Before Dave Eggers became an award-winning memoirist, novelist, and journalist, or founded the influential publishing house McSweeney’s, he was a graphic designer. Eggers draws on his visual-art training for two new books, one for children, “Her Right Foot,” and one for readers of any age, “Ungrateful Mammals,” out this week.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
EGGERS: I’m here in Chicago for the library’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner. I’ve been reading and rereading Sandburg, including “Chicago Poems,” which every Chicagoan has to know. Officials will stop you on the street and make sure you can recite the hog butcher to the world part. I also read for the first time “The People, Yes.” That is sort of Sandburg’s answer to Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” I think Sandburg is duly appreciated, but I think he’s under read.
BOOKS: Is it rare for you to read just for yourself?
EGGERS: That has been a defining issue for me over the past 20 years since we started McSweeney’s. We are sent so many submissions, not to mention a lot of my former students are now writing novels. Not that the other reading doesn’t give me joy, but every so often I want to randomly pick a book off the shelf.
BOOKS: If you can do that, what would you pick up?
EGGERS: I read a lot more nonfiction than fiction. Right now I’m in the middle of “The South Side” by Natalie Y. Moore, a phenomenal examination of Chicago, this hypersegregated city. I can’t recommend that book enough.
BOOKS: As a writer concerned with what it is to be an American now, is that a question that shapes your reading too?
EGGERS: Yes. I think of Alia Malek’s “A Country Called Amreeka,” which is about the history of Arab Americans. That is revelatory. She also wrote, “The Home That Was Our Country,” a great book about her Syrian ancestry and watching Syria devolve.
BOOKS: How well can you remember the books you read?
EGGERS: In your teens and 20s you remember every word because the books hit you like a freight train. Now I just remember how I felt about the book. Last night someone asked me for a recommendation, and I suggested Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being,” one of my favorite novels of the past 10 years. I did a pretty good job of describing the many threads in a complicated book. I was impressed that I had recall for once.
BOOKS: Do you have a lot of art books?
EGGERS: When I was a kid I was not a big reader until maybe high school. I looked at art books because since I was four I wanted to be an artist. I still appreciate a well-made art book. It informed McSweeney’s. The more carefully we create the physical object the more likely it will survive. In the ’80s book-making got cheaper and faster. That does a disservice to the work inside.
BOOKS: Do you collect books?
EGGERS: I have first editions of all Saul Bellow’s books. I think he’s one of the best sentence writers in English. I collect Bibles. I have a lot of giant Bibles, two feet by two feet, full-color with leather covers.
BOOKS: As a former Chicagoan, what do you think are some of the best books about the city?
EGGERS: You got to start with Studs Terkel. There never was a more Chicagoan Chicagoan than him. He was the godfather of modern oral history. Oral history is hard to get people to read. Studs did it well, but since then it’s been tough. We published “High Rise Stories,” a compilation of interviews with residents of public housing projects by Audrey Petty. That book became a big deal in Chicago. Weirdly, I retain much more of these first-person narratives than any other reading.
BOOKS: Why do you think that is?
EGGERS: To understand a complicated moment in history, especially recent history, we can read overviews of those stories, or we can see those events through the eyes of one human. Invariably we understand those better and remember them better because we see ourselves in their experiences.
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