‘I defy anyone to finish it without wetting the pages with tears’

26 Sep 2017

American novelist Jonathan Franzen on the books which changed his life, made him cry and the ones he wishes he’d written.

Can you name the book that changed your life?

Franzen: To read is to have experiences; every book changes my life at least a little bit. The first time I can remember this happening was when I was 10, with a biography of Thomas Edison.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Franzen: I aborted a third novel, and it’s interesting (for about five seconds) to imagine what I would have produced had I soldiered on through to the end of it. I might have liked to do groundbreaking work such as Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but why would I want Murakami and Ferrante not to have written those books themselves?

What book made you cry?

Franzen: I defy anyone to finish Halldór Laxness’s Independent People without wetting the pages with tears.

What book had the greatest influence on your writing?

Franzen: Maybe CS Lewis’s Narnia books, because I wanted to read them again and again and because writing begins with that kind of reading.

What book do you think is most underrated?

Franzen: The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead’s masterpiece, remains the most fabulous book that hardly anyone I know has read.

Is there any book you couldn’t finish?

Franzen: Ulysses. I needed a graduate thesis adviser to crack a whip over my head, and didn’t have one.

Can you name the book you are ashamed not to have read?

Franzen: I can speak very knowledgeably of Proust, as if I’ve read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. But I’m a terribly slow reader, especially of Proust.

What book are you currently reading?

Franzen: I just finished reading the manuscript of Rachel Kushner’s forthcoming novel, The Mars Room. It’s her best book yet, another big step forward. A California novel set in the world of prisons and strip clubs.

What book do you most often give as a gift?

Franzen: Lately it has been Michael Frank’s brilliant and recently published memoir, The Mighty Franks. I’m responsible for more than 50% of its sales at our local bookstore.

What book would you most like to be remembered for?

Franzen: I’d rather be alive than remembered.

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