By the Book: Dr. Emma Mitchell

March 26, 2020

The New York Times has a weekly installment called “By the Book” which is a series of questions and answers about the reading habits of notable writers. Walker’s seventh chapter features science faculty member Dr. Emma Mitchell.

Photo by Jenessa Lu ’21

What books are on your nightstand?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Sellout by Paul Beatty, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

Lying horizontally on my couch or in bed, under a blanket. I read like this every night! I have an alarm on my phone that rings nightly to remind me to close my laptop and start reading.

My absolute favorite place to read, though, is on vacation. When I’m traveling, I love to read books that were written in that setting. For example, I re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude when I went to Colombia to celebrate Ms. Ceballos’ birthday a few years ago, and I read a few books by Peter Carey when I chaperoned the school trip to Australia. This makes both the vacation and the books that much more meaningful.

Which writers working today do you admire most?

So many! Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Salman Rushdie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marilynne Robinson.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading and which do you avoid?

I have always been a fiction lover. I love magical realism (Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie), stream of consciousness (William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy), and books whose language is exquisite and unforgettable (White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and of course Moby Dick). I didn’t appreciate short stories until a few years ago, but Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies changed that, and since then I’ve read unforgettable stories by Alice Munro and cried through Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! I still have so much to read.

In terms of genres I’m not wild about, I’ve never been a fan of dystopian literature; I just can’t get into it! I also don’t love to read science fiction, but I do listen to it via audio book occasionally.

Which book might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?

This probably won’t really be a surprise to anyone who knows me, except for the fact of sheer quantity: I have nearly 90 cookbooks! Probably more than 90 by the time you read this!

How do you organize your books?

I have one big bookshelf for classic literature, two for more modern fiction, two for cookbooks, and one for my science-related books. Each of these is organized alphabetically by author. I also have small mini-sections of books in various places – for example, a poetry and essay section, a social justice section, a section for teaching-related books, and a section for all of my copies of Moby Dick!

What is the best book you have ever received as a gift?

I can narrow it down to two (well, technically, 22). The “first” was my parents’ gift to me for my 16th birthday, which was the complete collection of Charles Dickens, in hardcover with the original illustrations. I was hoping for a car for my 16th birthday, but got 21 Dickens books instead! (Incidentally, my parents also gave me a matchbox car for that birthday, which I thought was mean but funny.) Dickens was by far my favorite author when I was in high school, and I get such a sense of nostalgia when I read him today. These books are now among my most treasured, and I plan on passing them down one day.

The second book gift that has meant a lot to me was from my late grandma. She found a used, raggedy copy of Moby Dick at a garage sale, and when she got home she opened it and saw that the inner cover had been inscribed and dated by someone named “Julia Child”! We have no way of knowing if this book was truly owned by “the” Julia Child, but the date that she inscribed matches up, and I’ve also Googled what her handwriting looked like and that matches up, too. My grandma ended up giving this book to me,

and it means so much to me because Moby Dick has always been one of my very favorite books; I’ve read it at least 5 times! And as someone who is a passionate cook and baker, the fact that this book was possibly owned and read by Julia Child is like my two worlds colliding.

Who is your favorite fictional hero and who is your favorite fictional anti-hero, or villain?

My favorite hero is hard to narrow down, but I’m going to pick Esther Summerson from Bleak House because of the number of times I read that book growing up. It was such a formative part of my high school years. My favorite anti-hero is, hands-down, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. One time in college, I fell (very) behind in my reading for a Russian literature class and ended up having to read the entirety of Crime and Punishment over a single weekend. I discovered that this feat is possible, but only if you are reading during basically all of your waking hours. The book is written from Raskolnikov’s incredibly warped, schismatic point of view, and when I slept at night after reading all day, I had some very bizarre dreams that were “narrated” in his voice. An unforgettable and slightly disturbing experience!

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Passionate, voracious. I was a very shy, quiet kid, which people have trouble believing today! But reading was my escape. I brought books with me absolutely everywhere — to restaurants, to the grocery store, to parties, and even to the movie theater. When I was in elementary school, my class was putting on a play. I was too shy to take a speaking role, so my teacher assigned me the role of “bookworm,” which I’m pretty sure she made up just for me. This role involved standing in the corner of the stage and silently holding a laminated picture of an enlarged worm that was wearing reading glasses. I don’t remember what the rest of the play was about, but it was clearly a work of real artistry.

My parents were avid readers themselves and I grew up seeing their wall-to-wall bookshelves, watching them choose to read instead of watching TV on frequent evenings, and observing their habits like reading in bed before they went to sleep or when they woke up in the morning. We also had family “DEAR” hours in the evenings sometimes, when we would all read our own books in the same room. My parents regularly took my siblings and me to libraries or bookstores for hours at a time. They were always asking me what I would like to read next, and helping me find authors and series that I would enjoy. As a child (even a very young one), I did have a bedtime, but never a lights-out. My parents never minded that I stayed up with a lamp to read my books in bed. Because of how I was brought up, I have such a nostalgic, emotional connection to reading today. I ended up going into science as a career, but reading was my first love.

What do you plan to read next?

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. I started it a long time ago, but didn’t finish it because I wasn’t loving it. But it’s been a while, and I’d like to give it another shot! It makes me wish I could read Spanish, because I’m sure the fact that it’s translated makes a huge difference.

Do you like being read to or reading aloud?

I much prefer reading on my own, because otherwise my mind wanders too much. Even when I’m watching TV, I put the subtitles on so that I can read along with what’s being spoken aloud. I do listen to audiobooks sometimes, though, especially when it’s a great narrator. It’s hard to beat Jim Dale’s narration of the Harry Potter series, which of course I read countless times when I was growing up.

If you could require your friends to read one book, which would it be?

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It’s one of my all-time favorite books (I know I keep saying that about different books), and I’ve probably forced over a dozen friends and family members to read it over the years. It’s so good!

Do books serve a moral function, in your view?

They do, in that they help us build empathy, listen to new voices, and experience new world views. If you are a reader, your world is that much bigger.