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Chuck Klosterman On How He Chooses Books To Read

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 26, 2019

I superficially resemble Chuck Klosterman — we’re redheaded dudes with glasses and beards — but wouldn’t call myself a fan. I’ve enjoyed his writing from time to time as it’s popped up from here to there, but I’ve never read any of his books, nor am I particularly pressed to. It’s okay. He’s doing fine.

What I am struck by in this interview is the criteria Klosterman poses for liking writers and choosing their books. There’s two parts to it. Here it goes.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

This is an odd answer, but when I think about writers I “admire,” it has almost nothing to do with their books. It has more to do with how they manage their life. Writing seems to attract a lot of psychologically unhinged people, so I’m always impressed with authors who are able to view their career accurately, who are able to reconcile the inherent dissonance between commercial and critical success, and who seem to enjoy the process of writing without cannibalizing every other aspect of their existence in order to get it done. Jonathan Lethem seems like this kind of guy. George Saunders. Maria Semple. It’s possible, of course, that these writers aren’t the way they appear on the surface, and maybe if I knew them intimately I’d conclude they were all crazy. But then again, not seeming like a self-absorbed sociopath is 75 percent of the way to actually being a normal person.

Whose opinion on books do you most trust?

Part-time bookstore employees and research librarians. They have no agenda and plenty of free time. The research librarians are especially good, because they don’t even care if their suggestions make them seem cool.

1) What’s weird is we spent the better part of the twentieth century enshrining genius sociopaths at the top of the author pile. Some of this was necessary pushback against 19th century criticism that tended to be overly moralizing, equating the goodness of an author with the naively perceived goodness of their personal lives. But I wonder now whether we’re swinging back to that, by way of politics an everything else. Good writers should first and foremost be good people. Or at least, in Klosterman’s formulation, reasonably normal people.

2) This might be the most interesting piece of it for me. Librarians and bookstore employees. It makes a good deal of sense; they are the people who are closest to the books. But it also makes me wonder: whose opinion do you trust most when it comes to books? Friends? Critics? Publishers? Academics? Who’s got your number?