Novelist Paul Harding is drawn to big tales

ekko von schwichow for the

Novelist Paul Harding surprised the world and himself when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for “Tinkers,” his debut novel about three generations of a New England family. Some major publications had not even reviewed the book. The Wenham native still calls the North Shore home, but he’s been teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop this year. His most recent novel is “Enon,” which essentially picks up where “Tinkers” left off.

BOOKS: What have you been reading this summer?

HARDING: I’ve been rereading “Moby-Dick, which is a perennial book on my nightstand. I’m reading that along with Herman Melville’s writing about and to Nathaniel Hawthorne. All of their correspondences are being republished by Orison Books, and I’ve been asked to write the foreword. What is astonishing is you can read a page of “Moby-Dick” and then jump into a page of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, and there is no drop off in the quality of the writing or the sheer cosmic, metaphysical concerns. I also got an advance copy of Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things,” which is shockingly brilliant, and I’ve been reading an advance copy of the novel “Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett, whom I know. I’m in awe of his writing.


BOOKS: When did you first read “Moby-Dick”?

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HARDING: Probably when I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I think I was overwhelmed but perfectly happy. I love huge books. I love the feeling of being far, far out to sea inside of a huge book by which I feel outmatched. I don’t mind being overwhelmed with meaning.

BOOKS: What other big books have you loved?

HARDING: When I was younger and was a sort of knee-jerk anti-authoritarian I avoided a lot of them just because everyone said they were great. Then you realize these books really are great. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is just magnificent. I remember approaching it thinking, “I’ll eat my broccoli.’’ Then I was blown away with the gusto. I remember sitting in my room in Northampton when I was a senior in college and reading Carlos Fuentes “Terra Nostra.” I stopped and put the book down in my lap and thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do with my life.” My penchant for big books suited me well when I started to read theology, which I’m always reading. For the past 10 years I’ve been methodically making my way through Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics,” which is over 8,000 pages long. He died when he was only about two-thirds of the way through. I read theology the way I read novels, aesthetically. There is something beautiful about these closely observed and tightly argued visions of creation and the universe.

BOOKS: Were you such an avid reader when you played drums in the band Cold Water Flat and were touring?


HARDING: Within two days on the road that part of your brain gets blown out of your ears. I’d get so I could barely read the headlines in the newspaper after a week of touring. Every time we got off the road I’d decompress for a few days and then I’d often go back to one of my all-time favorite huge books, Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”

BOOKS: You’ve written about reading well. How do you do that?

HARDING: You have to read the best books you can get your hands on, books that won’t tolerate or yield their beauty without attentive reading. You go to a book, like Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” and your first reaction is: What is going on here? Then it behooves you to take a step back and realize it’s not the book. It’s you. You need to work your chops up to be equal to this work of art. Rather than read 250 books while you watch TV it would be much cooler if you read two books by Willa Cather this year and read them deeply and profoundly.


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