|photo: Marvin Orellana
Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of the New York Times Magazine. He was formerly an editor-at-large for New York magazine, and his writing has been featured in GQ, the Times of London and on the NPR radio program This American Life. His first book is the future-noir thriller Shovel Ready (Crown, January 14, 2014). Sternbergh lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is at work on a second Spademan novel.
On your nightstand now:
Christine Falls by Benjamin Black. I've been circling this book for a very long time, and now that I'm 50 pages in, I'm wondering what took me so long. A Booker-winning author (John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black) writes a lyrical crime series (set in moody mid-century Ireland), with a delightfully named protagonist (Quirke). Seriously, what was I thinking?
Favorite book when you were a child:
I had many, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the Canadian children's classic by Mordecai Richler, Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. (WARNING: They made this book into an animated series about 10 years ago, which I've never seen, but which is maybe not so good.) Richler was a celebrated literary author, of course--best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz--and this was the kid's book he wrote as a gift to his own son, Jacob. (Who, weirdly, I met and worked with later in life.) Full of fantastic baddies and the swashbuckling duo of Fearless O'Toole and the Intrepid Shapiro. If and when I start a punk band, the Intrepid Shapiro is the name I'm using.
Your top five authors
Raymond Chandler. Because he launched 10,000 imitators and hasn't been bested yet.
Michael Chabon. Sometimes I wish I had written The Yiddish Policeman's Union so badly that I can actually trick myself, for just a moment, into thinking I did. But, of course, I didn't, and couldn't, and no one else could have written it either, except for Chabon, which is about the highest praise I have to offer any writer. And even after all that, Yiddish might not even be my favorite Chabon novel.
Joan Didion. The best nonfiction writer of the century and, honestly, it's not that close.
Mark Leyner: Opened my eyes at an impressionable age to just what can happen when you pull the pin, say "f*** it," and toss a live hand-grenade into your prose.
Graham Greene. No one's written page-turners that were more literary, and no one's written literary novels with more narrative propulsion. Both thrilling and suffused with sadness, Greene's books may not offer every strain of novelistic pleasure, but for me, they come closer than anything else.
Book you've faked reading:
I've been reading Moby Dick for at least 10 years, and it might be 10 years before I finish. (As I like to say, it is my white whale.) The irony is, the book is really, really good! It's not that I'm not enjoying it. It's that it's so damn heavy, and awkward to read on a crowded subway commute, which, sadly, is where I do most of my reading these days.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Well, since I was just tweeting about it like a raving madman, I'll choose Dare Me by Megan Abbott. Abbott started her novel-writing career with pitch-perfect period noirs like Die a Little and Queenpin. Then she pulled off an incredibly deft and difficult trick: transposing all the chill and jolt of classic noir to modern-day narrative scenarios. Dare Me is set among a cutthroat team of high school cheerleaders--and Abbott expertly adapts the rhythms of noir to the task of exploring that most exotic and elusive and treacherous world: the friendships between teenage girls. Plus, the sentences sing. In a just world, this book would have won the Pulitzer Prize, and a few other prizes besides.
Book you've bought for the cover:
As a former bookstore clerk, I fetishize book covers to an unhealthy degree, and I have seen many a seaworthy book capsized by a terrible cover. I've also bought many, many books just for the cover alone. I worked for years in a bookstore in Toronto, and we got a lot of U.K. editions of books, which often had beautiful covers you wouldn't see in the States. For example, recently I specifically waited until a trip to Toronto to buy The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, precisely because the Canadian paperback was available with the beautiful skull/moon illustration cover, which I love. Bonus book: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, available in the U.K. Vintage paperback edition with a snarling dog cover that's beautiful and chilling and haunting, just like the book.
Book that changed your life:
Depends on what you mean by change, and what you mean by life. Different books arrived at different moments and sent me careening in new directions where I'd collide with other new books, and be sent off careening again. But I'll go with The Grapes of Wrath, encountered as a freshman in college, which was simultaneously heartfelt, lyrical, generous and angry--and which redirected my affections permanently from movies (my teenage crush and still an ongoing illicit affair) to novels.
Favorite line from a book:
I immediately think of Chandler--the American king of the quotable line--but then, how to choose just one line from Chandler? To be truthful, this DeLillo line is probably the one I've read aloud to the most people, so let's go with it: from End Zone, right after we meet Taft Robinson, the first black player to join the Logos College football team in Texas.
"Taft Robinson and I were the setbacks. Taft caught a flare pass, evaded two men and went racing down the sideline, Bobby Iselin, a cornerback, gave up the chase at the 25. Bobby used to be the team's fastest man."
That last sentence is such a jewel of perfect restraint, using so few words to say everything about an entire world being completely upended.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Back to Chandler, and here I'm going to cheat a little bit: I'd love to be able to travel back in time and not only read Chandler for the first time, but read him before he begat a million bad imitators and tin-eared parodies. Chandler's prose is still just as fresh and crystalline on the page--but imagine reading it with no lesser precedents to cloud your reception? Imagine just picking it up from the book table and thinking, Hmmm, what's this?, then flipping to page one. The same goes for Ernest Hemingway: imagine picking up The Sun Also Rises, unbidden in a bookstore, without a century of attendant critical noise. Feeling that rude slap of an entirely new voice. How wonderful would that be?