UA English professor Heather White’s Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life, was published in July 2021 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Professor White has edited several volumes of Marianne Moore’s poetry, including the New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017), which won the 2019 Modern Language Association Prize for Best Scholarly Edition. Professor White has also published critical essays on Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and Lorine Niedecker. Alongside the reading she does for her scholarship and teaching, Professor White avidly reads contemporary fiction. I had the pleasure of talking with her about her new book.
Congratulations on the new book. I very much enjoyed reading it. There were times when it seemed to speak specifically to me. I suspect I am not the only reader who has told you that.
I’m so happy. When I think about what I wanted to do with the book, the metaphor that keeps coming to me is that I was trying to put out a signal that, if I pitched it just right and if I got it clear enough, would reach people. It was fine with me if it didn’t reach everybody. Some people aren’t on that frequency. But it was important to me that I get it right enough, so the people who are on that frequency would hear it and respond to it. When I read a review that says some version of what you just said—“I have always felt this” or “this put into words something I’ve always known”—it’s incredibly gratifying. I know there are other people who have felt what I feel. And yet because we readers tend to be solitary, it’s not easy for us to find each other. This is my way of finding them.
Based on the book’s wide and warm reception, it is an effective signal. What has been your reaction to the book’s reception so far?
One thing that has pleased me about its reception is that everybody fastens onto something different that spoke to them. It’s called Books Promiscuously Read, and I wrote it pretty promiscuously, too. If it occurred to me, it’s there in the book. It’s like I put out a buffet, and everybody who likes the book has found something different that they enjoy. Some people think the salad is the best part. Other people don’t notice the salad, but think, “Oh my god, that dessert!”
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to write this book? What moved you to write it?
There’s a deep story and an immediate pragmatic story. The pragmatic story is that I had finished the Moore edition, and I wanted to do something completely different. At that point, I had a relationship with the editor at FSG, and I thought if there were ever a moment to pitch my dream book, this is that moment. So I did. He said I should send him a prospectus and a chapter, so I spent the next year writing. I submitted them, and they accepted the book.
Which chapter did you write first for your initial submission?
I sent the first chapter, “Propositions.” A funny thing about this book is that I wrote it first word to last, in the order in which you see it. That gets to the deeper story of the book.
When I went back and looked, I found a file on my computer from maybe 15 years ago called “The Book Book.” Back then, I was just playing around. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a book about books? And if I did, how would I do it?” Some of the chapter titles were already there in the file, including “Play” and “Transgression.” So, the idea for the book had been brewing for decades. It had been in some unconscious room of my mind for a long time. When it became conscious again, I not only had energy and focus, I had a structure. I knew how I was going to lay it out, and I had already begun to gather the various books that would be the centerpieces of each chapter.
Now, that didn’t make it any easier to write. It was still agony. It was still horrible. I still spent months ending every day feeling like a failure. There’s a part in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, where he describes a writer with a book in process as dragging around a malformed infant, “dribbling spinal fluid,” that cannot support itself, that will never develop normally or even survive, and that is the writer’s complete burden and responsibility. David Foster Wallace picked up on that in Infinite Jest. He has images of malformed babies, and he was thinking of DeLillo. Neither DeLillo nor Wallace ever had children, and in my experience writing a book is nothing at all like having a baby. But the metaphor still resonated.
How did you imagine the audience for Books Promiscuously Read?
This book is addressed to people who already enjoy reading. In that sense, it preaches to the choir. Yet even people who love reading often feel guilty for taking time out of their days or away from their work to enjoy a book. There’s always this voice telling them, “I should be doing X.” I had in mind people I know, who spent their childhoods reading, and who still read a lot. I wanted to write a book that would encourage those people to stop feeling guilty, sit down, and read the good book.
If I had to choose a word to put on my tombstone—other than, say, “mother”—that word would be “reader.” I’ve done a good bit of writing in my life, but I don’t think of myself as a writer in the way I think of myself as a reader. I wanted to think about being a reader as an identity. We tend to think of ourselves in terms of what we produce, what gives us something to show for it, what makes money, or what wins prizes. Reading doesn’t do any of that. And yet it is what I think of as my identity. I wanted to tell people that you’re not going to get any credit for this. There’s no scorecard. There’s no title. There’re no prizes. There’s no money. But it’s still really important. I want to subtract the guilt.
Were you consciously or unconsciously writing to a specific person? To a part of yourself? Is the book part of a conversation?
Yes. I wrote it to honor the part of myself who is a reader and who is not and never has been a scholar. The engine of my reading, including what I do for scholarship, is that I’ve never grown any less excited about reading. And I’ve never grown any less credulous as a reader. I still open every book ready to be thrilled and amazed and to believe everything it says.
My old friend Bob Baker—to whom I dedicated the book—and I have been talking about books and reading and scholarship since we were in our early twenties. We both have an ambivalent relationship to having become literary professionals. On the one hand, I love and respect what we do as scholars. We do necessary work. On the other hand, if what you love to do is read and reading becomes your job, there is always a conflict. It’s easy for all reading to become work, and a part of you is necessarily sidelined in scholarship. I wanted to write something that honored the part of me that does not read as a scholar or professional and that is always, always a beginner. For Bob and me, this has been a constant subject of our conversation, and this book partly emerged out of our decades of conversation.
How did you adapt your style to write for a non-academic public?
I took it as a challenge to put things as directly as I could. But it’s hard to lose the scholarly reflex to back up everything with arguments and evidence and to add footnotes that give ten references to support every claim. At points, my mantra was, “it’s a poem, not a proof.” It’s funny. Some readers have said, “It’s so dry. It’s so academic. It’s so boring!” But, believe me, it could have been a lot more academic and a lot more boring! They should pity me, really, because this is my best shot at speaking from the heart.
In the “Note on Quotation,” you write, “Much of what readers think and say occurs in the words of others.” Throughout the book, you weave quotations into your prose. Why did you decide to quote so often?
Honestly, it’s because that’s how I think, and how I think a lot of readers think. If you spend your days absorbing other people’s prose, and if you’re sensitive to it and delight in it, it tends to colonize your mind. I wanted to mimic what it’s like to be in my head. It didn’t hurt that I had come off ten years of editing Marianne Moore, who incorporates phrases from other sources in her poetry all the time. But I think it’s less that I learned it from Moore, and more that we both learned it from being obsessive readers.
The book is divided into five sections—“Propositions,” “Play,” “Transgression,” “Insight,” and “Conclusions.” Why did you structure the book this way?
The true answer is that the structure came to me as soon as I knew anything about the book. Why, I don’t know. But it did. “Play,” “Transgression,” and “Insight” were the three ways of thinking about reading that came to me. If anybody else had written the book, they would have come up with other ways. The structure is my fingerprint. It’s how you know the book is mine.
The section that was most difficult for me to name was “Insight.” I played with different words. At one point, I tried “Prayer.” At another point, I tried “Meditation.” I tried other words. None of them were right. One day I was talking with a friend, and he happened to use the word “insight.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s it! That’s the word I need!” I wanted the book to be … suggestions?
Hypotheses, yes! That’s the word I was searching for. I wanted to show ways that reading could be thought about, none of which would define it completely and some of which would resonate with some readers more than others. I do not presume to tell people truths about reading. The entire book is a hypothesis, and every sentence in it is a hypothesis. It could well be that some readers will test it against their experience and find it unfruitful, while others will find it fruitful.
Is there a moment, passage, or chapter that you are especially fond of or that came together felicitously?
The passage on the phrase “cuddled runt” involved a discovery that shocked and thrilled me. I first got interested in David Foster Wallace’s use of the word “ruddled.” It’s an unusual word, and he uses it repeatedly in the final chapter of Infinite Jest. I wondered where he got it. I then read Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and DeLillo uses the word “ruddled” twice. I knew Wallace admired DeLillo, so I assumed he got it from DeLillo. Then I noticed that they both used a variant of the phrase “cuddled runt.” There’s no way that’s a coincidence. Again, I assumed Wallace got it from DeLillo. But when I was in the archives putting together a timeline of both books’ compositions, I discovered, completely to my surprise, that DeLillo likely got it from Wallace! It was just about the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. People who go to archives will understand my excitement.
In the book, you tell it the other way around. You start with DeLillo and then turn to Wallace.
True. It was tricky to manage. First, I assumed most people have not read Underworld and Infinite Jest, and getting people up to speed on books that big was a challenge. Then telling the story of the books’ relation to readers, and not just scholars, in a way they would find coherent and exciting was very hard. That was the section of the book that went through the most drafts. I would send a draft to my friend Bob, who would read it, and then say, with infinite kindness, “This is terrible. Completely redo it.” I would revise it. And he would say, with great love, “This still isn’t working.”
How did you decide how much theory and philosophy to bring in?
One of the rules of my game as I wrote the book was that I could read nothing specifically for the book. I made it out of whatever was to hand. The writers in the book are the writers I was reading at the time. For example, Nietzsche is there because I happened to be on a Nietzsche tear. If I wrote the book today, Nietzsche probably wouldn’t be in it.
What are you reading now?
I am reading Sigrid Nunez’s book, Mitz, the story of a marmoset that belongs to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. I put off reading it because it seemed like a precious premise. But I am an idiot, and I never learn. Sigrid Nunez is a great writer, so, of course, the book is riveting, and I should have read it years ago. I’m also reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, and I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which is so good I can hardly stand it.