What Do Editors Read? Part 2

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Margret Aldrich

Staff Writer

Margret Aldrich is a writer and recovering book editor who has worked with authors from American Indian activist Winona LaDuke to punk-rock guitar legend Cheetah Chrome. (They were equally intense and equally fantastic.) She is also a former editor, blogger, and librarian at Utne Reader, a magazine celebrating the best of the alternative press. Based in Minneapolis, Margret is a devoted Little Free Library owner who wonders what to do when a Sarah Palin biography shows up in one's LFL. Her book about Little Free Libraries—and how they spark community, literacy, and creativity around the world—came out from Coffee House Press in April. Twitter: mmaldrich

Lotsa readingAfter spending their workdays searching for the next Great American Novel or nonfiction masterpiece, editors treat their pleasure-reading time like gold. So, they choose their books wisely. In part two of this blog post (see the first installment here), editors from publishing houses around the country let us peek at their personal reading lists and TBR piles.

Kendall Storey | Archipelago Books

What I’m reading now: The Fall by Diogo Mainardi, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

What’s on my to-be-read list: The tiny mountain on my bedside table includes Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim, Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi, Blue Angel by Francine Prose, Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura, and The Witness by Juan Jose Saer.

How I choose my next book: My friends are passionate readers and I often take their recommendations. I’m drawn to international literature, particularly from Latin America. Occasionally I’ll buy a book based on a review or an excerpt. Mostly though, I take cue from my favorite authors: Bolaño brought me to Cortázar, who led me to Borges, etc. I ask myself, when I’m reading something I love: Who is this writer speaking to?

Favorite book to recommend: Lately, I’ve been recommending a beautiful collection of poetry that Copper Canyon Press puts out called VOICES by Antonio Porchia, translated by W.S. Merwin.

Taylor Norman | Chronicle Books

What I’m reading now: The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. It’s one of the last books of his I have yet to read—I’ve tried to savor them over as much time as possible. But I knew it was time for this one when this copy I was looking through at Powell’s opened to the actual, real business card of someone named Beverly Biggerstaff. It’s a name right out of Wallace’s world: The very first line of the book introduces us to a Mindy Metalman. You can’t ignore a sign like that.

What’s on my to-be-read list: Well, really every book in the world is on there. It is a long list. Nothing is excluded. But the last book I added officially to my to-be-read list is Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

How I choose my next book: When fictional characters aren’t descending from Interline Sales Management at Air Tahiti to guide me, I have a very complex system of choosing books that rotates around the five axes of 1. the recommendation of a specific person (not Beverly) 2. a current New York Times bestseller in middle grade or young adult 3. a modern award-winner published post-2000 4. a Chronicle book 5. something I feel the absence of not having read, published before 2000.

Favorite book to recommend: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. Gus is my hero and Clara is my idol and the Hell Bitch is my long-lost steed. Also, Harriet the Spy.

Mark Doten | Soho Press

What I’m reading now: I went to Fire Island last weekend and caught the Frank O’Hara poetry festival, organized by the poet Adam Fitzgerald. One of the readers was Edmund White, and this week I’m rereading his wonderful debut Forgetting Elena, a short novel of life in a mysterious place that both is and isn’t Fire Island; in its searching, circling, displaced quality, the novel reminds me of my favorite moment in world literature, Kafka’s odd, anxious, (almost) gay, (almost) short-novel-length late stories “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog,” and “Josephine the Singer.”

Also, I tend to read (or listen to on audio) a great deal of nonfiction, to counterbalance my fiction-heavy day job. I’ve been making my way through all of James Gleick’s work, and am currently halfway into his slim Newton biography, which for some reason is tougher going for me than his much thicker books about Richard Feynman or chaos theory. I think in part it’s that as a know-nothing layperson, I’m more dazzled by the contemporary stuff I don’t understand than by the historical stuff I don’t understand.

What’s on my to-be-read list: So much! Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong and Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations, among heaps of other things.

How I choose my next book: Whatever the Dark Lord commands.

Favorite book to recommend: For nonfiction, James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. For fiction, perhaps Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, a brilliant, lyrical, cruel, tender, rigorously unhinged political monologue, which is classified as a play, but pay no heed, it’s really a short novel. There’s great video of Shawn reading it in its entirety on the Lannan Foundation website.

And (plug alert!) a book I recommend that I happen to have edited is Dylan Landis’s debut novel Rainey Royal, forthcoming in September, which Janet Fitch calls “A spare, elegant novel… Pure nerves, pure adrenaline.” And Graywolf is publishing a debut novel in February, The Infernal, by some fellow named Mark Doten.

Fred Appel | Princeton University Press

What I’m reading now: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro.

What’s on my to-be-read list: College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, How Paris Became Paris by Joan DeJean, and An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

How I choose my next book: Recommendations from friends and colleagues.

Favorite book to recommend: Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Ken Dryden’s sports memoir The Game as the best book on hockey ever.

Brenda Knight | Cleis Press and Viva Editions

What I’m reading now: David Talbot’s Season of the Witch, a delightful history of the 60’s cultural explosion in San Francisco — hippies, yippies, pagans, Beatniks, and Black Panthers — what more could you want? His Salon journalistic eye makes the history come alive. I am also reading A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin; it brings me back to my teenage years as a devout Tolkienite.

What’s on my to-be-read list: I am looking forward to The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. I’ve read her stories for years and years. Her storytelling is stunning. My partner is Chinese and her books helped me prepare, in a way, for his family’s story — especially of previous generations in China. I waited for the paperback to come out and I just got it; I think the book might even be bigger than her purse-sized dog I see at Bay Area literary events. I also greatly appreciate the percussive crack of Ms. Tan’s whip in her rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders.

How I choose my next book: I still “feel my way” through a library, walking along the shelves until something catches my eye. This is how I found Brothers to Dragons, an epic poem by Robert Penn Warren about the murder of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s two nephews; its oxblood leather binding attracted me to it. I still visit San Francisco State Library’s rare book collection and never leave empty-handed. I am a browser at my favorite bookstores, like City Lights, Book Passage, or the Booksmith in the Haight, where I’d spend six hours a week checking out the shelves when I lived there. I also ask trusted Cleis and Viva authors, such as Paul Russell, Rachel Kramer Bussel, or Alan Kaufman, for recommendations.

Favorite book to recommend: While there are many that have affected my life, there is only one that has been a major life-changing read: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso. I’ve read it 11 times and counting. I’ve studied and read mythology throughout my life, but upon reading Calasso’s brilliance, I suddenly understood the interlinking of all mythology. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a parable of what could happen when classical students take their studies too far, is another favorite to recommend.


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