In “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self,” Andrea Wulf explores how a group of writers and philosophers in a small German town in the late 18th century formulated very modern ideas that shape us to this day. Wulf is also the author of the best-selling “The Invention of Nature,” a biography of the German polymath Alexander Von Humboldt, as well as “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation” and “Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession.” Wulf lives in London.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
WULF: I am one of those terrible authors who reads on a Kindle because I travel so much. I’m reading Lily King’s “Euphoria,” which is a brilliant book. I always read two books at the same time so I’m also reading Louise Kennedy’s “Trespasses,” which is set in Belfast during The Troubles. I am enjoying it, though I may be enjoying “Euphoria,” which is set in the South Pacific, more. Sometimes I just want a lighter read after a long day.
BOOKS: Do you generally read contemporary fiction?
WULF: Actually, it’s quite the opposite. A lot of new novels are too fast-paced. I find older novels sometimes take more time to develop characters, like Richard Yates’s books, which I’ve always loved.
BOOKS: What was the last older novel you read?
WULF: Maybe Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Blue Flower.” It’s a novel about the poet Novalis, but it’s very well researched. I think because I read a lot of Schiller, Goethe, and others for my last book, I haven’t read the classics so much recently.
BOOKS: Do you have a favorite book that no one has heard of?
WULF: When I was a teenager and in my early 20s I loved the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom. His novel “Rituals” was the first time where I felt that a novel could also be philosophy without you noticing it.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
WULF: Probably Richard Powers’s “The Overstory.” That’s the best book I’ve read in the last decade. I’m interested in climate change so I started reading novels about it, but most are sci-fi and they are incredibly didactic. Powers’s novel deals with climate change in more artistic and powerful ways. You have to read it when you have time. It’s like David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” If you don’t read the novel in one go you get confused and muddle the story lines.
BOOKS: What other books do you have in your library?
WULF: I have a lot of dictionaries. I have The Compact Oxford Dictionary, which is in three volumes and comes with a magnifying glass. I still use it.
BOOKS: Have you visited the personal libraries of the people you’ve written about?
WULF: That’s so important. A lot of them read with pen in hand. John Muir underlined in his books by Alexander Von Humboldt. He did his own indexes for his books. It was like walking into his brain.
BOOKS: How do you treat your books?
WULF: My books are very much scribbled over, which is sometimes scary. I look at a book and see that I read it very intensely but I have no recollection of that. I underline and write in the margins. I write notes on the end papers of chapters.
BOOKS: How does that work with a Kindle?
WULF: You can highlight in a Kindle but it’s so fussy. I have a love-hate relationship with the Kindle. I bought one in 2015 when I went to Thailand and India with a rucksack for three months. I thought it would be just for that trip. What I like is that you can be in Thailand and download a book if someone tells you it’s great. I’m also quite an insomniac, and if I wake at 3 a.m. I can switch on my Kindle.
BOOKS: What don’t you like about the Kindle?
WULF: You never see the book cover again. I can never remember the author and the titles. I retain information better from a real book. Also someone was telling me about a man whose wife had died, and she had read everything on the Kindle. He tried to transfer her account to his Kindle. You can’t. For historians there’s so much lost with e-mail and text already but also now possibly with people’s books.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.