reader, writer

Bibliophiles: Gary Shteyngart, novelist

Gary Shteyngart, the prize-winning, best-selling author, was born Igor Shteyngart, His new memoir, “Little Failure,” recounts how one became the other. Harvard Book Store brings Shteyngart to the Brattle Theatre for a reading at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23. Tickets $28.

BOOKS: What have been some of your most memorable reads of 2013?

SHTEYNGART: This is the year I tackled British literature. I read Dickens’s “David Copperfield,” which was wonderful. I read “Middlemarch” by George Eliot. That was a very intense and great book. I also read Rebecca Mead’s “My Life in Middlemarch” about Eliot’s novel.


BOOKS: What prompted the British binge?

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SHTEYNGART: I felt like such a fraud. I’m a 41-year-old professor at Columbia University. I should know this stuff.

BOOKS: Which British novel will you read next?

SHTEYNGART: I guess Dickens’s “Bleak House.”

BOOKS: Did you have to catch up on American literature at some point?


SHTEYNGART: Not really. I was reading Mark Twain when I was a kid in Russia.

BOOKS: What role did reading play in Russia when you lived there?

SHTEYNGART: Books were huge. If you didn’t have the collected work of Tolstoy and Pushkin on your bookshelf you were considered an idiot. It was such a repressed society people kept mimeographed copies of books that were banned. People copied Nabokov’s “Lolita” and passed it around. The great thing about growing up in a poor country is that there are few distractions.

BOOKS: Did your reading change when your family emigrated to the United States?

SHTEYNGART: In Russia I read at a very sophisticated level. I was reading Twain and Chekhov in grade school in Russian. Then I moved here and was reading “My Little Pony” and things like that in English.


BOOKS: What books capture the experience of being a Russian immigrant?

‘I still dip into science fiction. Not as much as I used to. I grew up reading Isaac Asimov day and night.’

SHTEYNGART: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” which is wonderful. Also “Pnin,” his novel about a hapless Russian professor. Nabokov is usually not nice to his characters. Here he makes fun of him but loves him.

BOOKS: What books really capture Russia for you?

SHTEYNGART: Russian literature does it so well. For example, Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” That inspired me growing up. It’s a very sad book. It shows how quickly things change, how hard it is for sons and fathers to maintain a closeness and understanding.

BOOKS: Do you still read in Russian?

SHTEYNGART: Yes. All the great Russian literature. It’s still so fresh. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is something you can read 10 times and still find a little detail that will surprise you.

BOOKS: Do you read contemporary Russian fiction?

SHTEYNGART: Contemporary Russian literature is not that great. There are such wrenching changes there; it’s hard for writers to keep up with them. Vladimir [Sorokin’s] “Blue Bacon Fat” made quite a stir because it has a scene where Stalin and Khrushchev are having sex. What upset Russians was that Khrushchev was on top of Stalin. They built a huge toilet outside Red Square and threw his books in it. What’s exciting is that people cared enough to build a huge toilet.

BOOKS: What else do you read?

SHTEYNGART: I’ve read lots of nonfiction books about the financial industry and technology. I loved “The Singularity Is Near” by Ray Kurzweil about the idea that we will all be downloaded into a computer soon.

BOOKS: Anything you’d never read?

SHTEYNGART: No. If someone recommends a book I’ll read it, even if it has an octopus being sliced up on the cover. I love genre novels. I still dip into science fiction. Not as much as I used to. I grew up reading Isaac Asimov day and night.

BOOKS: Why do you think people tend to outgrow science fiction?

SHTEYNGART: I’m not sure they do. Literary writers now write a kind of science fiction. How do you not read Margaret Atwood?

BOOKS: What’s the next literary hole you will fill in?

SHTEYNGART: Maybe this will be the year of Pakistani fiction.


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