Eula Biss on building a library, move after move

Eula Biss, author of "Having and Being Had."
Eula Biss, author of "Having and Being Had."Handout

Purchasing a home, long the American dream, troubled essayist and poet Eula Biss as much as it thrilled her. Her examination of why that was resulted in her new book, “Having and Being Had,” which considers the many ways consumerism and capitalism worm their way into our lives. Biss is the author of four books, including the best-selling “On Immunity.” The writer, who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship among many other awards, teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. She lives in Evanston, Ill., with her husband and son.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

BISS: Two books in a trilogy by the French essayist Nathalie Leger. I have already read the middle one, “Suite for Barbara Loden,” which I loved, because it came out in English first. Now I have the first and last books, “Exposition” and “The White Dress.” I worried about reading the series out of order, but it’s not been a problem.


BOOKS: Do you read largely nonfiction?

BISS: The vast majority is essays with a smattering of poetry. I read a very small amount of fiction and gravitate to fiction that feels like nonfiction, such as Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which has an essayist impulse.

BOOKS: Which poets do you read?

BISS: I have a tremendous circle of poet friends, who I also read, such as David Trinidad. Same with Robyn Schiff and Suzanne Buffam. Pre-pandemic I saw a Danez Smith performance, and it was extraordinary. I picked up Smith’s collection “Homie” and really enjoyed it.

BOOKS: Did the pandemic prompt you to pick up any book?

BISS: As soon as the word “quarantine” came up, I wanted to reread Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” but everyone did. My order took two months to come, and by then I hardly felt like reading it. I felt like I was living it. I read Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born,” which is about how difficult it is for women to pursue intellectual lives and also be mothers, just as all my child care disappeared. I found that reading experience upsetting. It was like reading Defoe, that feeling of “Oh my God, so little has changed.” Because of that, I turned to some pleasure reading. One of the most pleasurable was Aleksandar Hemon’s flip book “My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You.” One side is a kind of study in memory and the other side tells the story of his family.


BOOKS: Did buying a house influence you as a reader?

BISS: I moved 10 times in 10 years while I was in my 20s, and I had to cull from my books each time. In a house, I finally can hold on to all my books and build a personal library.

BOOKS: What is in your library?

BISS: I have a lot of books that I use for research, so I have several of David Graeber’s books, such as “Possibilities” and “Debt.” I have read “Debt” a couple of times, which is impressive because I never read 700-page books. I have a weird collection of economics books. I reread Karl Marx’s “Capital” for my book. In college I experienced it as a thrilling piece of writing. I might have the wrong translation or it’s the wrong time in my life because now “Capital” seems so dry. There are much spunkier writers on economics, like Mariana Mazzucato, who wrote “The Value of Everything.” That reframes the way we think about money and work in a way that seems full of promise. I read some history books that were thrilling, such as Alison Light’s book on Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her servant.


BOOKS: Given your ambivalence about consumerism, how do you feel about buying books?

BISS: I have so many complicated feelings about acquiring things that it is difficult for me to even get things I need, like clothes, but not so with books. I spend money freely on books with no guilt. Their nature is different than other material goods because they are places for building knowledge. Before the pandemic, I was at a presentation about the early history of the book. It wasn’t unusual once for a book to be worth the annual salary of an average person. There’s so much wrong with capitalism but we can have so many books. This is one of our great fortunes.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of "Rescuing Penny Jane'' and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.