James Wallenstein's work has appeared in GQ, the Believer, Antioch Review, Boston Review and the Hudson Review, among other publications. His debut novel, The Arriviste, just been published by Milkweed Editions (June 7, 2011). He lives and writes in New York.
On your nightstand now:
My nightstand has been taken over by children's books. I just moved the pile so that I wouldn't have to answer with the titles of a lot of children's books and exposed Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, A Good Place for the Night by Savyon Liebrecht, Stet by Diana Athill, Things Unsaid: New and Selected Poems by Tony Connor, Raised-Bed Vegetable Gardening Made Simple by Raymond Nones and a stack of old magazines.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Bendemolena by Jan Slepian. I see that it has been reissued as The Cat Who Wore a Pot on Her Head, which is what it's about--a cat who puts a pot on her head. Though I prefer the original title.
Your top five authors:
Beats me. Chekhov would be right up there. But after him? The books that thrill you seem incomparable. This is part of what makes them thrilling, I suppose.
Book you've faked reading:
Sometimes when I read the longer Dr. Seuss books like Horton Hears a Who and McElligot's Pool to my son, my attention wanders. Reading aloud without really listening seems worse than lying in conversation about what you've read. As for books for grownups, suffice it to say that you could make a small but respectable library out of the books I was assigned to read for school and didn't.
Books you're an evangelist for:
Taras Bulba by Gogol; The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal; Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. But these are classics and hardly need evangelizing for. Somewhat less well-known books that I'd be happy to read again and again are Independent People by Halldor Laxness (which I read because Brad Leithauser is such a great evangelist for it), At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien and Great Plains by Ian Frazier.
Book you've bought for the cover:
None that I can recall. We had Erica Jong's Fear of Flying in the house when I was a kid. I started to read it because of the cover. We also had Nin's Delta of Venus. I don't remember the cover but the title intrigued me, even though I didn't understand it.
Book that changed your life:
Tough question. Keats's letters. There's that book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. Unfortunately, I haven't read it. But I have read Proust. Since I haven't read de Botton's book, I don't know whether he says this, but in case he doesn't, I'll note one of the pleasures of reading Proust. Most books make an implicit distinction between reading and living. When you read them, you're aware that you're not doing things like the ones being represented--you're not in Pamplona for the running of the bulls, you're not parachuting, boxing, spying, sailing or dying. (Okay, you are dying, though slowly.) Proust isn't like that. He puts the reader on the same footing as the writer. You don't feel like what you're doing is less vital than what you're reading about. You may long to live fully but you've got company in Proust's narrator, who's cut off from his experience and yet is living more fully and in a way allowing you to live more fully than you probably have.
Favorite line from a book:
I came across this the other day in a story by Etgar Keret called "Missing Kissinger": "There are two kinds of people, those who like to sleep next to the wall, and those who like to sleep next to the people who push them off the bed."
Best story title:
Here are two: "Disorder and Early Sorrow" (Thomas Mann) and "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel" (Donald Barthelme).
Book you've read that almost no one else has:
The Unfortunate Fursey by Mervyn Wall.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.