April 23, 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 ninth chapter features student Victoria Llanos ’21.
Photo by Jenessa Lu ’21
What books are on your nightstand?
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
I’m not even reading it at the moment. That’s not to say I haven’t read this classic narrative couplet of Americana. Of course I have! I’ve probably read both stories at least a dozen times. I think I keep it by my bed out of some kind of nostalgia or cultural obligation. You see, I grew up in Westchester county, NY, close to Tarrytown, so Sleepy Hollow lore was something of a cult. In fact, every October when I was very young, my parents would take me to Irving’s residence, Sunnyside, to “partake in some seasonal activities.” And when they said seasonal, they really meant hokey. And when they said activities, they really meant making candles, or basket weaving, or churning butter. You know, kid stuff. But there were also ghost stories, and that was cool.
Rayuela (a.k.a. Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar
I always try to have at least one Spanish book going at a time. (¿Me escuchás, papá?) . Rayuela certainly is a challenge with all of the increasingly elitist references — Goethe, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Eyck, Dostoyevsky, Satie, Kierkegaard, and a whole slew of jazz musicians that I have zero time to list out — and spontaneous shifts in time and space. Nothing is linear in this book (which is its purpose), but I like Horacio, so I’m sticking with it. El señor Horacio Oliveira is hapless and hopeless and pedantic beyond belief. It’s always nice to see yourself reflected in literature, isn’t it? And should I lose interest in the novel, the last third of the book is essentially optional. I can read it in any given order, read only bits and pieces, or entirely disregard it. Isn’t this avant-garde stuff fun?
Emma by Jane Austen
This isn’t my first read-through of the book. I wasn’t even planning to reread it for some time. However, a recent viewing of an abysmal film adaptation (the most recent one, not the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow, although anything with her is certainly no treat either) sparked a certain rage in me. It was as though I could feel Austen roll in her grave. So I decided to cleanse myself of the semi-traumatic impression with which the movie left me and vindicate dear Jane with this revisitation.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
Old faithful. I always have it on hand: on my nightstand, in my jacket pocket, on my desk — you name it, it’s there. No matter what anyone says, no Grammarly application or Spell-Check program can ever come close to the pithy yet comprehensive life-saver that is the “little book.” Mr. Strunk, Mr. White, I owe my English grade to you. As well as my generous use of commas. #oxfordcommaorbust
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
When wasn’t this book on my nightstand? I started it a year ago, and I still have yet to tackle it. To clarify, I adore this book, but no one can tell me that it isn’t dense. Each page is a pleasure, which is wonderful because I doubt that I will live to see them end.
A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester
I started this at the beginning of quarantine. I’ve found that one of the few ways I manage to keep myself entertained is walking about the neighborhood admiring houses. I’ve always liked architecture and knew the basics, but I wanted an understanding beyond, “Gee whiz, what a nice Queen Anne, that is!” For example, did you know that the typical decorative detailing of a Queen Anne’s facade falls into one of four categories? There’s Spindlework, Free Classic, Half-Timbered, and Patterned Masonry designs. Really fascinating stuff! (I don’t entirely know why I gave that particular example, as there are hardly any Victorian homes where I live in South Florida. It’s mainly Old Spanish homes, which are also lovely. And ranch styles. Or some such.)
Describe your ideal reading experience.
Well, everyone likes a nice winter evening by the hearth. Certainly under a blanket. Maybe watching snow softly accumulate outside the window. Definitely with a warm beverage at hand. I have always been partial to a nice hot chocolate. I recall one such night-in while staying in Lenox, MA. I was lodged at an inn, and found a copy of David McCullough’s 1776. The inn was actually a colonial home from 1766. Go figure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, reading outside on a nice, sunny day is a definite treat. Find me a book and some shade (or an Adirondack chair — I’m a big fan; they’re a revolutionary invention), and I’m happy.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading and which do you avoid?
I love Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Nonfiction, Satire, Comedy, Mysteries, Crime, Biographies, and I actually enjoy — and don’t yawn when I say this — grammar and style reference books. Of course, they’re utilitarian, but they’re also delightful as a leisure read. Ever read The King’s English or Eats, Shoots, & Leaves? Hilarious! I also have quite a few bird books. My grandmother is quite the lover of ornithology; she gives me a new guide every now and again. Oh, and although I am not keen to admit it, I like Romance. There’s a reason I pore (and sob) over the same Austen and Brontë novels every year: I’m a bit of a sap.
In general, I avoid Science Fiction and Fantasy. I often find that the premises are too outlandish for me to develop any kind of interest in character development or story line. And, yes, I get that the otherworldliness of it all is the point, but I just find it too distracting. That said, there are definitely exceptions. I have always loved Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s brilliantly clever, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it’s a (loving) spoof of Science-Fiction. The absurdism and cynicism are great. So I suppose I best enjoy Sci-Fi or Fantasy when there is an element of parody or comedy. I like the humor to be absurdist, but the premise considerably less so.
I am also loath to read most contemporary Horror or Thrillers. I enjoy classics of the genres, especially Gothic Horror, as the element of fear is rooted more in suspense or subtle usage of the macabre. These days, you get beat over the head with a lot of gore just for the sake or gore and shock value, which usually means shoddy writing and nonexistent character development. It can be extremely archetypical too. I don’t find that particularly interesting or resonant. I’d even call it garish. (Strangely enough, I have always found that suspense or implications of the bizarre, though less ‘realistic’ per se, have a certain eerie insidiousness that lurk in the consciousness longer than an outright graphically realistic description. The human mind, the imagination, is infinitely more warped than some words on a page could ever be.)
What kind of reader were you as a child? What should everyone read before the age of ten?
Voracious. And, by all accounts, insufferably elitist. When I was very young, I devoured staples of children’s literature: Heidi, Gulliver’s Travels, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Little House on the Prairie series, etc. By the time I was ten, I had had my fill of The Boxcar Children and whatnot, and decided to just read what I noxiously saw as “real literature.” I entirely bypassed Y.A. books, (although I certainly still read prototypical, angsty stuff like The Catcher in the Rye), which was great in that you’re never too young to read a masterwork like Great Expectations, but it also meant that my ten-year-old self thought it was okay to read books I had no business reading like A Clockwork Orange. Ten-year-olds of the world, don’t make the same mistake. Stick with the Classics. I particularly recommend Caddie Woodlawn, which was given to me by the grandmother, Little Women, and A Christmas Carol. I still read these every year!
How do you organize your books?
In theory, I organize my books by genre. Within a genre, they are classified by period or movement, and within that, by author. I say “in theory” because I am desperately running out of shelf space and have gotten too lazy to put my books back properly after reading them. This means that White Teeth currently resides beside Ring for Jeeves. Yikes.
What do you plan to read next?
This is kind of a silly choice, especially because I have hoards of books already sitting on my shelves that I have yet to read, but I was listening to particularly amusing installment of A Way With Words last week, and Martha and Grant recommended a book called The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy. (Great name, right?) It covers lesser-known dialectical distinctions between American and British English beyond your run-of-the-mill ‘pants’ vs. ‘trousers’ or ‘sidewalk’ vs. ‘pavement’ and so forth. I figured that I know the rudimentary distinctions well enough. (Did I mention that I’m humble?) But it couldn’t hurt to investigate a bit more. Particularly if I am going to continue watching soapy BBC period dramas with my mother every night.