Words to Live By: Nicholas Dawidoff
Words to Live By features exclusive interviews with authors, artists, and community members.
Nicholas Dawidoff, a member of the Book Harvest Authors’ Circle, is the critically acclaimed author of six books, including The Catcher Was a Spy and In the Country of Country. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has also been a Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, and Art for Justice Fellow. His most recent book is The Other Side of Prospect: A Story of Violence, Injustice, and the American City. Dawidoff will appear at Flyleaf Books at 6:00 on Monday, March 20, where he will be in conversation with David Dodson about this latest book. Details can be found here.
March 1, 2023
Is there a book or genre that stands out in your memory from your youth?
Little Rascal, the story of a lonely boy and his pet raccoon cub living in a small Wisconsin town during World War I. As a genre, I especially liked coming of age stories, both nonfiction (Martin Luther King, Robert Frost, Anne Bradstreet) and fiction (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Johnny Tremain, The Moffats, Tom Sawyer). As an adult, I discovered that Little Rascal was the revision (for kids) of a book for adults called Rascal. But I still prefer Little Rascal. Which I almost know by heart from the raccoon’s expression when he washes a sugar lump and it dissolves to the great pie-eating contest.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
One day, trying to insult me, a kid said “All you do is read and play baseball.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it was pretty much true. There wasn’t a lot to do in my house except read, and I lived in books. I mean that I was present, but far away in the lives of the people on the pages of stories. When my sister and I quarreled at the dinner table, my mom would tell us we couldn’t talk and to go get books, so the favorite books of my childhood have ketchup stains on some of the pages.
What are three children’s books you think should be on every child’s bookshelf?
I just don’t think that when kids read for pleasure, they should be told what they must read. I think of a child’s bookshelf as theirs to decide about; that it ought to express them. I mean, I gave my kids Goodnight Moon when they were very young, but if they’d hated Goodnight Moon, it would have been fine if they said “not on my shelf!”
Book Harvest is proud to practice Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s theory of “Mirrors, Windows, Sliding Glass Doors,” which states that in order to become avid readers and reap the full benefits of lifelong literacy, children have to see both themselves and worlds beyond their own in the stories they read. Is there a book that you saw yourself reflected in as a child? Or one that opened new worlds for you?
It was the best to disappear into the world of books, inhabiting Russian villages (Old Peter’s Russian Tales) or English marsh country (Great Expectations) or a Red Sox uniform (My Turn At Bat, which is Ted Williams telling the story of his life). Sometimes I became so affected by what I was reading I didn’t want to leave the world of the book. When I was pretty young, I read Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, and even though I have still never been to the Nebraska prairie, I felt that book with such intensity, sometimes I forget I haven’t been there.
What kind of books are on your bookshelf?
So many kinds of books! My books are loosely divided by genre (like Russian fiction, or music, or sociology, or books by and about Samuel Johnson, or detective stories or baseball books), although there are some areas that are reserved for favorite books or books by friends who are writers. The only kinds of books that aren’t on my shelves are books I disliked. And even then, I find that, across life, there have been books I didn’t like when I was young, that I reencountered at a later age and decided I liked them after all–that I just wasn’t ready. Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” is a book I didn’t really understand as a younger person, but as I advanced through life, this account of a woman thinking back through the signal people and transformative events of her life as she prepares to host a party (hosting being her art) seems to me that rarest thing—a perfect book.
What are you reading currently?
Robert Frank, 1954. Fred Stein—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
I am often reading books for work, and since my current book is about a photographer, I am reading many books about photography. Robert Frank’s The Americans is my favorite; it’s the great American road trip book, much better than On The Road. Somehow, simply by taking pictures, Robert Frank could offer a sense of people’s emotional lives in a way that is incredibly moving in the way of literature. The Americans is 83 photographs, but to me it feels somewhere between poetry and a novel. In recent weeks I have also read novels by Elena Ferrante. These are well known as portraits of friendship between sensitive, intelligent women, but I also think they offer penetrating insight into the city of Naples as a place where longstanding struggles with poverty and inequity lead to trouble including a legacy of violence.
What is your favorite place to read?
In a chair while listening to a ballgame and eating sunflowers seeds. This is how I have been since childhood when I first developed these habits.
Who is your favorite all-time character from a book?
Samuel Johnson, Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, c. 1772
It changes all the time. Right now it’s probably Samuel Johnson, whose brilliance and humanity deepens every time I reencounter him. The reason so many people wrote wonderful books about him, from James Boswell (in the famed Life of Johnson) to Walter Jackson Bate (perhaps the very standard for modern biography) is that Johnson thought so hard about the lives of others, and forced himself to learn to speak forcefully and well–which he does. I like that nobody thought of him as a handsome man, but that because of his wondrous mind he became beautiful himself. He suffered a great deal, from serious melancholy and that he struggled so valiantly to understand his troubles and to overcome them partly by thinking about the lives of others, looking outward, this I admire very much. He’s also a great character because all he did was sit in rooms or walk around town and he had more thrilling adventures than just about anybody I can think of.
If you could have dinner with three authors from any period in time, who would you pick?
It seems important to note both that I am having dinner with them, not their books, and that you don’t say it has to be the same dinner. So I would choose people who seem like excellent, lively talkers who might have a lot to discuss beyond what is in their books. In other words, worldly, observant, outward-looking people with wit.
There are so many writers to name, and just to limit a question which threatens to overwhelm me (how not to meet Cather or Baldwin or Marquez or Chekhov?) I will place myself in England and meet William Shakespeare for shepherd’s pie at a pub near the theater, Samuel Johnson at the Mitre Tavern, and Virginia Woolf at a Bloomsbury tea room of her choosing.
What are the children in your life currently reading?
Son, age twelve, is reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X which fills him with excitement. Daughter, age ten, is reading The Hunger Games and Waiting For Normal and lots of others she wants to list but my two typing fingers are tired.
Do you have a favorite quote from literature? If so, what is it?
When Tolstoy wrote “drops dripped” as a full sentence, I never forgot it. Let me stand up and jump around and sing in celebration of a sentence so efficient, so beautifully in rhythm with longer sentences around it, a sentence that perfectly describes what it seeks to describe. And now I can’t resist violating the very compression I have just admired in Tolstoy by ending where I began, with a coming of age story–many people’s idea of the finest of all coming of age stories, the story Araby, from James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners. Coming of age, after all, is learning many things, including about how the world limits and disappoints. Araby tells of a boy who has long anticipated the (thrilling) way an experience will be, and then he finally has the experience, and it goes wrong. What happens isn’t tragic, just an everyday disappointment that hits in a way we know will be a crucial, formative life moment.
Araby ends like this: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” That might seem so unhappy, except that it’s also so true to the experience, and so artistic that after I read it, I never forgot it–and it changed how I myself saw the world, myself in relation to my own hopes and desires. There are many reasons to read. That such a brief story could do that is one of the best reasons to read. And to write. Good stories are everywhere.
We are grateful to Nicholas for answering our questions! You can learn more about him here.