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By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

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Overview

Sixty-five of the world’s leading writers open up about the books and authors that have meant the most to them

Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature. These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating ...

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By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

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Overview

Sixty-five of the world’s leading writers open up about the books and authors that have meant the most to them

Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature. These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating exchanges, featuring personalities as varied as David Sedaris, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Lamott, and James Patterson. The questions and answers admit us into the private worlds of these authors, as they reflect on their work habits, reading preferences, inspirations, pet peeves, and recommendations.

By the Book contains the full uncut interviews, offering a range of experiences and observations that deepens readers’ understanding of the literary sensibility and the writing process. It also features dozens of sidebars that reveal the commonalities and conflicts among the participants, underscoring those influences that are truly universal and those that remain matters of individual taste.

For the devoted reader, By the Book is a way to invite sixty-five of the most interesting guests into your world. It’s a book party not to be missed.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Perhaps the most popular feature of The New York Times Book Review is its weekly "By the Book" author interview conducted by editor Pamela Paul. For thoughtful readers, these conversations provide not only memorable insights into the favorite writers' work habits and writing processes, but also their helpful tips on recommended reading. In By the Book the book, Paul provides sixty-five now uncut interviews from this rich series with subjects including Hilary Mantel, James Patterson, David Sedaris, Lee Child, and Ann Lamott. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
07/28/2014
In By the Book interviews collected by New York Times Book Review editor Paul (Parenting, Inc.), 65 writers—including Junot Díaz, Lena Dunham, Colin Powell, Anne Lamott, and Khaled Hosseini—discuss books they’ve found inspiring or terrible, as well as their reading habits and recommendations. The variety of responses and respondents make for a captivating hodgepodge of literary musings, with illustrations provided by Jillian Tamaki. Gems include Neil Gaiman’s plug for Harry Stephen Keeler (the “greatest bad writer America has ever produced”), and John Grisham’s recommendation that President Obama read Fifty Shades of Grey, because “Why should he miss all the fun?” Authors speak to and about one another across the pages: Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Barry sing the praises of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, and Colin Powell and Arnold Schwarzenegger both admire J.K. Rowling’s success. (For those truly dedicated to literary socializing, Gary Shteyngart lists over 40 of his favorite authors’ Twitter handles.) Sidebars throughout feature excerpted responses from multiple authors on the same questions, and, while this creates an unfortunate sense of déjà vu upon encountering the same material in the full interviews, it’s illuminating to see what these writers consider “guilty pleasure” reading, or discover that very few actually get Ulysses. 65 line drawings. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills LLC. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Invaluable."—Vanity Fair

"The effect is like being at a very well-attended cocktail party, or peeking onto the nightstand of a favorite author… At times delightful and always entertaining, this book can be taken in large gulps, or small sips. Reading it will surely result in a monstrous and fascinating reading list."—Library Journal (starred)

"A captivating hodgepodge of literary musings."—Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
2014-08-01
A hit-or-miss collection of Q-and-As, posed mostly to writers in the New York Times Book Review's "By the Book" page. Current Book Review editor Paul's introduction is somewhat pretentious: "The idea was to simulate a conversation over books, but one that took place at a more exalted level than the average water cooler chat." Well, Q-and-A sessions are hardly "conversations," and some of the questions—e.g., "What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? Do you snack?"—aren't even worthy of the snack machine, let alone the water cooler. Inevitably, there is a good amount of solipsism: When asked, "What was the last book that made you cry?" Richard Ford replies, "My own book Canada." Some answers are wacky. "What book is on your night stand now?" John Irving: "I don't read in bed, ever. As for the main character in my novel In One Person, Billy Abbott is a bisexual man; Billy would prefer having sex with a man or a woman to reading in bed." Some are stuck in a rut. "What book is on your night stand?" Sylvia Nasar: "Two biographies of Frances Trollope." "Last truly great book you read?" "The Widow Barnaby, by Frances Trollope." "Book you wish you could write?" "I'd love to write biographies of Frances Trollope." However, there are some choice tidbits, too. "Being a native German-speaker, Hayek strings together railroad sentences ending in train wreck verbs," deadpans P.J. O'Rourke. Donna Tartt wants to have a dinner date with Albert Camus: "That trench coat! That cigarette! I think my French is good enough. We'd have a great time." Still, for the most part, clinkers outweigh the gems. Lee Child and Arnold Schwarzenegger want Barack Obama to read Churchill; Colin Powell wrote for money; and Rachel Kushner avoids "books that seem to conservatively follow stale formulas." There's a tip to remember. Other contributors include Jhumpa Lahiri, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jonathan Lethem and E.L. Doctorow, among many other luminaries. Better scanned on the website.
Library Journal
★ 10/15/2014
Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, conducted these interviews with authors, performers, and thinkers for the Review's recurring By the Book feature. Collected are 65 of them, with personalities ranging from David Sedaris, Neil Gaiman, and Lee Child to Christopher Buckley, Sting, Ira Glass, and Bryan Cranston. Some of the questions are the same from interview to interview (e.g., favorite book as a child, currently reading, etc.), which allows one to compare apples to apples, while other inquiries are tailored more specifically to the work of the interview subject. The effect is like being at a very well-attended cocktail party, or peeking onto the nightstand of a favorite author. While there are many compendiums of writers' thoughts, such as My Bookstore edited by Ronald Rice, and several of them follow this idea of asking writers to contribute a piece on a specific topic, few cover as much ground as this volume. VERDICT At times delightful and always entertaining, this book can be taken in large gulps, or small sips. Reading it will surely result in a monstrous and fascinating reading list. [See "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 24, LJ 9/1/14.]—Linda White, Maplewood, MN
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781627791458
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 22,991
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of Parenting, Inc., Pornified, and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, Paul was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vogue. She and her family live in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction by Pamela Paul

We all want to know what other people are reading. We peer at strangers’ book covers on an airplane and lean over their e-books on the subway. We squint at the iPhone of the person standing in front of us in the elevator. We scan bestseller lists and customer reviews and online social reading sites. Asking someone what she’s read lately is an easy conversational gambit—and the answer is almost bound to be more interesting than the weather. It also serves an actual purpose: we may find out about something we want to read ourselves.

When I launched By the Book in The New York Times Book Review, it was an effort to satisfy my own genuine, insatiable desire to know what others—smart people, well-read people, people who are good writers themselves—were reading in their spare time. The idea was to stimulate a conversation over books, but one that took place at a more exalted level than the average watercooler chat. That meant starting big, and for me that meant David Sedaris. Who wouldn’t want to know which books he thinks are funny? Or touching or sad or just plain good?

In coming up with the questions for David Sedaris, and then for those who followed, I decided to keep some consistent—What book would you recommend to the president to read?—while others would come and go. If you’re going to find out what books John Grisham likes, you’ve got to ask about legal thrillers. When talking to P. J. O’Rourke, you want to know about satire.

Similarly, the range of writers for By the Book had to sweep wide, to include relative unknowns and new voices alongside the James Pattersons and Mary Higgins Clarks. That meant poets and short story writers and authors of mass market fiction. And while the most obvious, and often most desirable, participants would be authors themselves, I didn’t want to limit the conversation to book people.

For that reason, I went to Lena Dunham (not an author at the time) next. I asked musicians like Pete Townshend and Sting, scientists and actors, the president of Harvard, and even an astrophysicist. Cross-pollination between the arts—and the sciences—is something many of us haven’t experienced since our college days, and I wanted to evoke some of that excitement of unexpected discovery—in the subjects, in the questions, and in the answers.

Once the ball got rolling, an unexpected discovery on my part was the full-throttle admiration our most respected public figures have for one another. Colin Powell marveled over J. K. Rowling’s ability to endure the spotlight. Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Donna Tartt were all consumed by the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn. (He, in turn, was reading Alice Munro.) Writer after writer extolled the reportorial prowess of Katherine Boo. And then Boo, who told me she read the column religiously, praised Junot Díaz and George Saunders and Cheryl Strayed when it was her turn.

When I’d meet writers at book parties or literary lunches, they’d thrill over what other By the Book subjects had said about their work. In her interview, Donna Tartt told me how much she looked forward to reading Stephen King’s new novel—before he’d raved about The Goldfinch on our cover. In a world that can feel beset by cynicism, envy, and negative reviews, By the Book has become a place for accomplished peers to express appreciation for one another’s art.

Then there are the humanizing foibles. The books we never finished or are embarrassed never to have picked up, the books we hated, the books we threw across the room. It’s not just us. Many writers confess here to unorthodox indulgences (Hilary Mantel adores self-help books) and “failures” of personal taste (neither Richard Ford nor Ian McEwan has much patience for Ulysses).

Reading the interviews gathered together for the first time, I found myself flipping back and forth between pages, following one author to another, from one writer’s recommendation to another’s explication of plot, like browsing an endlessly varied, annotated home library in the company of thoughtful and erudite friends. I learned about mutual loves, disagreements, surprise recommendations, unexpected new voices, forgotten classics. Let the conversation begin.

Copyright © 2014 by Pamela Paul

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Scott Turow xiii

Introduction by Pamela Paul xvii

David Sedaris 2

Lena Dunham 6

Neil Gaiman 10

Mary Higgins Clark 16

Drew Gilpin Faust 20

Carl Hiaasen 24

John Irving 28

Elizabeth Gilbert 32

Richard Ford 36

Colin Powell 40

Dave Eggers 44

Sylvia Nasar 48

Ira Glass 52

Junot Díaz 58

Joyce Carol Oates 64

Nicholson Baker 70

Emma Thompson 74

Michael Chabon 78

Jeffrey Eugenides 82

J.K. Rowling 86

David Mitchell 90

John Grisham 96

P.J. O'Rourke 100

Anne Lamott 104

Ian McEwan 108

Lee Child 112

Arnold Schwarzenegger 118

Francine Prose 122

Jared Diamond 126

Alain de Botton 132

Dave Barry 136

Katherine Boo 140

Marilynne Robinson 144

Sheryl Sandberg 148

Caroline Kennedy 152

Isabel Allende 158

Anna Quindlen 162

Jonathan Franzen 166

Hilary Mantel 170

Walter Mosley 176

Khaled Hosseini 182

Jeannette Walls 186

Dan Brown 190

Dan Savage 194

Christopher Buckley 198

Curtis Sittenfeld 202

James McBride 206

James Patterson 210

Jonathan Lethem 214

Jhumpa Lahiri 218

Richard Dawkins 222

Sting 228

Andrew Solomon 232

Malcolm Gladwell 238

Scott Turow 242

Donna Tartt 246

Ann Patchett 250

Amy Tan 254

Bryan Cranston 260

Michael Connelly 264

Neil deGrasse Tyson 268

E. L. Doctorow 274

Chang-rae Lee 280

Gary Shteyngart 286

Rachel Kushner 290

Acknowledgments 295

Index 297

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  • Posted October 30, 2014

    The lengthy and glorious blurb on the back of BY THE BOOK will m

    The lengthy and glorious blurb on the back of BY THE BOOK will make any book lover giddy with anticipation for all that awaits inside.  
    But really, it’s those last two lines that really made my inner book nerd swoon:  “If you are a devoted reader, BY THE BOOK is a way
    to invite sixty-five of the most interesting guests into your world.  It’s a book party not to be missed.”

    In case you didn’t know, BY THE BOOK is part of the New York Times Book Review – it’s debut column was on Sunday, April 15, 2012
    and featured David Sedaris.  In her BY THE BOOK column, Pamela Paul interviews novelists, historians, short story writers, and artists.
    All the interviews contain many of the same questions — so it’s neat to see similarities and differences in responses — but she always
    changes her questions up a bit to make things interesting from week to week and also to ask relevant questions to specific people.

    At first I thought BY THE BOOK would be a book I would dip into, read a few interviews and then pick up something else to read.  
    However, once I got started, I had trouble putting it down!  It’s so fun to get the scoop on the reading and writing habits, among other
    things, of the people Pamela Paul interviewed.  I started reading the interviews in order, but then, much to my surprise since I’m an
    A-to-Z-let’s-do-things-in-order kind of gal, I found myself jumping around a bit — to find a specific author I am a fan of, or to read up on
    an author that another mentioned in his/her interview, or because of something that caught my eye in one of the sidebars.

    As when any editor hand-picks stories for a collection, we are all going to have opinions on what should and should not have been
    included.  Personally, I would have LOVED to have read an interview with the brilliant and ever elusive Steven Millhauser.  But no matter
    that Pamela Paul hasn’t snagged an interview with one of my (or your) favorite authors, I enjoyed reading all the interviews — even
    those with authors I wasn’t familiar with.  And a most lovely result from reading all the interviews is I discovered a lot of great new
    authors and books along the way — my wish list is much longer now!

    BY THE BOOK is highly recommended reading for those who love the “books on books” genre and for all those who would rather
    stay in and read on a Friday night, or any night really.  isniffbooks[dot]wordpress[dot]com     Disclosure:  I received a complimentary
    review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions are my own.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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