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Michael Ondaatje: By the Book

Michael Ondaatje: By the Book

What books are on your nightstand?

I have been rereading some old wonders such as Georges Simenon’s “The Train,” J. L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” and Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre.” And discovering two forthcoming books: Dionne Brand’s “The Blue Clerk” — part poem, part memoir, part ars poetica — and P. Ahilan’s “Then There Were No Witnesses,” his poems set in Jaffna during the war, translated by Geetha Sukumaran.

What was the last truly great book you read?

Actually I am still reading it. Gilbert White’s “The Natural History of Selborne,” published by the wonderful Little Toller Books in Dorset, which keeps great books on nature in print. Written in 1798, it has the atmosphere and many of the qualities of a great English novel, except that the Bennet family has been replaced by weather and landscapes, as well as the seasonal arrival of visiting insects, all of them faultlessly described. White’s writing, with his depiction of a returning rainstorm or the slow wanderings of his tortoise, is great literature at a perfect pace, every creature dressed and portrayed in quick-witted adjectives; and he enthralls us with his knowledge of crickets, who are a “thirsty race,” who “open communications from one room to another” and who can sometimes foretell the death of a near relation or the approach of an absent lover. The book is a classic and has never been out of print since its first publication.

Which writers — novelists, essayists, memoirists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Luckily books do not die. So Willa Cather, Joseph Roth, Mavis Gallant, Robert Creeley, Tomas Transtromer, Penelope Fitzgerald, Lorine Niedecker and Derek Walcott are still with me, safe from the rush hour of present-day publishing. My favorite contemporaries are too many to mention, but some of their books include: Graham Swift’s “Waterland”; David Malouf’s “An Imaginary Life”; Don DeLillo’s “The Names” and “Libra”; “Fat City,” by Leonard Gardner; “The Round House,” by Louise Erdrich; “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson; John Ehle’s “The Land Breakers”; and essays by Annie Dillard and Donald Richie. Also the poets Don Patterson, Phyllis Webb, Karen Solie, Ko Un, Brenda Hillman and Alice Oswald’s “Memorial,” a remarkable book-length poem about the unknown dead in the Trojan War.

What’s your favorite thing to read? And what do you avoid reading?

I love memoirs that include the usually uncaught world around the writer, such as C. L. R. James’s “Beyond a Boundary,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Country Doctor’s Notebookor Raja Shehadeh’s “Palestinian Walks.” I am a various reader and am drawn to mongrel genres that slide as if unaware into new territories. Amitav Ghosh’s “In an Antique Land,” with its mixture of memoir and unearthed history, that was written in 1992, still feels an essential book of our time.

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