Reading for Voices

Hilton Als, writer and theater critic

(Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

In “White Girls”, Hilton Als, longtime New Yorker writer and theater critic, examines race, culture, and gender. Among the “white girls” he writes about are dancer and actress Louise Brooks, writers Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, and singer Michael Jackson. Als will talk with Jamaica Kincaid about his book at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday. Tickets for the event, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store, are $5.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

ALS: I just read “Farther and Wilder” by the great biographer Blake Bailey about Charles Jackson, who wrote “The Lost Weekend.” It’s a fascinating portrait of addiction. He also wrote a biography of John Cheever. Like Cheever, Jackson was a closeted gay man who came out late. It’s really moving to read about the vast differences between then and now, and a person being subjected to a very, very repressive culture.


BOOKS: Do you regularly read biographies?

ALS: I do, especially if I’m writing. Then I don’t want to deal with another writer’s sensibility, but I still want to read. Biographies are safe. It’s also thrilling to read about someone else’s failures while you are failing.

BOOKS: Do you have a favorite biography?

ALS: I think Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote is amazing. I like really old biographies, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë. Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf has enough sensibility to keep you amused but not enough to make you feel bad about your own writing. Michael Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey is amazing in terms of describing these minor figures in a big world.

BOOKS: Do you read largely about literary figures?

ALS: I like reading about painters too, such as David Sylvester’s great work on Francis Bacon and James Lord’s biography of Giacometti.


BOOKS: What do you read when you aren’t writing?

ALS: I just want to read voices. I went through an intense Samuel Taylor Coleridge phase recently. Jamaica Kincaid is a great favorite. So are Elizabeth Bishop, Marcel Proust, Jane Bowles, W. H. Auden’s essays, Robert Lowell, James Baldwin, of course, and the poet Marianne Moore. Those are the people I turn to a lot. And there’s a Gwendolyn Brooks poem I read, “In the Mecca.”

BOOKS: Do you read much contemporary fiction?

ALS: No, but I’m getting more into it. One contemporary writer I love is Herta Müller. I think she’s fantastic. I feel like a dumbbell in a way, that I need more of a grounding in English literature before I move forward.

BOOKS: What would make you pick up a book?

ALS: If it pertains to something else I’m reading. I’m a great cross indexer of reading. If you mention that a Robert Altman biography had a section on what he read, I would want to read what he was reading.

BOOKS: Do you keep any reference or how-to books?

ALS: The thing that I have that I really treasure is a dictionary that belonged to Katharine White, the fiction editor at The New Yorker. I have cookbooks by Alice Waters and an old Larousse cookbook. Those are my reference books. The magic of the computer is that you can look things up so quickly. I live in a small space, and I don’t want people to have to deal with my books after I die.


BOOKS: Is there a book you have recommended a lot?

ALS: There’s this amazing book called “The Black Book” put together by Middleton A. Harris and edited by Toni Morrison in 1974. It’s a kind of album of black life in America. It’s a really great book. I’ve recommended Diane Keaton’s memoir “Then Again” an awful lot. It’s really great. I give Simone Weil’s “Waiting for God” to people a lot because it’s such a beautiful book about faith.

BOOKS: What’s on your upcoming list?

ALS: I think I’m going to read Judith Thurman’s book about Colette, “Secrets of the Flesh.” I don’t know anything about her, and I have never really read her work.

BOOKS: What’s on your bucket list?

ALS: “Middlemarch’’! I’ve got to do it.


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