The Journalist whose new book is the novel '' Mr. Texas,'' sees books as creatures of their time : '' I often look back on a book I thought was wonderful and inspiring and found it to be maudlin and flowery. ''

.- What books are on your night stand?

I just finished Elaine Pagels's '' Why Religion?'' and replaced it with '' The Sullivanians,'' by Alexander Stille. I've started '' Mornings in Jenin,'' by Susan Abulhawa.

I'm waiting to begin A.J. Liebling's collection of World War II writings. Some books on my night stand I've readlong ago but pick them up to get a taste of what they meant to me.

Two in that category are ''Moby Dick'' and '' Sophie's Choice.'' Three or four others at the bottom of the pile have rooted in place.

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

'' The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,'' by William L. Shirer. It had been weighing down a shelf [ over 1,200 pages ] for years, but I was in a gloomy mood about our politics and thought it might help me understand the historical parallels.

Shirer was on the ground as Nazi power reached its heights, then he covered the war that followed. It is an unsettling, shocking book, but a thrilling piece of reporting.

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

Books are creatures of their time. I often look back on a book I thought was wonderful and inspiring and found it to be maudlin and flowery or have some other defect of character I overlooked.

It could be that literary fashions have changed or I've gotten older., and of curse both are true. But I'm struck by the fact that so many writers I grew up loving [ Walker Percy, Gunter Grass, Saul Bellow] have been plowed under while an elect few [ Hemingway, Didion ] manage to stay current.

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

I'm surprised so few people read A.J. Liebling, whose book '' The Earl of Louisiana'' - about Earl Long, the governor and Huey's younger brother - was among the ones that inspired me to write, and to set my sights on The New Yorker.

He's a great reporter but he also has a wicked eye for telling details. I just love the book.

.- Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I certainly experienced guilty delight by reading '' Why Freud Fainted,'' by Samuel Rosenberg. He makes a meal out of the two occasions Freud passed out in front of his most prominent disciple - and defector - Carl Jung. It's a delightfully meanspirited analysis of the father of analysis.

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

My wife read me a passage from '' What an Owl Knows,'' by Jennifer Ackerman. The flat faces of certain owls, like the barn owl, act as a giant external ear - like a satellite dish - with the feathers directing the sound into the ear. Fascinating.

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

I've written extensively about religion, although I am not religious myself. I've always been curious about why people believe one thing rather than another, especially in America, where you can believe anything you want.

Journalists understand the power of religious belief. We spend so much time writing about politics, neglecting the fact that people can have very strong political views without affecting their behaviour at all, while strong religious views tend to dominate people's lives.

.- What books would you recommend for America's current political moment?

I've just started the galley for ''Gods, Guns and Sedition : Far-Right Terrorism in America,'' by Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, which provides an incisive look at the rise of extremism on the right. It's a chilling tale.

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

Anyone who counted Nora Ephron a friend would probably call her a [ ''dear friend.'' She loved to entertain and was a famous cook, so I'd set the party in her apartment on East 79th Street. ]

I'd be curious to recruit Samuel Johnson,just to determine if he's as clever as Boswell made him or just overbearing.

I love Ben Hecht's memoir, '' A Child of the Century,'' and he was crucial some of Hollywood's greatest movies - The Front Page,'' '' Notorious, '' '' Scarface.''

Saul Bellow noted, '' His manners are not always nice, but then nice manners do not always make interesting autobiographies.'' The same could be said for dinner guests.

.- What do you plan to read next?

I think I'll start '' The Sullivanians .'' It looks like fun.    

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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