Candice Millard Has Given Up on Organizing Her Book Collection – The New York Times
What books are on your night stand?
Most of the books on my night stand have little in common with each other. I have nearly finished “The Orenda,” by Joseph Boyden, which is incredibly evocative and beautifully written. I am reading Geoff Dyer’s “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition” a little at a time, essay by essay but in no particular order. I have also started “The Facemaker,” by Lindsey Fitzharris, which will not be out until June, but I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy. It is absolutely heartbreaking but so inspiring.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I always carry a book with me wherever I go, in case I have a free minute, and I am happy to read anywhere. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I used to put a book and a bottle of water in my backpack, ride my bike into Rock Creek Park, and find a spot under a tree or next to the river. I still love to read outside, but if I have a cup of tea, a sleepy dog and a good book, you will not get me out of the house.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
A friend recently introduced me to the work of the Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote, who wrote a poem about one of the main characters in “River of the Gods,” Sidi Mubarak Bombay. I began reading more of Hoskote’s work, and he quickly became one of my favorite poets. To me, his poems seem both tender and harsh, original but also crystal clear. I am also always awed and moved by the plays of David Ives, the nonfiction of Erik Larson and the journalism of Pamela Newkirk. My favorite all-around writer is Marie Arana, who writes the most stunningly beautiful and thoughtful nonfiction but also fiction, essays and memoir. I have no idea how she does it.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
I used to avoid mysteries, probably because of the “cozy mystery” section in most bookstores and libraries, which, despite my love of a cozy reading experience, has always made me run in the opposite direction. Then I found Ann Cleeves and quickly started buying every book she’s written. My favorite is her Vera Stanhope series, which is so smart and insightful. For me, it is not about the mystery. I don’t even try to figure it out. What I am drawn to is her ability to create a very real world, peopled with characters I care about and whose minds I feel like I have climbed into.
‘If I have a cup of tea, a sleepy dog and a good book, you will not get me out of the house.’
What’s the last great book you read?
“Neither Settler Nor Native,” by Mahmood Mamdani, which argues for a wider, political approach to understanding historical violence rather than an individual, criminal one. Mamdani examines everything from the treatment of Native Americans to Nazism to South African apartheid. It is a complex and at times painful book, but history is often complex and painful, and trying to understand it is one of our few real paths to progress.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
I have three children, and I read to them every night from the time they were babies until well into their teenage years. My oldest is now in college and the youngest will start high school in the fall, but the four of us still share an odd little set of literary allusions, references to everything from “The Berenstain Bears” to a book of Japanese fables I found in a bookstore in San Francisco. Now if I want to make my kids laugh, I just sing one of the songs from “Frances.” “What do cutlets wear before they’re breaded? Flannel nightgowns? Cowboy boots? Furry jackets? Sailor suits?”
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
While reading a biography of the Irish writer Bram Stoker, I learned that he happened to be in New York City during the Great Blizzard of 1888, considered one of the worst snowstorms in U.S. history. The city was buried under 22 inches of snow in mid-March, and some areas had nearly twice that amount. Four hundred people died, 200in New York alone. Stoker was on an American tour with the British actor Henry Irving, whose career he managed before writing “Dracula.” Also on the trip was Stoker’s wife, Florence, a renowned beauty who had been dating Oscar Wilde — yes, Oscar Wilde — when she met Stoker.
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about Egypt and exploration?
Fortunately, nearly all 19th-century explorers wrote books about their travels. Richard Burton alone wrote more than a dozen. For secondary sources, Alan Moorehead’s two-volume classic — “The White Nile” and “The Blue Nile” — is as fascinating today as it was when it was first released more than 60 years ago. I would also recommend “Africa and Its Explorers,” edited by Robert I. Rotberg, and “East Africa and the Indian Ocean,” by Edward A. Alpers.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I hate to feel manipulated by a book, as if the author is trying to make me cry or elicit some strong emotion, but if it happens honestly and naturally, then that book will stay with me for a long time. I have to care about the characters, whether they are real or fictional; to recognize in them something of myself or the people around me; and to become completely lost in the story.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I read a lot of nonfiction for work, which I love. It is the best part of the job, but when I am home, with time to myself, I usually turn to fiction. To me, the best of all worlds is a well-written page-turner of a novel that teaches me something new or makes me re-examine old assumptions.
How do you organize your books?
I have given up trying to organize my books. My family has too many, and they are everywhere. We built our house about 20 years ago, and we had bookcases built into nearly every room, but there’s still not enough shelf space. Books are stacked on coffee tables, night stands, the kitchen counter, bathroom sinks, the bench in the laundry room, occasionally the floor. I do borrow books from the library, but if there is one that I really want and the hold time is longer than a week, I am not going to wait. Life is too short.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I realized recently that I had not read much poetry in a long time, so I bought a few poem-a-day books. I have friends I could turn to for advice, but I think that, even more than most kinds of reading, reading poetry is very personal, so I wanted to try to find my own way. I did not hold out much hope for these books, but I have been surprised by how carefully and thoughtfully curated they are, at least in my humble opinion. Not all of the poems are for me, but I was reintroduced to several poets who felt like old friends, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Christina Rossetti, and I fell in love with others whose names I had never even heard. Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” instantly stole, and broke, my heart.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When my second child was born with neuroblastoma and had to undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy, my sisters sent me books, a new one for every round. Every night after my daughter fell asleep, I would sit in a corner of her hospital room with some candy from the vending machine, a book light and a completely absorbing novel and escape for an hour or two. My daughter is 16 years old now, happy and healthy, but every time I see those books — “The Book Thief,” a few Harry Potters, “The History of Love” — I still feel a rush of gratitude.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I will turn 55 this summer, and one of the many things I am embracing as I age is the freedom to read whatever I want. I don’t care what everyone else is reading, or what anyone else thinks I should be reading, and that has been so freeing. If I read a good review or get a recommendation from a trusted friend, I will give a book a try, but if after a few chapters it does not teach me something or capture my imagination or my heart, I return it to the library or give it to a friend of mine who owns a used bookstore. No regrets.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and Emily Dickinson. I feel like the first two might be more willing to contribute to the conversation than the last, but I will invite Emily Dickinson every time. Not only is her life largely a mystery, but what we do know, mostly through her poetry, is tantalizing. I have visited her home in Amherst several times, and I love standing in her room, staring at her desk and trying to resist the urge to sit down and write, hoping she’ll guide my hand.