A Man in a Cafe Asked Julie Otsuka What She Was Reading. They Dated for Two Years. – The New York Times

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“An everyday pickup line, but it worked,” says the novelist Julie Otsuka, whose new book is “The Swimmers.” “I haven’t been in touch with him since, but I return to ‘The Lover’ every now and again, and never fail to fall under its spell.”

What books are on your night stand?

“Visitation,” by Jenny Erpenbeck. “Open Water,” by Caleb Azumah Nelson. “Severance,” by Ling Ma. “Real Estate: A Living Autobiography,” by Deborah Levy. “The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping,” by Samantha Harvey. “Festival Days,” by JoAnn Beard. “Leave the World Behind,” by Rumaan Alam.

What’s the last great book you read?

“To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,” by the French writer Hervé Guibert.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Like many writers, I’m a very solitary person, but I love reading and working in public spaces. My ideal reading experience: late afternoon, pre-pandemic, my neighborhood cafe, a seat in the far back corner, a slight coffee buzz. All around me, the pleasant hum of human voices. In front of me, on the table, a book, a pencil for underlining (Blackwing Palomino), a pen and a small unlined Muji notebook, in case I run across a sentence I want to write down, or overhear a good snatch of dialogue (which could end up in my next novel — sometimes I only appear to be reading). At the next table over sits a favorite fellow regular, deeply engrossed in a similarly personal project: composing a piece of music, fixing a line of computer code, writing a poem, a screenplay, a novel. We’re all engaged in an adult form of parallel play, quietly feeding off of each other’s energy, alone but not alone.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Suicide,” by the French writer Edouard Levé. This book carved out a tiny hole in my heart. Narrated in the “you” voice, and addressed to a friend who committed suicide 20 years earlier, the novel is a meditation on both the dead friend’s life and the act of suicide itself, as well as a farewell note from the author, who took his own life 10 days after turning in the manuscript, to his former self and to us, the reader. Through an accretion of small, obsessive details, “you” slowly comes into focus as a thoughtful, solitary, troubled man who can no longer bear to be in the world. The language is beautiful and spare, deceptively simple, exactingly precise. I’ve never read anything like it. It is, one could say, the ultimate work of autofiction.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I will read anything by Rachel Cusk, who is doing some of the most interesting work of any writer around, and Katie Kitamura, whose recent novel “Intimacies” is both sleekly gorgeous — those sentences — and psychologically unnerving. She’s an absolutely brilliant writer. Other writers whose work I admire: Colson Whitehead, Mohsin Hamid, Jamaica Kincaid, David Szalay and Deborah Levy, especially her “Living Autobiography” trilogy. For sheer inventiveness of form, the short stories of David Means. I would do anything to read a new short story by Julie Hecht, who gets my vote for funniest writer. I am very interested in the plays of Will Eno, master of the profound and the absurd. Also, the work of Wallace Shawn. For thoughtful commentary on race: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, Ta-Nehisi Coates. And the wonderfully irreverent journalist Jay Caspian Kang, who tells it like it is.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I’m reading one right now — “The Anomaly,” by the French author Hervé Le Tellier, about a mysterious plane flight whose passengers seem to exist in two different realities. It’s very “Black Mirror.” I’m not sure what makes a book a guilty pleasure, but you definitely know it when you’re reading one.

What writers are especially good on mother-daughter relationships?

Nobody describes the passionate bond between mothers and daughters more brutally, or with more honesty, intelligence and style, than Vivian Gornick in her memoir “Fierce Attachments.”

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

One afternoon, about 30 years ago, I was sitting in the cafe when the man at the next table leaned over and asked me what I was reading. An everyday pickup line, but it worked. I showed him the cover of my book — “The Lover,” by Marguerite Duras, Pantheon edition — and we got to talking. We were together for the next two years. I haven’t been in touch with him since, but I return to “The Lover” every now and again, and never fail to fall under its spell.

How do you organize your books?

Fiction and poetry, alphabetically. I also have several shelves of books about Japanese Americans and World War II, with no organizing principle at all. And another couple shelves of books about swimming and dementia and illness. My top shelves are for “short” books of all genres, and then there’s a shelf set aside for books that I’m currently reading. A half-shelf for library books, so I don’t forget where they are. And a shelf devoted to some of my favorite painters, among them Giorgio Morandi, Joan Mitchell and Richard Diebenkorn. I could look at paintings all day long. That’s my true guilty pleasure.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1866.”

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

A 1949 hardcover edition of “Here Is New York,” by E. B. White.

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

In junior high, I was very into the short stories of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Then, in high school, it was Carlos Castaneda, which I now find totally embarrassing. That crow. I also loved Hermann Hesse — “Siddhartha,” “The Glass Bead Game.” And I read — of course — “Be Here Now,” by Ram Dass. This was the mid-70s, and the ’60s were still very much in the air. I felt like I was 10 years too late to the party. Somewhere inside me still, there’s a secret hippie yearning to get out.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I was going to say that I no longer read science fiction. But then remembered that I recently read a short story by Ted Chiang — “The Great Silence” — that just floored me. Utterly devastating. I want to read more of him now.

The general trend, though, as I grow older: I’m more and more interested in reading works written by women.

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

Franz Kafka. Emily Dickinson. Thomas Bernhard.

What do you plan to read next?

Yoko Ogawa’s “The Memory Police.” I first ran across her work in an eerie short story published in The New Yorker in 2005, titled “Pregnancy Diary,” whose disturbed narrator keeps a diary of her sister’s pregnancy. Since then, I’ve gone on to read three more of Ogawa’s books: “The Diving Pool” (a collection of novellas, including “Pregnancy Diary”), “The Housekeeper and the Professor” and “Hotel Iris.” Ogawa is a master of quiet dread and I am eager to read her latest book, set on an unnamed island where entire categories of objects are suddenly “disappeared” from both the physical world and the memories of its inhabitants, who are under constant surveillance by the government. It’s my gift to myself for finishing “The Swimmers.”

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