Comfortable with the classics

Best-selling novelist Mark Helprin, whose newest is “Paris in the Present Tense,” admits he rarely reads current fiction. As a student at Harvard University he was “marinated” in the classics (he even memorized Dante’s “Inferno” in Italian). He doesn’t want modern novels to color his writing or his ideas about fiction. “I’d rather be influenced by Shakespeare,” he says.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

HELPRIN: I’m just reading newspapers because I’m on my book tour. At home, I just finished “Martin Luther” by Eric Metaxas. This is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. It’s a very good book, especially for someone like me who’s really deficient on Protestant history and theology. I know more about Catholics or smaller sects. It’s a very interesting book. Before that I read Edmund Morris’s “Theodore Rex,” which is beautifully written. It’s not a biography. It’s a history of his presidency. It also covers everything in the universe that happened in America at that time. I also read a two-volume set of memoirs by Lord Edward Grey, who said most famously [about World War I]: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The memoirs offer a fantastic insight into the diplomatic history before the war, which is so complicated.


BOOKS: What’s your favorite era of history to read about?

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HELPRIN: My favorite is English history from the beginning of the 18th century through the current era, particularly late 19th and early 20th. One thing I recommend to everyone is Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume, 10,000-page biography of Winston Churchill. When you recommend a 10,000-page book to somebody they don’t usually run out and get it. In fact, it’s hard to find.

BOOKS: Do you prefer long books?

HELPRIN: Yes. Not just reading them. Writing them. I like to be lost in them. I like to have a lot to read rather than a quickie.

BOOKS: Your most enlightening and engaging biographies?


HELPRIN: I love Churchill’s biography of the duke of Marlborough. Some super intellectuals said it was the greatest bio ever written in the English language. I don’t know about that. I also loved and immersed myself in Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson.” Walter Jackson Bate’s book on Johnson is also great. Bate was a Harvard professor in my day. At the end of his class his audience would triple because he would give his lecture on Johnson, and he would always end up weeping. People wanted to see that.

BOOKS: Do you like to reread?

HELPRIN: No, though I can see movies many times. I must have seen “My Cousin Vinny” at least 20 times. I think it’s a masterpiece. But I did reread Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” because in the book I have out now one of the themes is the long literary and real tradition of older men and younger women. In graduate school I did not understand Mann’s novel because I didn’t have the experience. I think I understood it this time. Maybe if I were 140 years old I would understand it even better.

BOOKS: Is there a way you would change yourself as a reader?

HELPRIN: I suppose I could read more fiction, but I haven’t moved in that direction. I’d like more time even though I spend six hours a day reading. People say their eyes get tired, but I’ve never experienced that. In college I used to read 10 hours a day. My wife says I’m obsessive compulsive. She might have a point because when I was an undergrad student we had the required reading list and the suggested reading list. I always read all the suggested reading too.


BOOKS: Do you have any reading habits?


HELPRIN: What I do is follow my nose. I read something and then something else about that. Like this summer I read five or six books that were about the years prior to World War I.

BOOKS: Does that mean you will read more about Martin Luther?

HELPRIN: No. It was a very good book, but for the moment I’m done with severe medieval monks.

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