New Yorker writer George Packer says people would be surprised at all the Virginia Woolf on his bookshelves. He admires how she could find a universe in a speck, but his own style is the opposite. “I find something huge and try to make it small,” Packer laughs. Case in point: “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” his National Book Award winner, which he will discuss at Boston College’s Gasson Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 26.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
PACKER: I’m reading a bunch of fiction by Afghan and Iraq War veterans for a New Yorker piece. There hasn’t been that much, but it’s starting to come out, and some of the fiction is really good. I am reading “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers and “Redeployment” by Phil Klay . Both Powers and Klay are Iraq War vets. Klay’s stories are remarkable.
BOOKS: Does it affect your reading experience that you were a reporter there?
PACKER: Yeah. This brings it back in vivid, painful, and useful ways. Also it’s kind of funny to read the work of ex-Marines and soldiers because what they said to me as a reporter was only a fraction of what they were thinking and feeling and saying to one another.
BOOKS: Have you read other bodies of war writing?
PACKER: I’ve read a lot of war writing, even World War I writing, the British war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves’s memoir “Goodbye to All That,” and a civilian memoir “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain .
BOOKS: How long have you been reading war literature?
PACKER: Since I was a kid. I had this series by Ballantine Books about the history of World Wars I and II. In my 20s, it was the Vietnam War literature of novelists like Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and Tobias Wolff, and then nonfiction such as “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan and “The Best and Brightest” by David Halberstam . Those are the two best histories of Vietnam. The literature of the Spanish Civil War is also important to me. Above all George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” as well as the writing of John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. They worked on a film together in Spain during that war, which ended their friendship. There’s a great book about that, “The Breaking Point” by Stephen Koch . It won’t improve your opinion of Hemingway.
BOOKS: What do you think is the draw of war literature?
PACKER: I don’t know if it’s a male thing, but I’ve always been interested in how people respond to the stresses and dangers of war, how they react under fire. In the extremity of war, character is revealed.
BOOKS: What books were being passed around when you were in Iraq?
PACKER: One book that I heard was circulating the Green Zone was “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing” by Robert Komer , who worked for President Johnson in Saigon. This book is about the inevitably of screwing up when a country takes on a war with so little understanding of the country they are fighting. When I interviewed Paul Bremer in his office he had almost no books on his shelves. He had a couple of management books, like “Leadership” by Rudolph Giuliani . I didn’t take it as an encouraging sign.
BOOKS: Did soldiers have books?
PACKER: Depended on the soldier. To relax, most of them put on headphones or played video games. Later in the war some of the younger officers began to read a lot of anthropology because they realized that the basic problem was that they were trying to fight a war in a culture they didn’t understand. They might have read someone like Margaret Mead.
BOOKS: Do you as a reporter note what people are reading?
PACKER: Absolutely. To me it’s as important, maybe more important, than the sound of their voice or what mannerism they have. I will find any excuse to go into somebody’s study or ask them what they are reading. I can’t think of too many other things that say what goes on in someone’s head than the books they have.