Michiko Kakutani was chief book reviewer of the New York Times from 1983 to 2017, during which time she won a Pulitzer prize for criticism. In 2018, she published The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. In her new essay collection, Ex Libris, she recommends more than 100 books, from Experience by Martin Amis to Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
What kind of lockdown did you have? Were you able to read?
In March, New York was in near total lockdown – empty streets, closed restaurants, empty plazas. I wrote an essay for the New York Times about the pandemic and the city, and walked through much of Manhattan. It had a strange, surreal vibe: midtown looked like that dream sequence in Vanilla Sky, where the Tom Cruise character finds himself in a totally deserted Times Square. Lincoln Center looked like a De Chirico painting. Among the books I read were: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré, Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin, H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and The Great Influenza by John M Barry.
You say in your new book that you’re writing as an enthusiast rather than as a critic. What’s the difference?
My job as a critic was to give honest evaluations of new books and to try to explain why I thought they were worth reading – or not; to try to situate that book within an author’s oeuvre and, if nonfiction, explain how it might compare with others on the same subject. In Ex Libris, I’m only writing about books I love, or that I think matter. There’s no having to dissect works I’m not crazy about. So, a happy undertaking – sharing my enthusiasm as a fan.
Many of the books on your list – for instance, the Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt – seem to speak loudly to this moment. Are books really useful at a time like this?
In his 2017 book On Tyranny, the scholar Timothy Snyder writes: “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” I think we can learn a lot by reading books that look at, say, the origins of fascism in the 20th century. More contemporary writers like Edward Luce and Richard Haass provide overviews of political dynamics at work in the world today, and I think they help situate phenomena like Brexit and Trump’s 2016 win in a global and historical context.
You have included books by both Nabokov, whose novel Lolita is now considered by some to be beyond the pale, and by JK Rowling, recently the victim of vicious trolling. What do you make of so-called cancel culture when it comes to literature?
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, the literature professor Azar Nafisi writes about a book club she held with her students in Tehran after the Islamic revolution. She writes that they “formed a special bond with Nabokov”: they read Invitation to a Beheading as capturing life under totalitarianism – the “nightmarish quality of living in an atmosphere of perpetual dread”, and they read Lolita as the story of “the confiscation of one individual’s life by another”. Through his portrayal of the monster Humbert, she argued, Nabokov “had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives”, who try to “shape others according to their own dreams and desires”. So, there can be many ways to read controversial or contested books. I think it is more rewarding to engage in debate than to automatically hit the delete button.
A whole section of Ex Libris is devoted to books by and about Muhammad Ali. Why?
I’ve long been an avid sports fan. But Muhammad Ali transcends the category of sports. He risked his career, at the height of his fame, to take a stand against the Vietnam war and become involved in the civil rights movement. Decades before Black Lives Matter, he used his celebrity to speak to the centuries of injustice suffered by African Americans.
Being an author can make a critic aware of what it’s like to publish and be reviewed
It’s said that you were widely feared as a critic. What sense of responsibility did you have when it came to reviewing?
I just tried to review each book that came along on its merits. I’d started out at the Times as a reporter, and when I first turned to reviewing, an editor gave me this advice: think about it as a form of reporting but with the addition of your own carefully considered opinion.
What literary trends would you pick out from those years?
During the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a boom in memoir, led by Mary Karr’s The Liars Club and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of many remarkable writers who are immigrants or the children of immigrants: Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Gary Shteyngart, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, Marlon James, Ocean Vuong, Téa Obreht, Viet Thanh Nguyen.
When you left the New York Times, you published a book yourself. Do authors make better critics? Why is there no work of criticism in Ex Libris?
Being an author can make a critic aware of what it’s like to publish and be reviewed, and more aware of the process itself, adjusting from the sprinter-like pace of newspaper deadlines to the more marathon-like form of a book. I did include Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, a brilliant study of how Shakespeare’s comedies provide a template for classic screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night.
What will you be reading next?
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, Missionaries by Phil Klay; Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth by Brian Stelter, The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt.
What do you feel about the forthcoming US election?
Everything is at stake: democracy and the rule of law, the future of racial justice, and the future of Nato. Trump has fomented division in the United States, and undermined public trust in government institutions and the electoral process itself. He has enabled white supremacists, and attempted to deny immigrants the American dream of freedom and opportunity. In doing so, he has assaulted the very ideals of liberty this country was founded upon. Not to mention that he has governed as an autocratic narcissist. Another four years would be calamitous.
• Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani is published by William Collins (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply