Patrick Radden Keefe Has One Big Rule for His Reading Time – The New York Times
What books are on your night stand?
I’m an appalling reader, promiscuous and inattentive. I spend hours every day reading, but I magpie around and don’t finish things. As a consequence, books tend to pile up on my night stand in teetering stacks, accumulating passive-aggressively, like an accusation. Fortunately, I consider random Jenga towers of books to be the height of sophisticated décor. My wife feels otherwise; but then, she’s one of those systematic readers who finishes every book she starts, so there’s no accounting for taste. Current contents of the stack: “The Silk Roads,” by Peter Frankopan, “Greetings From Bury Park,” by Sarfraz Manzoor, “Vladimir,” by Julia May Jonas (which I finished! So good), “The Island,” by Adrian McKinty, “Franchise,” by Marcia Chatelain, “Prince of the City,” by Robert Daley, the play “King Charles III,” by Mike Bartlett, a book of plays by Lucy Prebble. I am reading all of these books. I will finish some of them.
What’s the last great book you read?
My colleague Rachel Aviv has written a brilliant book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” which is about how we categorize certain psychological afflictions. It’s out in the fall. As for something you could read this weekend, Evan Hughes recently published a book called “The Hard Sell,” which is a pacey crime caper set against the backdrop of the opioid crisis. It’s completely different from my own opioid crisis book, “Empire of Pain” — more analogous to John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” but about a less familiar set of crooks. When I tell you that reading “The Hard Sell” is like watching a Scorsese film, you will assume I am exaggerating. Pick it up and tell me I’m wrong.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I recently read my way through Proust and was struck by … just kidding! Have you not been paying attention? Proust is very much on the shelf: a nice edition, gathering dust, waiting for the appointed day. I have been reading, and very much enjoying, “Memento Mori,” by Muriel Spark, and “A Time of Gifts,” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. And when I was working on my book about the Sackler family I read about a third of Dreiser’s “The Financier,” which was very helpful (but not so helpful that I finished).
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Bad prose is everywhere, and no impediment to popularity. Most readers don’t mind. I wish I didn’t mind, but I do. No matter how compelling the plot, I struggle to get through schlocky writing. Same goes for podcast narration. If you introduce a character by saying, “Mallorie was a successful chiropractor who finished top of her class at Michigan. Brilliant and beautiful, she had it all — except for the perfect guy,” I’m just out, I don’t care what great twists you have in store, this is not a ride I will be taking.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Same as most people, I expect: rope hammock, dappled sunlight, snapping palms. The big caveat is that my iPhone must be dead, or secured in a lockbox of some sort, so that when I reach for it every five minutes — robotically, pathetically, as if it’s a phantom limb — it won’t be there to hijack me.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
My mother is from Melbourne, so I grew up reading certain Australian books nobody in the U.S. had heard of. One that left a strong impression was “The Magic Pudding,” by Norman Lindsay, which was published in 1918 and concerns a koala named Bunyip Bluegum, who has adventures with a sailor and a penguin and a fourth character who is a bowl of pudding with arms and legs. Whenever the other characters get hungry, they eat the pudding (he has no problem with this — he loves being eaten) and when they are done, whatever portion of the pudding has been consumed is magically reconstituted. The unflattering truth is that many of my favorite stories involve the endless replenishment of food. “Strega Nona” was another touchstone growing up, one I loved sharing with my own children. Same goes for the movie “Big Night.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, journalists, critics, poets — working today do you admire most?
One surreal thing about writing for The New Yorker is that some of the writers I most admire happen to be my colleagues: people like Rachel Aviv or Larissa MacFarquhar. In our old building, in Times Square, I could just wander into the next office and ask David Grann, one of the great nonfiction writers working today, for his advice on how to handle some narrative problem. It is not lost on me what an over-the-top, I-happen-to-have-Marshall-McLuhan-right-here privilege that is. But there are so many other writers whose work I envy and learn from: Robert Caro, Isabel Wilkerson, Lauren Redniss, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Clint Smith, Jennifer Egan, the late John le Carré, Colson Whitehead, Katie Kitamura, the playwright Jez Butterworth, the podcaster Dan Taberski. The Coen brothers. Michaela Coel. The folks who write “Succession.” The folks who wrote “Veep.”
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I have a larger problem which is that all reading becomes fodder for work. In college I studied with Simon Schama, and I remember him talking about “gutting” a book, tearing into it quickly and extracting what you need. Because I have a tendency to do this, and because I read so widely for work, I can sometimes forget to read for pleasure and relaxation. But when I’m really going on a project, I get obsessive, and any outside reading feels superfluous.
“Rogues” collects some of your New Yorker profiles about people behaving badly. Are there true-crime writers you especially admire? And crime novelists?
I adore Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettoside,” and the crime writing of Calvin Trillin (his book “Killings” was on my mind when I put together “Rogues”), and Janet Malcolm’s writing on crime (and on crime writing); and “The Adversary,” by Emmanuel Carrère. I grew up reading mysteries: Christie, Conan Doyle, Sayers. I love the droll cynicism of Highsmith, Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” almost anything by Richard Price. I read Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” as a first-year law student studying criminal law, and it remains my favorite legal thriller. David Simon’s shows feel like novels to me, and I’m completely absorbed by his new one, “We Own This City,” which is a true story (based on a book by Justin Fenton).
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
The literary equivalent of a hot fudge sundae for me would be dishy books about Hollywood. “Monster,” by John Gregory Dunne, is a favorite, about the war of attrition by studio note that turned a gritty script he and Joan Didion wrote on the life and death of a TV anchorwoman into the schmaltzy romantic comedy “Up Close and Personal.” More recently, I really enjoyed Mark Harris’s biography of Mike Nichols.
Reporting and writing are distinct skills — which journalists unite them especially well, to your mind?
Gabriel García Márquez started out as a journalist before he turned to novels and his nonfiction book “News of a Kidnapping” had a big impact on me. My colleague Katherine Boo marries astonishingly deep reporting with impeccable, absorbing writing. It’s harder to do at shorter lengths but I’m always impressed by James B. Stewart’s ability to render a deeply reported business page article as an arresting human drama.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I have endless wonky questions about the exotic technicalities of various criminal industries. I just heard about this political economist Anja Shortland, who studies the dynamics of illicit economies, from the kidnap-for-ransom business to the market for stolen art. I’m about to dive with great excitement into her work.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Screenplays. Nonfiction writers can learn a lot from good screenwriting about structure, pacing, transitions, dialogue. It’s a ruthlessly economical format. You can learn more from studying one good Tony Gilroy script than from a dozen screenwriting books with the word “craft” in the title. The opening scene of “Empire of Pain” owes a debt to Gilroy’s opening in “Michael Clayton” — not just the film, but the script itself. The challenge was the same: How do you take the most boring situation imaginable — a bunch of lawyers talking in a conference room — and make it feel dramatic?
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
My entire life is a state of perpetual embarrassment about the many books I haven’t read. Have mercy on me. Let’s not even start.