In her new memoir, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” writer and graphic artist Alison Bechdel delves into her long-time obsession with fitness crazes, an often-comic self-examination that leads from spin classes eventually, somehow, to Eastern philosophy. The MacArthur Fellow is the creator of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and her graphic memoir “Fun Home” was a bestseller that was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. She lives in Vermont with her partner.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
BECHDEL: Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov. It’s absolutely riveting and reads like a novel. With a biography, the author is always in a tension with their subject as to whether can they see through them or not. And Schiff can see right through Vera Nabokov.
BOOKS: Are biographies a favorite genre for you?
BECHDEL: Yes, I just love reading about other people’s lives. One of my favorites is Megan Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller, which I drew on a lot for my new book. Fuller is such an amazing and undersung character. I just loved being absorbed in someone else’s life. But you always know how a biography ends. That’s the sad part.
BOOKS: Are you also a memoir reader?
BECHDEL: Surprisingly for a memoirist, I’m not. I do like diaries. My partner and I are in this lifelong project of reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries out loud to each other. They are so gossipy, nothing like her fiction. I also love diary comics, the kind people produce on a regular basis like a blog entry. Gabrielle Bell is a great diary comic artist.
BOOKS: Do you read a lot of graphic novels?
BECHDEL: I love Kate Beaton, who does these funny cartoons about history and literature. But I don’t read enough graphic literature. There’s so much of it that I gave up on keeping up with it all.
BOOKS: Has the pandemic influenced your reading in any way?
BECHDEL: I was finishing this new book so while I would draw all day I listened to a lot of audio books. I listened to a lot of Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.” My goal in life is to get through that book, and I still haven’t done it.
BOOKS: What were some other favorites from your recent audio book binge?
BECHDEL: I listened to David Lipsky’s “Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.” I had to take breaks from that because it was a little too solipsistic but it was still interesting to hear him talk about suddenly getting recognition for his work. I also listened to Benjamin Moser’s biography about Susan Sontag. I toggled between reading it and listening to it. I can absorb more of the book’s details with the hard copy.
BOOKS: When did you start listening to books?
BECHDEL: It started in the ’90s. I would check out cassettes from the library then. I think the first one was Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” during one long dark winter when I had to ink for a month. It was nice to have someone pronounce all those Russian names I would have stumbled over in my head.
BOOKS: Do you read self-help books?
BECHDEL: I love books about the intersection of psychotherapy and Buddhism. There are two authors I like: Mark Epstein, who wrote “Thoughts Without a Thinker,” and Polly Young-Eisendrath. I just read her “Love Between Equals.” That kind of reading started in my 20s with Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” That’s like a gateway drug for self-help books.
BOOKS: What do you read for comfort?
BECHDEL: I’m one of those people who constantly rereads Jane Austen. I feel guilty about that because there are so many other books that I haven’t read but Austen’s novels are immensely soothing. I also do that with Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries.
BOOKS: What are some of your other reading habits?
BECHDEL: I came late to the Kindle, but am now addicted to reading mine at night until I fall asleep. You can’t do that with a real book. You have to turn off your light and put the book away. The Kindle just drops to my side, and I find it in the morning. As addictions go, it seems rather harmless.