Jeffrey Eugenides on Falling in Love with Reading (with Help from His Mom)
The Author of Fresh Complaint on the Books in His Life
What was the first book you fell in love with?
Appropriately, it was Love Story by Erich Segal. This was in 1970. I found the book lying around our house and began reading it. Then I started taking it to school with me. While the other kids were reading kid stuff, I’d haul out my hardback of Love Story and immerse myself in the story of a doomed love affair, at Harvard, that dealt with sex, class, and cancer… The teacher called my mother to ask if I had permission to read the book. And though my mother was taken by surprise by this news, she said. “That’s OK. He can read that if he wants.” Which made me love my mother––and reading––all the more.
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read?
Das Kapital or The Critique of Pure Reason. Something along those lines. I’ve read enough canonical literature by this point that I don’t feel guilty for not having read, say, The Confidence Man, or Gilgamesh. I’d like to read them, and maybe I will, but I don’t fret about it.
What’s the book you reread the most?
It’s never a single book but a writer. The writers have changed through the years. I reread to figure out how they did what they did. Remember that top-secret American jet that got stranded on a landing strip in Southeast Asia and was confiscated by the Chinese? They took everything apart to reverse-engineer the technology. Rereading serves a similarly exploitive purpose for me. It also reacquaints me with what mastery looks like, which was what started me writing in the first place. The admiration inspired the ambition. So when I’m having a hard time, which is a lot of the time, I’ll reread one of my heroes to get juiced up again.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
The Bible, under copyright. No, seriously, I have three novels in my head right now that I want to write but haven’t yet written. So those are the ones I think about. Obviously, they’re the only books I’m capable of writing and, therefore, the only instances where wishing has any use.
What’s the new book you’re most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to reading The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum. Based on something Darwin said about animals having a “taste for the beautiful,” Prum argues that some traits exist merely for aesthetic reasons and bring no benefit in terms of survival. “All art is useless,” Oscar Wilde said. This may be true, at times, of biology as well.