Amor Towles’s book group sets a very high bar
In Amor Towles’s best-selling novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” a Bolshevik tribunal sentences a Russian aristocrat to spend his life in an attic room of a luxury hotel. Towles, who grew up in Dedham, will discuss his book at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival, Aug. 5-6, which is free, and at Duxbury High School at 7 p.m. on Thursday Aug. 10. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
TOWLES: About 13 years ago three friends and I formed a reading group. I had read Harold Bloom’s “Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?” Late in his life, having read everything, Bloom asked which books had given him wisdom. I had just read a bunch of contemporary novels that had no wisdom for me. I was 40. Say I lived until 80 and read a book a month seriously, that means I was looking at 480 books left in my life. If I had only 480 left I wanted to stop sifting through material I didn’t have confidence in and turn my attention to those that I know merited my reading. I was saying this to a close friend of mine, and she said, “I’m in.” There are only four of us.
BOOKS: How do you pick books?
TOWLES: Our standing rule is that we want to read a book that you would be entertained by and you would learn something from when you read it at 20, 40, 60, and 80. Most books don’t live up to that.
BOOKS: What author did you start with?
TOWLES: Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” from beginning to end. It took us a year and a half. Then we’ve worked thematically. In one year we read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson. Those were precursors to reading four Twains and then six Faulkners in this kind of thread of the American voice. We’d never read living authors, but this year we are reading 10 Philip Roth novels. I hadn’t read any of them. We started with “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and then we read seven of the Zuckerman books, which culminate with “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral.”
BOOKS: How does it change the reading experience to read all the books by an author in a row?
TOWLES: There’s no question; it’s for not for everybody. If you are a serious reader, as in your intent is to study the author thematically and stylistically, you can’t understand the author’s longer-term project without reading multiple novels. If you spread them over time, you lose track of how the author’s tone is evolving or how images are recurring. That often points to a great strength or sometimes to a failing. It’s sex with Roth. The constant sexual material starts to feel like an author’s obsession. Also when you read three, four, five books by one author, you sweep in things you wouldn’t have. So with Twain we read “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” which is an incredible book, but it’s not in the canon.
BOOKS: Was there an author you changed your mind about?
TOWLES: Most of these books we had read in our 20s, such as Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” We all remembered it as a heavy book. That was absolutely not our experience reading it at this age. It’s a total page-turner. It’s got all the elements of the modern police procedural that you’d see on television. There’s a lot of comedy in it too. There is also an extremely modern psychopath, a figure who comes from the countryside, who rapes young girls as a hobby. None of us remembered this figure. We all became convinced that in our 20s none of us had actually finished the book.
BOOKS: Do you have any tips for starting a book group?
TOWLES: I would never be in a book group with more than four people. The nature of four is there is no back row. You can’t show up and pretend you haven’t read the book. Everyone reads with pens, dog-ears pages, and comes with opinions.