Inhis newest book “At the Stranger’s Gate: Arrivals in New York” New Yorker writer and best-selling author Adam Gopnik recounts his life in the 1980s, a pivotal decade for himself and for his adopted hometown, New York City. Gopnik will spin his Big Apple yarns at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Brattle Theatre. Tickets are $28 (including a book) or $5. The event is co-sponsored by the Harvard Book Store and Mass Humanities.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
GOPNIK: Elvis Costello’s memoir, “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.” I have to travel a lot. One of the things I’ve discovered is that the best books to read in the cattle-car conditions of American aviation are military histories or rock biographies. I’m also reading a book about Naples by Benjamin Taylor because we visited there this summer. I just finished Ron Chernow’s new book on Ulysses S. Grant. It’s terrific. I reviewed it for The New Yorker, one of those reviews where you take care of the book in four paragraphs and then write about what interests you. It’s a bad New Yorker habit, I know.
BOOKS: What are some of the best rock memoirs you’ve read on planes?
GOPNIK: Costello’s tells his stories with a wonderful type of irony. I read Graham Nash’s “Wild Tales,” which is lovely because it has an intimate portrait of Joni Mitchell. She’s one of my heroines. I read Eric Clapton’s, which is touching because it’s his own accounting of his addiction.
BOOKS: Do you find any common pitfalls in rock memoirs?
GOPNIK: Here’s the simple truth that applies to any memoir; failure is more interesting that success. Everyone’s account of the terrible toilets that they played in is interesting. Once they become successful it becomes boring because two things happen. They meet famous people and then discover they were screwed by the people who helped them on their way up.
BOOKS: Are you much of a fiction reader?
GOPNIK: I find fiction hard to read on planes and in hotels so I don’t read as much of it when I am traveling. I have a bad or good habit of rereading old things. I love Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels and James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson.” That always sits on my nightstand.
BOOKS: Have you made any recent discoveries?
GOPNIK: I like to read a lot of old stuff so a new writer for me is Sydney Smith, who is long dead. I read him over the summer and thought he was great. We go to a beach shack in Wellfleet, which doesn’t have Internet, phone, or television, so I read a lot. This summer I read H.L. Mencken’s memoirs. I am lukewarm on his journalism, but the memoirs are terrific.
BOOKS: Do you have a rhyme or reason to what you read when?
GOPNIK: I don’t have any rules. Sometimes I start in the middle of a book, read to the end, and then go back to the beginning. Reading is an addiction for me. As I get older, things that once gave me enormous pleasure, like professional sports, give me less and less, but I’ve never felt that way about reading. Obviously you get assignments that are strenuous. I had to read “Mein Kampf” for a New Yorker piece. I can’t say that was a pleasure.
BOOKS: What do you consider the best books about New York?
‘Here’s the simple truth that applies to any memoir; failure is more interesting that success.’
GOPNIK: E.B. White’s famous essay, J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The most underrated writer of New York is William Dean Howells, who wrote at the end of the 19th century. I also love Dave Van Ronk’s “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” about the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the ’50s and ’60s.
BOOKS: Do you collect books?
GOPNIK: No. My feeling is a book is not to be cherished as an object. My first copy of Thurber’s “Carnival” anthology came apart. An old edition of Proust fell apart. If a book’s binding is broken, generally it’s a good sign, a sign that a book has been read.