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Martin Puchner on science fiction and speed reading

Martin PuchnerJohannes Marburg

In his forthcoming book, “Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop,” Martin Puchner takes on nothing less ambitious than a historical tour of the key moments in arts and humanities. He is also the author of “The Written World” and “The Language of Thieves” as well as an editor of “The Norton Anthology of World Literature.” The German native is a professor of English and comparative literature at Harvard University. He’ll speak at the Boston Athenaeum Monday, Feb. 6, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for the general public.

BOOKS: What have you been reading over the holiday break?


PUCHNER: This is embarrassing. I’ve been sick the last couple of days and spent it reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s “Zorba the Greek.” The place I’m subletting had a copy. I’m glad I read it but it was a mixed experience. It’s this existentialist cri de coeur but it seems almost cliché now. I was also struck by how misogynistic it is. There are almost no women characters.

BOOKS: So that is not typical reading for you?

PUCHNER: No. That was a kind of delirious reading.

BOOKS: What would you typically pick up?

PUCHNER: I didn’t read a lot of science fiction or fantasy growing up but I’ve developed an interest in it belatedly. I’ve been reading a gamut, from “Harry Potter” to Philip Pullman to Neal Stephenson. Last year I read Stephenson’s “Termination Shock,” which is a reckoning with environmental change.

BOOKS: Do you read more in English or German?

PUCHNER: I read mostly in English, just occasionally in German or French.

BOOKS: Is there a German author you wish was better known?

PUCHNER: I’ve always been a fan of Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer who won a Nobel. She’s very hard to translate, which is why she isn’t well known here. I think her best book is “Lust,” which is a hard-hitting novel about abuse, in which she dismantles the casual and not-so-casual violence in language.


BOOKS: When did you become a serious reader?

PUCHNER: Pretty late. As a child and a teenager I read things I loved, like “Lord of the Rings,” which I read twice at 12. My parents had lots of books but I wasn’t particularly interested in reading until my last year in high school and in college. I was a late developer, in lots of other things too.

BOOKS: Was there a book or author that prompted your change?

PUCHNER: There were a couple of reading experiences I could point to. I studied philosophy in college and then drifted into literature in grad school. I found that literature promised access to how different people thought. I was reading early 20th-century authors, such as Kafka, especially his short fiction like “The Silence of the Sirens.” Then I read Joyce’s “Ulysses” in this part of Greece, Mount Athos, which is closed off to the world and only has monasteries. It’s like something out of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Reading “Ulysses” there was a very intense reading experience. It was also Lent, and there was very little food to be had. It made me realize how much of the novel is about food.

BOOKS: Do you have any tips for readers who want to expand their reading?

PUCHNER: There is the excellent website, Words Without Borders, that does translations of contemporary poetry and short stories from around the world. If you are more interested in great texts from around the world, an anthology of world literature is a great place to start.


BOOKS: How many books did you read for your book?

PUCHNER: An enormous amount. This is the accumulation of decades of reading and studying, and then I read a lot of history, scholarship in these obscure areas, old travelogues and epics. It was an interesting range.

BOOKS: Are you a fast reader?

PUCHNER: I am pretty fast, which I sometimes think is not good. When you plow through scholarship, fast reading is necessary. You have to look for what’s important. I’m good at quickly doing that but that has become a habit of reading everything fast. It’s only when I’m compelled by the writing that I slow down but even that will not last long. Note to self: Maybe for my New Year’s resolution I should read more slowly.

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.