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Literary journalist and foreign poetry fancier

Tracy Kidder

Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

In his new book “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,” Tracy Kidder, who picked up the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, “The Soul of a New Machine,” draws back the curtain on the makings of nonfiction. Kidder speaks at the Boston Public Library with co-author Richard Todd this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Boston Public Library.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

KIDDER: Pretty eclectic and also divided. Because I write nonfiction I sometimes have to study expert information on a subject. Right now I’m reading “C Programming Language” by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. It’s a technical book about a very important programming language called C. Who knew? I’m finding it hard going. After I wrote “The Soul of a New Machine” I didn’t want to read about computers. I’m just coming back to that.


BOOKS: Are you reading anything else?

KIDDER: I just finished a little book I was given for Christmas, “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson. I liked it well enough. I’m also reading “Midnight in Mexico” by Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News reporter on the border. He lays out what is going on in that nightmarish place. The stuff I read just for fun is varied. Anything by Graham Greene, even the stuff that isn’t particularly distinguished. I also like poetry. I live in Western Massachusetts near my candidate for America’s best living poet, Richard Wilbur. I also got interested in the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, and the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.

BOOKS: Have you always read foreign poets?

KIDDER: I was inspired to do that by my friend Stuart Dybek, one of my favorite writers. He’s a short story writer. He doesn’t have a huge following, but it’s an ardent one.


BOOKS: Who else do you like?

KIDDER: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout. I’ve only read one book by her, “Olive Kitteridge,’’ which I liked a lot. I have all of Hemingway’s stories, which I still feel strongly about — I don’t care what anyone says. And Jon A. Jackson — nobody knows about him. He wrote “Grootka,” a wonderful moody crime novel set in Detroit. But I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction recently. Some I’ve admired in recent years include the “Regeneration Trilogy,” the World War I novels by Pat Barker. Such great literature came out of that war, such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque and Robert Graves’s memoir, “Goodbye to All That.”

BOOKS: Did serving in Vietnam affect you as a reader?

KIDDER: Yes. For a while I read diligently about Vietnam because I was trying to figure out why we fought that war. I still don’t know. I read Michael Herr’s “Dispatches,” which was the best reportage on the war I’ve read with a page or two of utter stupidity mixed in. One passage made me throw the book across the room.

BOOKS: Did you read Tim O’Brien’s books?

KIDDER: I did. I first read his memoir “If I Die in a Combat Zone.” It’s interesting to compare that to “The Things They Carried,” which he calls a novel but has the feel of memoir. I think his books are wonderful. Eventually I began to avoid books about Vietnam. I’d read too many.


BOOKS: Anything else you avoid?

KIDDER: Most biographies are too long. But I loved “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild. I don’t want to read any more memoirs about dysfunctional families. I don’t think it’s a form that should be condemmed. It’s just there’s been a surfeit of it. There are so many great examples of other kinds of autobiography, including the only good presidential memoir, which is Ulysses S. Grant’s. He doesn’t reveal that much about himself because he mostly writes about his campaigns. He has you on the edge of your seat wondering how the Civil War is going to come out. He’s that good a writer.


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