Travel writer and novelist

Pico Iyer

derek shapton
Pico Iyer says the isolation of living in rural Japan encourages tough reading projects.

A s Pico Iyer puts it, he moves between different environments more quickly than most people. For example, the intrepid, reflective travel writer had just left his home in Japan, stopped over in Hawaii, and landed in Santa Barbara, Calif., to visit his mother. Iyer will be on this coast to discuss his new book about Graham Greene, “The Man Within My Head,’’ on Feb. 2 at 4:30 p.m. at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities and at the Harvard Book Store on Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.

BOOKS: What is your favorite Graham Greene book?

IYER: “The Quiet American,’’ because it tells such an intricate story about the American and the British empires with Asia shivering between them as well as such a heart-rending story of three people. All that in fewer than 200 pages. I’ve probably reread it once a year for the past 20 years. There are many of his books I don’t like. For example, when it comes to travel writing, I think he’s the least sympathetic. He’s a perfect example of how to not write about a place in nonfiction. His book on Mexico is so cruel and so self-enclosed, and then out of that same trip he wrote the novel “The Power and the Glory,’’ one of his most compassionate.


BOOKS: Who are your favorite travel writers?

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IYER: The ones who would never think of themselves as travel writers. So something like “The Enigma of Arrival’’ by V.S. Naipaul, or “The Rings of Saturn’’ by W.G. Sebald, or “Istanbul’’ by Orhan Pamuk. I don’t find travel and destination inherently interesting. But if I’m looking for a masterful portraitist of places, I would say, Jan Morris, who I grew up on and still revere.

BOOKS: How does traveling influence your reading?

IYER: Yesterday I was on a plane, during which I usually read polished nonfiction, such as “The Emperor of All Maladies’’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Tomorrow I will be in a monastery so will take Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and Melville. Then I’m going to Iran in a few weeks. I won’t take any books about Iran itself but maybe a John le Carré novel, something that will throw sparks when set off against Iran.

BOOKS: So you read in monasteries?


IYER: This is a reflection of my being a delinquent. When I go to the monastery that I’ve been going to for 20 years, I’ll take a huge suitcase full of books, even for just three days there, and I will probably get through most of them. If I were a spiritually informed person I would meditate and empty my mind.

BOOKS: Has living in Japan influenced your reading?

IYER: It’s almost more of monastic setting than the monastery I go to. I live in the middle of nowhere, know nobody really except my wife, and have no means of transport other than my feet. We have no TV or media. It’s a wonderful place to read. I will take a 900-page book by Thomas Pynchon or Marcel Proust, some fairly substantial book that I would find hard to read in California or while traveling. I have a great stack of seemingly indigestible books there. Japan has also introduced me to my addiction to Edith Wharton. We have a tiny terrace and I sit out there in the winter sun and eat tangerines and read her novels. I was in grad school for many years studying English literature, and I left because my love of reading was diminishing. Being in Japan has really reinvigorated that love.

BOOKS: Do you have any guilty pleasures?

IYER: I was in Bhutan for three weeks by myself in the middle of winter, and there was nothing to do. I went to the local library where I would tear through Jackie Collins novels. What I love about travel is it puts you in situations where you do things you wouldn’t otherwise. I’m not sure I’d be tempted to read her in California, but in Bhutan Jackie Collins is an exhilaration.

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