book hoarder, speed reader

Jonathan Lethem

john lucas

Novelist Jonathan Lethem admits he’s a book hoarder. He’s moved boxes and boxes of them back and forth across the country. He has stashes in his Maine summer home and even some at his father’s house. “They are sort of everywhere,” he admits. Lethem, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005, was recently in town to read from his new novel, “Dissident Gardens”.

BOOKS: Are you a fast or a slow reader?

LETHEM: I think I’m pretty fast. When I was young I taught myself to speed-read. I read so many adventure stories, things where the prose didn’t have to slow you down, and I just wanted to devour them. When I was a teenager I sped through things that didn’t make sense to read that fast. I remember barreling through Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet,” all four books in a week. That made me realize the perils of my reading method. Ever since I’ve been learning to slow down, but I still like to read a book as fast as it will tolerate.


BOOKS: How does reading a book quickly change the experience?

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LETHEM: It increases the resemblance to our whirling consciousness, which is a resemblance that seems important to me.

BOOKS: What are you reading now?

LETHEM: I’m a juror for the Giller Prize, Canada’s top award for a novel by a Canadian published during the previous year, and am rereading the five finalists. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’s stories to prepare for a talk. All my books are dutiful right now, but they are all good.

BOOKS: What will you read when you are done with your dutiful reading?


LETHEM: I have this idea that it’s time for me to read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which I’ve never read.

BOOKS: Are you strictly a fiction reader?

LETHEM: No, but I’m mostly a fiction reader. I read criticism and essays about culture, film, and music, stuff I’m interested in. I read this amazing book, “Picasso and Truth,” by the art critic T.J. Clark. Oh my god, it was such a great piece of history.

BOOKS: Is art something you read a lot about?

LETHEM: I studied to be a painter in college, but this book was an outlier. I’m more likely to read a book of film or music criticism.


BOOKS: Who’s your favorite music writer?

‘When I was a teenager I sped through things that didn’t make sense to read that fast. Ever since I’ve been learning to slow down.’

LETHEM: The critic Greil Marcus is a major intellectual hero for me. I’ll read him on music or whatever else he writes about. His famous books are “Lipstick Traces,” “Mystery Train,” and “Dead Elvis.”

BOOKS: What’s the last novel you read that you really liked?

LETHEM: This Norwegian series “My Struggle” by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s so cool. He’s one of those writers who are really turning other writers’ heads around. It reminds me of 10 years ago when every writer I knew was encountering Roberto Bolaño. I just read the second volume, which is even better than the first. The series is so autobiographical it’s hard to know whether novel is the right word for it.

BOOKS: Do you gravitate to long reads?

LETHEM: I’m not always reading something galactical. I’ve been reading Robert Musil’s two-volume “The Man Without Qualities,” but I also usually read dozens of shorter novels to remember the pleasure of running through something quickly. My usual source for shorter novels is the New York Review Books Classics series. I just read Olivia Manning’s “School for Love.” It was great. Another one in that series that was a knockout was “Turtle Diary” by Russell Hoban. But there are so many I’ve read over the years, like “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” by Brian Moore.

BOOKS: How did working in used bookstores influence you as a reader?

LETHEM: When you work at a used bookstore the books you read are the ones nobody buys. I became a curator of outré stuff. At times I latched on to things early, people like Russell Hoban and Don Carpenter. Sometimes it was fruitless. Some books are forgotten for a reason.

Amy Sutherland is a writer in Charlestown. She can be reached at