Martin Crook for Literati.
Beloved writer Susan Orlean is navigating today’s new normal by bemoaning the state of the world on Twitter (“SICK AND TIRED OF EVERYTHING“) and sipping on cucumber mules (“cleanses the soul“). She’s also, like many of us, escaping thte anxiety of the world with a slew of good books—mostly fiction, eight and counting since quarantine hit.
It’s fitting, then, that Orlean is combining the refinement of the erudite with an open invitation to wine and whine; she’s starting a virtual book club, booze encouraged.
Called “Private Collection,” the club launches in October as part of literary startup Literati‘s new series featuring curated collections from luminaries like Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, NBA MVP Stephen Curry, and philanthropist Sir Richard Branson.
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Orlean will pick books from her personal library—all with “exceptional writing and emotional depth,” she guarantees. First up is Jenny Offill’s acclaimed Dept. of Speculation, which Orlean says she consumed in “one big gulp.” Below, the best-selling author of The Orchid Thief takes ELLE.com inside her first selection, the five books on her “must-read” list, and the one novel she’d love to write someday.
What inspired you to choose Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, as your inaugural book club pick?
It’s the kind of book that just grabs you and pulls you into itself. I love Jenny Offill’s writing, which is so precise and intense, and I loved the way she drew you into the particulars of marriage and parenting and ordinary life with such freshness and originality. It’s almost miraculous how immersive the book is, while at the same time it’s so spare and compact. It seemed like a great book for launching the club, because it hints at the kind of books I’m going to be choosing—those with exceptional writing and emotional depth.
What other books have been carrying you through quarantine?
I’m halfway through The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, and I’m really enjoying it. The writing is gorgeous, and it’s a pleasure to be in such a different culture—it’s set in Nigeria—especially when we’re all spending so much time at home.
Anything else on your “must read” list right now?
I keep a running list of books I plan to read—the list can swell to as many as twenty, but it averages about seven or eight. Right now, it includes The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, Carried Away by Alice Munro, We Germans by Alexander Starritt, When Time Stopped by Ariana Neumann, and Bark by Lorrie Moore.
I’m a firm believer in pairing food with literature. Do you have a go-to snack for cozying up with a good book?
My newest obsession is Ginger Chews, which are spicy little chewy candies that take forever to eat. I usually go through about four during an evening read.
If you had to pick one book—just one!—what would you say is your favorite of all time?
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. It opened my mind to the possibilities of language, the power of storytelling, and the potency of history. Reading it for the first time made me feel like I saw the world in a new way. That’s an unforgettable experience.
Your top five favorite authors—go!
[William] Faulkner, of course; Joan Didion, Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross. All of them are incredible writers who also make you care deeply about their stories.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a present?
A friend gave me a signed copy of In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I had never read anything by Chatwin, and I fell madly in love with the book and with him as a writer. I don’t usually care that much about signed copies, but I really loved the idea that Chatwin had actually held the book and signed it. He seemed like such a mythical character to me that it was thrilling to imagine that he actually existed.
What book has most shaped your own writing?
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, which I read in high school, made me realize the possibilities and range that non-fiction could have, and convinced me that I wanted to try to write like that. Before reading it, I thought that artistry and voice were only possible in fiction, and that if you wanted to write non-fiction you couldn’t play with form. The book meant so much to me that I carried it around every day for months until my copy finally, literally, fell apart.
What’s your dream book to write?
My dream book to write would be the one that would write itself, and that is a huge success loved by everyone who reads it. I hope that’s possible!
Are you working on anything right now?
I’m writing a memoir about my career—the stories behind the stories. It’s been a blast looking back on the different experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met.
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