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Nicholas Dawidoff on violence in novels, favorite books, and the power of rereading

Nicholas Dawidoff moved back to his hometown of New Haven to research and write his new book “The Other Side of Prospect: A Story of Violence, Injustice, and the American City.”Handout

Nicholas Dawidoff moved back to his hometown of New Haven to research and write his new book, “The Other Side of Prospect: A Story of Violence, Injustice, and the American City.” It was the only way, he says, he could write a book that not only delved into how a New Haven Black man spent most of his life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but digs deep into the bigger issues in American life that made that miscarriage of justice possible. Dawidoff is the author of five previous books and has written on sports, music, and photography for The New Yorker and other publications.


BOOKS: What have you been reading?

DAWIDOFF: I recently finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Her depiction of how people feel about the violence in their neighborhood is not only an authentic description. It’s an inhabiting of the feelings of the people who are under that kind of stress. I found that incredibly moving. In the same way, Richard Wright’s recently published book, “The Man Who Lived Underground,” was a real revelation to me. His description of a coerced confession was so intimate and authentic.

BOOKS: Which genres do you read the most?

DAWIDOFF: I read everything except science fiction. I read a lot of narrative nonfiction. A great book of narrative nonfiction and autobiography is Erin I. Kelly’s “Chasing Me to My Grave,” which is about this then-unknown artist, Winfred Rembert. It won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for biography. That hit me the way another favorite did, Theodore Rosengarten’s “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.” When Rosengarten was a Harvard grad student he went to Alabama to write about efforts to unionize local workers and found this man who was illiterate but who spoke like a writer. That is one of the most stunning pieces of narrative nonfiction that I’ve ever read, and it’s all narrated by this man who lived it all.


BOOKS: Do you read books about sports?

DAWIDOFF: Some of my favorite books as a kid were about sports. I loved Roger Angell’s books, particularly “The Summer Game,” and George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion.” I grew up in a house with a single mom and sister. Those books were a way for a boy to see the adult world of men. A lot of these books, like Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” show what all these guys were up to in their downtime, some of which was boisterous, and some of which was concerning. As a kid I didn’t know the difference.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?

DAWIDOFF: There was nothing else to do. We had a clock radio but no TV. All we did for pleasure was read books. If my sister and I were quarreling, my mom would say we had to read at the dinner table. She didn’t want any more talking. That’s why if you look at my copies of my childhood books you’ll find ketchup stains on them. We reread books a lot. I was rereading everything from Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” which is about the early days of baseball, to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I became a much faster reader because if you read books that you’ve read before you don’t read word by word. You read paragraph to paragraph.


BOOKS: What else did you reread?

DAWIDOFF: Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” If I had to list the 10 books I wanted on a desert island, that novel would be one. I read that over and over as a child the way my children listen to Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” now. Whenever they want something familiar that will make them happy they go back to Trevor Noah’s memoir. They walk around the house listening to it, so at any point you can hear “Born a Crime” here. I had a grandfather who fled the Russian Revolution, went to Vienna, and then fled again to the United States. Like many people who have gone through something traumatizing, he had ways of consoling himself without talking to other people. He reread “Anna Karenina,” a book he had read in his childhood, over and over. Sometimes he would be so deeply living in the world of the book he would get to the end and go right back to the beginning and to the happier moments of his childhood.

Interview was edited and condensed. 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.