, with food in the house. No plans. My dog asleep nearby. Wordless music in the background, or Marian Anderson singing lieder 

[ I don't understand German ]. I like rain. I like isolation.

But it hardly matters.

I can read Henry James in a dim room near the ocean on a beach day without feeling I'm missing life.

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

I don't think I have a favorite book that no one else has heard of. The books I read and move get passed on, and that's also how I find books. That being said, there's a vast difference between books one has heard of and books not many people have read.

By that count, it's worth calling attention to ''The Art of Asylum-Keeping,'' the first book by the Bancroft Prize winner Nancy Tomes, which traces the founding of psychiatry as a discipline and reminds us how relatively recently we kept mentally people chained in basements or caged outside, with the belief that they, ''like animals'' were not sensitive to extreme heat or cold. Animals are also sensitive, as any dog owner knows.

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

''Middlemarch'' I once wrenched a promise from a young fiance to read it. The marriage ended more than a decade later, with the novel still unread. I tried a second time. Certain men are constitutionally incapable of reading one of the greatest novels ever written.

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

Sexuality among older people. Falling in love with people who are not beautiful.

.- What moves you most in a work of literature?

Saying goodbye forever to the being whom you love most. 

The border between realism and the afterlife.

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

A tiny book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. My mother gave it to me when I was a child.

.- Have your reading tastes changed over time?

I certainly hope so.The first time I encountered Virginia Woolf, for example, I felt a sort of visceral class anger.

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

I'd invite my former teachers Seamus Heaney, Tom Gunn and Josephine Miles. It would be wonderful to know them as an adult.

.- Disappointed, overrated, just not good. Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I put down lots of books without finishing or liking them, but I sometimes come back to them later and discover that I'd missed everything. I once told my Columbia graduate classmates, who were undoubtedly embarrassed for me, that Clarissa Dalloway was a rich silly wife. 

.- What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

No one should be ashamed of what they haven't read. Anyone who claims they've read everything is lying.That being said, I could have made better use of the hours I spent reading serial mysteries from the Stratemeyer syndicate.

I didn't even read them for the mysteries; I read them for the feel and texture of the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew's family lives.

.- What are you planning on reading next?

Besides the 11th draft of my next novel? You tell me.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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