Dana Spiotta Loves Coming Across Jokes in Really Old Books

Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood?

“Ulysses” is famously difficult, and, in truth, there are tedious parts. And problematic parts. But if approached with irreverence, you can feel the living force of an extraordinary and particular mind at play. Take what you want, don’t be too precious. Its audacity grants a writer all kinds of permission. As Anne Enright said, Joyce “opened all the windows and doors.”

What moves you most in a work of literature?

When a book seems urgent, which happens if I have a sense of the writer trying to work something out, or to discover something, in the writing. And when something familiar is described with such precision that it becomes estranged, and I am able to see it with clarity and depth. The astonishing experience of recognition and implication in the same moment. Writing that resists easy reductions and clichés of language and thought. One of my favorite things is laughing at a joke in a really old book: I feel such connection to the human who made it, which delights and moves me. If you can write a joke that is still funny in 100 years, you are great.

Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?

The older I get, the more complicated this question becomes. I need to feel the life and energy of the writer in the book. This can be a surprising turn in a sentence, a mysterious escalation in form, a particularity of voice. A character revising an idea about the world via a crucial moment of derangement. Even a bold failure. All of these register as emotional to me.

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

Honestly, I have very little patience for science fiction, but as my daughter says, “That is a you problem, Mama.”

How do you organize your books?

By size! I keep all the large-size books in the living room bookshelves, which is how my parents and aunts and uncles used to do it. While the adults talked, we children were encouraged to look at the art books. In my case, my living room books are mostly art books, but not only: everything from Whole Earth Catalogs to “The Book of Wonders,” a charmingly inaccurate encyclopedia from 1916, to the “New York Times Great Lives of the Century” (which is huge and contains obituaries of famous people reprinted as they appeared in the paper) to “Assassination!,” a picture book of Lego re-enactments of famous assassination attempts. I strive to be the weird aunt.

Besides the Lego one, what other books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I collect interior design and decorating books from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Better Homes and Gardens collections, kitchens with avocado green appliances, bright yellow laminate counter tops, plants in macramé.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

My English teacher Jim Hosney assigned part of “The Big Money,” by John Dos Passos, in 12th grade, and it changed forever my idea of what novels could be or do. That was a gift, one of many from that teacher.

What do you plan to read next?

Brooks Haxton’s “Mister Toebones,” Matthew Specktor’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” Mona Awad’s “All’s Well,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Committed,” Christine Smallwood’s “The Life of the Mind,” Christopher Sorrentino’s “Now Beacon, Now Sea,” Namwali Serpell’s “Stranger Faces,” Gina Nutt’s “Night Rooms” and “My Ántonia,” by Willa Cather.

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