For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are author and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean’s answers:
Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?
Susan Orlean: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. A vivid, brilliant explanation of the world we now live in, with regards to Islamic fundamentalism, and a great read, thanks to Wright’s extraordinary reporting and storytelling. Not a cheerful book, but a brilliant one.
MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?
SO: The White Album by Joan Didion. Everything about it is perfect—the writing, the thinking, the way it captured a moment in American culture.
MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?
SO: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. My brother recommended it to me, and it changed everything for me: I had never read nonfiction that leaped off the page, never read anything that evoked a time and subculture with the same vividness. I couldn’t put it down, literally: I think I carried a copy with me for a year, and read it repeatedly, and dreamed of writing a book like it someday.
MJ: What’s the most underrated book you’ve ever read, the gem of hidden gems?
SO: Hmm. Fiction? I’d say anything by Sebastian Barry—not that he’s underrated, but he hasn’t gotten the fame I would expect, given his incredible talent. As for nonfiction…not enough people read Joseph Mitchell anymore, although he is also not underrated; just not quite as acclaimed by the general public as I wish he were. I honestly can’t think of anything else at the moment but I’m not near a bookshelf so I’m relying on faulty memory, I’m afraid.