What’s the last great book you read?
“Thelonious Monk,” by Robin D. G. Kelley, the biography of a musical genius written by a certified polymath. Kelley is a world-famous historian who reads and writes across several disciplines as he cooks his family gourmet meals, does doting daddy duty, grades pitiful undergraduate papers, directs the dissertations of an army of emerging scholars across the nation and plays a mean jazz piano, all while cranking out groundbreaking books. Truly disgusting, um, I’m sorry, I meant demoralizing, yet somehow inspiring.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In my home office, surrounded by my beloved library, sitting in my desk chair, swiveling here, and rocking back and forth there, or standing, when inspired, to proclaim the brilliance or courage of a passage, or to argue with a page or two, caught up in a great cloud of witnesses stretching back centuries who fuel my knowledge and feed my imagination. I do this all times of the day and night, especially if I’m preparing to write a book, and then, when I’m done reading, I sit down to write 12 to 15 hours a day during a concentrated period. And reading plays a role there too. As I write, I pay close attention to the sound and size of sentences, sentences to which I repeatedly return in the books I read, reminding me of the quality of craft to which I aspire. Hearing those words in my ear, as they fill my eyes, is sublime delirium.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line,” by Erin Aubry Kaplan, a beautiful stylist who breathes in a vast literary tradition and breathes out elegant expression, with a keen eye for details honed by her journalistic background.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Too many to name. Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Tayari Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, Marlon James, Charles Johnson, Paul Beatty, Arundhati Roy, Elizabeth Acevedo, Angie Thomas, Samuel R. Delaney, N. K. Jemisin, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith, Gabriel Bump, Jasmon Drain, Russell Banks, Rion Amilcar Scott, Terry McMillan, Terese Marie Mailhot, T. R. Simon (children’s books cobbled from big smarts and crisp reflection), Teju Cole, Jacqueline Woodson, Roxane Gay, Dominique Morisseau, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Katori Hall, Annie Baker, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mia Chung, Richard J. Powell, Stanley Crouch (a towering talent beyond his rhetorical ferocities), Greg Tate, Angela Rye, the “Breakfast Club” crew, Alondra Nelson, Naomi Klein, Veronica Chambers, Brittney Cooper, Tanisha C. Ford, Treva B. Lindsey, Jodie Adams Kirshner, Saidiya Hartman, Melissa M. Valle, Eddie Glaude, Imani Perry, Daphne Brooks, LaMonda Horton-Stallings, Corey Fields, Robert J. Patterson, David Masciotra, Karla Zelaya, Noliwe Rooks, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Zebulon Miletsky, Becky Yang Hsu, Zandria Robinson, Marcia Chatelain, Terrence L. Johnson, Angelyn Mitchell, Rosemary Ndubuizu, Marcus Board Jr., Nikole Hannah-Jones (a precocious homegirl whom I loved long before the monumental 1619 Project, when she wrote brilliantly about resegregation in public schools — imagine W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston having a love child who was carried in the surrogate womb of Nicki Minaj while Drake serenaded her birth: “Nails done, hair done, everything did”), Crystal Marie Fleming, Damon Young, Mychal Denzel Smith, Michael Harriot, Melissa Harris-Perry, Concepción de León, Caitlin Flanagan (with whom I often disagree, but her prose sings like a tenor in a boys’ choir), Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Gyasi Ross, Adam Serwer, David Remnick, Kelefa Sanneh, Vinson Cunningham, Hua Hsu, Doreen St. Félix, Emily J. Lordi, Ed Pavlic, Shana Redmond, Kimberly Yam (using her keyboard like a cudgel to beat back bigotry against Asian folk and others), Khephra Burns (a gifted poet and strikingly original thinker who also edits The Boulé Journal, which you can access online), Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jericho Brown, Ada Limón, Ocean Vuong, Major Jackson, Thomas Sayers Ellis and Elizabeth Alexander (sophisticated poetic intelligence in service of cultural excavation).