Margo Jefferson: The Books in My Life
On the Pleasures of Poetry and (Not) Reading the Russians
Margo Jefferson’s highly acclaimed memoir, Negroland, is available in paperback today from Vintage.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
When you’re a child, your book tastes are polymorphous. And it’s as much about sound as sight: what’s read to you and what you read. I loved memorizing poems. Some were drivel, some were sublime—it’s nice that you don’t mind the difference when you’re young. I loved the poems in the Lewis Carroll books. “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” “Father William,” “The Hunting of the Snark,” “Jabberwocky” of course, and Humpty Dumpty’s poem. Carroll’s dialogue was great too—the form so courteous, the content so anarchic. I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little over and over. They gave you room for grief and death and fear along with all the pleasure.
There were song lyrics too—they gave me a glorious, glamorous vision of adult life. My parents loved musical theater, jazz and Tin Pan Alley. My sister and I played their records over and over; we’d sing and act the songs out, imitating everyone from Mary Martin to Alfred Drake, then I’d play them on the piano and try to imitate some of the jazz singers who’d changed the tempos and the inflections. Halcyon days!
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read?
Well, if you’d asked me a year back, I’d have had to say War and Peace, but I read it last summer. Now I’ll confess to The Brothers Karamazov. But there are plenty more.
What’s the book you reread the most?
No one book. I reread according to what I need and want at some moment or time in my life. It might be a tone, a rhythm; it might be a mood or an idea. Often I reread my favorite passages, even sentences from a story or essay, a scene from a play, a chapter from a novel. It’s revealing to see what stays with you and think about why. Right now I’m rereading Stevie Smith and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
That way madness lies. As far as sentences, techniques, ways of structuring go, let me count the ways.
What’s the new book you’re most looking forward to?
I’ve just ordered Teju Cole’s book of essays, Known and Strange Things. I’m still catching up with relatively recent books. I’ve just begun Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism. Rigorous cultural criticism. And I’m getting ready to read Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel, Song of the Shank, and Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Yours. I’m interested in their experiments: his with history and fiction; hers with narrative and fantasy.