John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and Southern editor for the Paris Review. He has written for GQ, Harper's and the Oxford American, and is the author of Blood Horses. His new book is Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, October 25, 2011). He is the winner of a Whiting Writers' Award, two National Magazine Awards and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Wilmington, N.C., with his wife and two daughters and, most weeks, his wife's entire family.
On your nightstand now:
The Mauve Decade by Thomas Beer--beat-up, cup-ringed first edition with faded original mauve boards. A strange and unplaceable book, a spiritual X-ray of the United States in the 1890s. Beer wove his tapestry out of hundreds of little items from small-town gossip columns. Faulkner claimed to have stolen from it. I've never figured out how (except maybe in a certain distance from the material, which is not nothing). The book is a great insomnia-killer, too, not because it's boring, but because you can begin or end anywhere. Beer meant it to be a slipstream.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Couldn't have chosen between Swiss Family Robinson and Shaggy Fur Face. Still can't.
Your top 20 authors/books:
"Top" in the sense that they mean most to me at this moment, and with a proviso that each name is shorthand for maybe 20 others (my issue with lists: they always seem to take a certain pleasure in excluding, whereas reading is about expanding your taste, but everyone knows that...): Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Defoe (his Journal of the Plague Year), Borges and Melville. Anne Carson. The Twain of A Tramp Abroad. William Byrd of Westover. Witold Gombrowicz's exile diaries. The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence (given to me by friend fellow local Wilmington writer Dana Sachs--it's about a Chinese man who came to Paris in 1722 and went mad). The Faulkner of Absalom, Absalom! Chekhov's Longer Stories from the Last Decade. Terry Southern's Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes. William Carlos Williams, his In the American Grain and Paterson. Eudora Welty's The Wide Net and Other Stories. Barry Hannah's Airships and Ray. Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Balzac's Lost Illusions. Frederick Seidel and Mary Gaitskill. Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, David Grann. Zora Neale Hurston's folklore, Of Mules and Men and Go Tell My Horse. Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee novels. (That all still feels more or less random.)
Book you've faked reading:
Can't say, 'cause I hope to keep faking it. Although once, I did actually fake reading a book, in the sense that I held it before my face and moved my eyeballs over all the words, despite not knowing how to read. I was four. The book was Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. My brother found me enacting this strange ritual in my closet, with a flashlight. It was like, I knew that adults were doing something important when they held books that way and turned the pages, and I wanted to be part of it.
Book you're an evangelist for:
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature. I buy every used copy I see and give them to people who visit.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff. The inside turned out to be excellent, too.
Book that changed your life:
Every one, when I think about it. But in the spirit of the question, probably Rimbaud's Illuminations. Read it my senior year in high school and have essentially never recovered.
Favorite line from a book:
"There was nothing, not even the sand on the paths, that did not utter its cry." --Sam Beckett, Malone Dies.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Crime and Punishment. I never felt as complete a suspension of time as when I read that book. Seemed like it could have taken half an hour or half my life. It's as if Dostoevsky has your brain in his hands. It would be fun to feel that again. So few books give you that captivation.