The British author, whose new book is ''Humanly Possible,'' tends to avoid mystery novels : ''Never mind guessing the solution - I often can't understand that solution even when it's explained.''

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

''Old Glory'' is passing one test of greatness, which is whether you can read it again a year or two after the first time, and be just as enthralled as before - or more so.

A great book for me recently has been Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales,'' which I started during the pandemic and have slowly continued. I'd tried bits before, but this time he got me, partly because I paid close attention to the original language, much helped by footnotes and glosses.

It has been sheer joy, not just for the hilarity and variety and the insight into medieval life, but for that glorious language. ''Stint thy clappe!'' [''Stop your gabble!''] is something I'm never going to say to Chauser.

My favorite character is, of course, the Wife of Bath, with her many husbands, her gay scarlet clothes and the young clerk she fancies because of his legges and feet.

She is also well read, able to cite bookish authorities when she's arguing with men. I'm looking forward to reading Marion Turner's new ''biography'' of her, ''The Wife of Bath.''

.- Which genres do you enjoy reading. And which do you avoid?

I avoid nothing, though I am wary of tightly plotted thrillers and whodunits because - never mind guessing the solution - I often can't understand that solution even when it's explained at the end.

On the other hand, I am a fan of science fiction, even when the science involved is beyond me. I like the hard stuff : I recently reread Robert L. Forward's ''Dragon's Egg,'' which does an amazing job of imagining what life on the surface of a neutron star might be like.

[Short answer : very flat, and extremely fast-moving.] But I also like such fantastical authors as Cordwainer Smith [in real life a C.I.A. psychological warfare expert], whose stories are built around such delightful nonsense as spaceship pilots who steer ships manned by cats through telepathic contact. Somehow, he makes you believe it.

I love travel books, especially those by opinionated, charismatic writers like Rebecca West or Deryla Murphy. I love ancient literary gossip, music books, eccentric memoirs by ghastly people - bring it all on!

.- How do you go about organizing your books?

Most of them are organized with sinister precision by genre and author., except that biographies are by subject and history is roughly chronological. I can't help it; I am a librarian.

Not only that, but I tend to spot anomalies. If someone has moved a book, out of order, I fix it with my gimlet eye almost as soon as I walk into the room. Of course, this leads to people moving my books around for fun, to see if I'll notice. [And sometimes I don't.] 

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

As a child I read books manically., greedily and repeatedly, and loved anything with an animal in it.

My two favorite series were Willard Price's gung-ho stories about two brothers collecting wild creatures for their father's zoo, and the ''Adventure'' series by Enid Blyton, which sent four children and a parrot into dangerous situations up a river, out to sea, inside a hollow mountain and away with a traveling circus.

By my early teens, I was grabbing any book for adults that came within my reach, and making whatever skewed, half-baked sense of it I could.

Woolf's ''The Waves,'' Nabokov's ''Lolita,'' Ginsberg's ''Howl,'' Luke Rhinehart's ''The Dice Man,'' David Niven's ''The Moon's a Balloon,'' a bit of Shakespeare - it all went into the ravenous maw.

I do remember being more perplexed than usual by ''The Sex-Life Letters : Fascinating Correspondence from Today's Men and Women About the Variety of Their Sexual Attitudes and Experiences,'' edited by Harold and Ruth Greenwald. I think that had animals in it too.  

.- How have your reading habits changed over time?

I've liked both philosophy and biography, but the balance keeps shifting toward the biography end. In my 20s, a single night in with Heidegger was my idea of fun. Now, given a choice between contemplating the being of beings and finding out, for example, that Vita Sackville-West's mother once papered an entire room with used postage stamps - well, it's the stamps every time.

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

I think Mary Wollstonecraft, Bertrand Russell and Zora Neale Hurston would make a lively and enlightening combination, though they would probably all talk at once.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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