Since I mostly write history, I have to wade through a lot of raw material. Currently that includes informers’ reports to the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor of the F.B.I.) during the Red Scare of 1917-20. I also have to read a lot of scholarly monographs. Since the prose of neither undercover agents nor academics has much sparkle or suspense, when I’ve finished work for the day I’m hungry for something that picks me up and carries me along, like one of Ben Macintyre’s real-life World War II or Cold War spy tales.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
In the harsh crackdown on dissent kicked off by American entry into World War I, some 75 newspapers and magazines had entire issues banned or were shut down completely. And this sweeping censorship continued for more than two years after the war ended. Imagine which later president would relish just such powers.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I admire novelists who can build a whole world and keep me in it for several books. My favorites: Paul Scott’s magnificent Raj Quartet on the last days of British India; Pat Barker’s trilogy on World War I; Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest quintet. Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels may also rank with these; I need to let them sit a little more since finishing them to be sure.
A superb nonfiction trilogy is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s stunning account of walking from Holland to Istanbul in 1933. A zestful 18-year-old’s experience told, thanks in part to his lifelong writing block, with the dazzling style of a far older man. The last volume was still unfinished when he died in his 90s.
How do you organize your books?
Fiction, nonfiction and then sections for the various subjects I’ve written about. Plus a vast “To Read” set of shelves where some volumes, alas, have sat waiting for decades.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I was an antiwar activist in the 1960s, and have written, in parts of two books, about the brave pacifists of 1914-18. But my shelves hold many volumes of military history, and of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic War maritime novels. And every single volume of stories by John Updike. I have mixed feelings about his novels, but he was our finest writer of short stories since Hemingway. I can easily forgive him for being a Vietnam War hawk.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Who says books can’t change the world? This one gave us our pure food and drug laws.