Oct 17 2012
We recommence our customer-profile feature with apologies for the long delay since the debut installment. Hope to get back on track with this so we can profile many more of our friends who shop with us and love to talk books. John Lesser is probably our most loyal customer, bar none; he’s been shopping here nonstop since Subterranean Books first opened back in October, 2000 (yes, we’re 12 years old now!). Here’s John in a convenient nutshell: opera buff; prodigious reader; nice guy — and, as you’ll see below, a highly cultured, extremely well-read man. We’ll let him take over and do the talking now…
What is your all-time favorite book?
A Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)
The first time that I read this massive work I spent almost a year at it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Roberto Bolaño, Leonardo Sciascia, Thomas Bernhard, John Banville,
Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Nikki Ducornet and Angela Carter.
Interestingly, four of these authors I know only in translation. I wish that I could read Russian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Hungarian or Czech books in those languages.
What are you reading now?
I have just finished Bring Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel), a worthy follow-up to Wolf Hall. [Our aside: Mantel just won her second Man Booker Prize, this time for Bring Up the Bodies.]
Do you keep the books you read?
Almost always. I don’t like to lend books, but I do recommend titles. When I moved to smaller quarters three years ago, I had to give up more than eight thousand books. I wish that I had them back, but I’ve already amassed two or three hundred new books and my shelves are bowing.
Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or cry, or one that teaches or distracts?
I love a good book that makes me react and paints a clear picture; happy or sad,
maybe just beautifully written. Books are never distractions. They are time machines, mirrors, passports and cabinets of wonder.
So what was the last book that made you laugh, cry, or taught you something?
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Christopher Buckley)
The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)
Verdi’s Shakespeare (Garry Wills)
What books have you found disappointing or overrated?
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) I was told that I would like it, but I didn’t like it at all.
Most bestselling current fiction leaves me hungry for a really good book. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) was easily forgotten. I rarely, if ever, leave a book unfinished though I have occasionally had to force myself to reach the end.
What are your favorite story collections?
I really enjoyed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Karen Russell), Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri), The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (Etgar Keret) and any bit of insanity from David Sedaris.
Do you tend to read more short fiction or novels?
I read both. I also read biography, history and everything from the Classics to Steam Punk. I tend to shy away from poetry and plays, but there are exceptions. I the last few months I’ve read biographies of Catherine the Great (Robert K. Massie), Cleopatra (Stacy Schiff), Caravaggio (Andrew Graham-Dixon) and Joan of Arc (Nancy Goldstone).
What author, living or dead, would you like to meet?
Who wouldn’t want to chit-chat with Shakespeare or Dante? I would like to trade obscenities with Rabelais and meet any author whose work(s) I have enjoyed. Having worked with several book festivals and attended author programs, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with many contemporary writers — most recently Jasper Fforde who was as entertaining as his books.
Which book do you plan to read next?
American Canopy (Eric Rutkow)
Do you avoid very long books in favor of a shorter, faster read?
No. I’ve happily worked through The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki Shikibu), The Book of Memories (Peter Nadas), Jerusalem: A Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore), We, The Drowned (Carlton Jensen), 2666 (Roberto Bolaño), A Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil), and Le Ton Beau de Marot and Goedel, Escher, Bach (Douglas R. Hofstadter).
If someone asks you to recommend a book, what do you often suggest?
The Quickening Maze (Adam Foulds), Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell), In the Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson), The Fountains of Neptune (Rikki Ducornet), or The Sea (John Banville).
Name a few books that you’ve read that aren’t widely known, but which were and remain favorites.
On Heroes and Tombs (Ernesto Sabato)
Bomarzo (Manuel Mujica-Lainez)
I am an extremely “visual” reader, seeing every moment of a book in my mind’s eye. The richer a writer’s imagery, the more engaged I become whether the subject be fiction, nonfiction, history, fantasy, humor, biography, diary or even reference.
I believe strongly in supporting independent bookstores and am fortunate that the staff of Subterranean Books, in particular, knows what I might like and will make recommendations. I have never bought a book through Amazon and I read an average of one book a week.
— Thank you, John! (From all of us here at your favorite bookshop.)
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