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‘Pleasure, Obligation, Curiosity, Inspiration’: What’s on Marie Arana’s Nightstand


The ones who break the mold, who turn the prism, who go down the rabbit hole a different way. I admire Marilynne Robinson for her unapologetically spiritual plunge in “Gilead.” Geraldine Brooks for her surprising flip of protagonists in “March.” Matthew Restall for his audacity to see the “conquest” of Latin America with a gimlet eye. Lin-Manuel Miranda for lending Alexander Hamilton new urgency. Philip Glass for prying open the human quotient in “Appomattox.” Samanta Schweblin for the high-octane hysteria of “Fever Dream.” Vladimir Voinovich for poking a sharp stick at two idols, Solzhenitsyn and Putin. Andrés Reséndez for the neglected story of Indian enslavement from 1492 to the present day.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I treasure a raggedy little volume of Robert Burns’s songs bound in red plaid that my mother, in her love for all things Scottish, handed down to me. My siblings and I used to howl the songs at the top of our lungs on our eight-hour trips from Cartavio to Lima. We didn’t have a clue about the loch and the brae and the rye, but the music never failed to bring tears to our mother’s eyes and we were twisted enough to really love that.

You ran The Washington Post’s Book World section for a long time. How did that affect your personal reading? Do you find it hard to read for fun given your work as a critic?

That was the job of a lifetime, a mandate to build on a publication that already had the eyes of the nation’s capital. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve as Book World’s editor when it was a robust weekly in its prime. But it wasn’t easy work. You at The Times know the drill: Every day is triage in the review business. One hundred and fifty books land on your desk every morning and you roll up your sleeves and go to it. It’s bound to have a profound effect on the way you read. My husband, Jonathan Yardley, a protean (and extraordinarily gifted) critic, always accused me of “reading at” a book rather than “really reading” during those many years, and I stand guilty as charged. You need a strategy if you have to thresh so many titles at once, and that strategy ends up being: You inhale the first 20 to 50 pages of a book, gauge its essence, then hop-skip through the rest. A book review editor needs to read just enough to understand where the book belongs and who is the best reader to judge it. The process tends to affect enjoyment. But where you may suffer on individual books, you gain in a broader understanding of the literary trends of your time. I don’t think I will ever lose that critical faculty when I pick up a book, but thank goodness I can now read every word.

What moves you most in a book?

A meticulous attention to language. A wild and reckless sympathy for humanity.

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

My career has taught me to be ecumenical. Graphic novels, once relegated to cult fandom, now teach us about history, science and human affairs. Thriller writers — John Grisham or Dennis Lehane — have proven that some of America’s best writing is in genre fiction. First novels can be too earnest, but they can also be dazzlingly wise. Scholarly monographs open minds in profound ways. Translated books are often the best literature around. I try to avoid cooked up, ephemeral books that are meant to burnish the appeal of celebrities or politicians.

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

The libretto that accompanied the D’Oyly Carte recording of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” It was Christmas, I was 7 years old, and I was immediately obsessed. The music! The fey conceits! The words! “His little pigtail.” “My snickersnee!” “A wandering minstrel, I.” And so, “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance” followed for two Christmases thereafter. This was how I learned to read English.


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