Henry Louis Gates Jr., author, New Yorker contributor, Harvard professor, PBS star, has come a long way from Piedmont, W.Va., But the small paper-mill town, where “there were 386 black people and one Jewish family’’ among the predominantly Irish and Italian population, is still very much on Gates’s mind for many reasons, one being that’s where he became a bibliophile. Gates talks about his new book, “Life Upon These Shores,’’ Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store.
BOOKS: Were you bookish growing up?
GATES: Oh yeah, my father worked two jobs so we were well off for Piedmont and particularly for the black people. I didn’t know I was poor until I went to Yale. I had my own room and bookcase. I’d order books from the Book-of the-Month Club. That was very important to me.
BOOKS: When did you start doing that?
GATES: In junior high school. The big year for me was 1965. I was at a church camp. The Watts riots were in August. An Episcopalian priest gave me “Notes of a Native Son’’ by James Baldwin. It was the first full-length book I’d read by a black person. Then I ordered “The Autobiography of Malcolm X’’ through Book-of-the-Month Club and “Manchild in the Promised Land’’ by Claude Brown.
BOOKS: What kind of books do you read for pleasure?
GATES: I love fiction. I went through a period about five years ago when every time I went to the beach I took two or three Dan Brown books, “The Da Vinci Code’’ or “Angels and Demons.’’ I read them two or three times, which I found very relaxing. I like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’’ by Stieg Larsson. I love Junot Diaz. If he published a new novel I would take that to the beach. Another book I read on the beach is “One Hundred Years of Solitude’’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
BOOKS: Can you draw a line between reading for work or for pleasure?
GATES: I don’t read for pleasure during the day. And I segment reading for pleasure. I have certain books by my bed, books by the chair for when I watch football on Sundays, books I read at the beach. On my Kindle, I have the classics, Twain, Melville, Cervantes. I have four different libraries.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
GATES: “Steve Jobs’’ by Walter Isaacson, which I’m loving, and “The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus’’ by Joel Chandler Harris. Most people look back at “Uncle Remus’’ and think it was racist, but people like W.E.B. Dubois in the teens and ’20s wrote about Harris as a preserver of black culture. So I’m going back to see. I just finished reading, “Freedom Papers’’ by Rebecca Scott [and Jean M. Hébrard], which traces a black woman’s family across five generations. It’s a brilliant book. I’m also reading the “Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.’’ And lately I’ve been on a Faulkner kick. I read “Absalom, Absalom!’’ and “As I Lay Dying.’’ That’s what I’ve been reading on planes. The thing that Faulkner got right was the intimacy in black and white relations.
BOOKS: Has there ever been a time you couldn’t read for pleasure?
GATES: I had a misdiagnosed broken hip when I was 14 and consequently one leg became shorter than the other. I had it lengthened a few years ago. I was in so much pain, and the pain pills made me dopey. You’d think here you have a year off and you could read 20 books. I could barely read The New York Times. It was misery.
BOOKS: Is there a book you recommend to everybody?
GATES: “The Intuitionist’’ by Colson Whitehead. “Invisible Man’’ by Ralph Ellison to me is the greatest novel of that time. Rita Dove’s poetry. Anything by Jamaica Kincaid and by Toni Morrison. My favorite of hers is “Jazz.’’
BOOKS: Is there a book that’s been on your to-read list forever?
GATES: Man, millions. Just get the Penguin Classics’ catalog. That’s what I haven’t read. Like the whole catalog.
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