Illustration by Jillian Tamaki, The New York Times
What books are currently on your night stand?
“Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I just finished and which impressed me; “Genghis Khan,” by Jack Weatherford, which is next up; “The White Album,” by Joan Didion, which is great to rediscover, and as good as I remembered it being; “The Heart of a Goof,” by P. G. Wodehouse, which can actually make me care about the game of golf, at least while reading it; and “Humboldt’s Gift,” by Saul Bellow, which seems to be on the night stand more or less permanently.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
“Of all time” is a long time. There are days when it’s Kafka, in whose world we all live; others when it’s Dickens, for the sheer fecundity of his imagination and the beauty of his prose. But it’s probably Joyce on more days than anyone else.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I don’t really catalog my reading. I usually just read the books that grab my attention for whatever reason. But there is one genre I’m diving into right now, for work reasons. I’m reading a lot of “nonfiction novels” because I’m going to teach them at N.Y.U. So, Mailer’s “Armies of the Night,” Keneally’s “Schindler’s List,” Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” and so on.
What genres do I avoid? Um, pornography; that’s a genre, right?
When you were in hiding under the fatwa, were there particular books that you sought out or that helped you through?
Well, for obvious reasons, I did get hold of the Enlightenment writers. Voltaire’s “Candide,” Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist,” Rousseau’s “Confessions.” Also John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” But I also did a bit of book reviewing to keep my hand in. I remember liking Philip Roth’s “The Facts” and not much liking Kurt Vonnegut’s “Hocus Pocus,” for which he never forgave me, which saddened me because I admired so many of his other books — “The Sirens of Titan,” “Cat’s Cradle” and of course “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
P. G. Wodehouse’s “Code of the Woosters,” which also contains the speech which Christopher Hitchens (and I) believed to be the greatest anti-Nazi diatribe in English literature:
“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting, ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’ ”
I should add that more or less everything by Christopher Hitchens makes me laugh. The laughter is what I miss most about the Hitch.
The last book that made you cry?
I don’t cry when I read, really, though I did once cry while writing the death scene of a character I loved in “Shalimar the Clown.”
The last book that made you furious?
Can’t think of one. I tend to avoid books that I think might make me furious. (Good advice for people made furious by books, some of whom I have encountered in the past.) Books by politicians are usually annoying; Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” is a rare exception. I did once accidentally see a book by Donald Trump in a bookstore and had to move away quickly.
What are your favorite books about India, or by Indian or Anglo-Indian writers?
“A Passage to India,” by E. M. Forster; “Clear Light of Day,” by Anita Desai; “Maximum City,” by Suketu Mehta.
Who’s your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Hero: Mr Leopold Bloom who ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. Although he’s an antihero too. A more heroic hero . . . well, I was quite a Frodo fan back in the day, though Sam Gamgee was probably the more heroic of the pair.
Villain: So few really good villains these days. Dickens had several. Uriah Heep. Wackford Squeers. More recently, maybe Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder in “Catch-22.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
Every child in India in my day (and probably still) was obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. I read mountains of books by both. I also liked “Swallows and Amazons,” by Arthur Ransome, because I couldn’t believe how much freedom those English kids were given to mess about in boats in the Lake District and have adventures, including dangerous ones, entirely without adult supervision.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
“The One Thousand and One Nights.”
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The One Thousand and One Nights.”
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Living: Auster, DeLillo, McEwan. Dead: Joyce, Proust, Kafka.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Supposed to like and didn’t: I always get in trouble for saying this, but . . . “Middlemarch.”
Didn’t finish: “Go Set a Watchman.”
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Sorry, did that myself already.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful to you?
The two I wrote for my sons, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and “Luka and the Fire of Life.”
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”; Bellow, “The Adventures of Augie March”; Borges, “Fictions”; Calvino, “The Baron in the Trees”; Grass, “The Tin Drum”; García Márquez, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”; Angela Carter, “The Bloody Chamber”; Christopher Logue, “War Music”; Derek Walcott, “Omeros.”
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I’m too old to be embarrassed by the many lacunae in my reading. I really should try to improve my relationship with “Middlemarch,” I guess.
It’s all rereading right now. More nonfiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor,” Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”
This article was originally published on NYTimes.com on September 17, 2015 and a version of it was published in the September 20, 2015 print edition of The New York Times Sunday Book Review