The King of Reading
January 28, 2008
The New Yorker Magazine
By Nick Paumgarten
Illustration: Tom Bachtell
Candidates for political office, and the reporters who cover them, like to believe that a reading list reveals a great deal. In recent years, the cherished-book list has become as compulsory a component of the Presidential campaign as a church affiliation or a health-care plan. Hillary Clinton named “Little Women” and “The Poisonwood Bible.” Mike Huckabee: the Bible and “Mere Christianity.” Barack Obama: “Song of Solomon” and “Moby-Dick.” John McCain: “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” When mishandled, the book thing can lead to grief, as when Mitt Romney cited “Battlefield Earth,” by L. Ron Hubbard, or when John Edwards, four years ago, went with I. F. Stone’s “The Trial of Socrates,” which earned him the skunk eye from Robert Novak. (“Did [Edwards] know of evidence that Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin?”)
Then there is Art Garfunkel, who is not running for President but who has nonetheless provided the world with a list: the Garfunkel Library, a chronological index of the thousand and twenty-three books that he has read since June, 1968. He has been recording their particulars neatly on sheets of loose-leaf paper—forty or so titles to a page—for nearly forty years. About a decade ago, he posted the list on his Web site (which he pays a fan in Levittown to maintain). It begins with Rousseau’s “Confessions” and ends with Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which he finished before Christmas. In between, the list ticks off, at a rate of 2.16 books a month, a dazzling syllabus that’s a testament to steroidal self-improvement, as well as to the magical time-furnishing powers of royalty checks. Foucault, Balzac, Chesterton, Heidegger, Spinoza, Hazlitt, Milton, Proust: he has slayed them all, and let us know. Against the temptation to sneer at such ostentation, one may pit an appreciation that a celebrity has so resolutely done his homework, and taken such delight in it. In the winter and spring of 1969, much of which was spent on the set of the film “Catch-22,” where the reading habit really took hold, he got through “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Catch-22,” “Candide,” “The Great Gatsby,” “War and Peace,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Down and Out in Paris and London,” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” In September of 1981, the month of his reunion concert with Paul Simon in Central Park, he nailed “Nicholas Nickleby,” and then, in the following months, moved on to Jack London, Henry James, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Rabelais, and Kant, among others. December, 1982: the Book of Job, “The Search for Alexander,” “Stephen Hero,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Justine.” September, 2001: “The Waves.”
The list contains just—just—enough low- or middle-brow work to suggest sincerity. In the spring of 1996, between “Flaubert in Egypt” and “I, Claudius,” he took on “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again,” by Robin, Liza, Linda, and Tiffany. In February, 2004, he gave Dan Brown a go before returning to Flaubert and Aristophanes. He has read several books by the actress Carrie Fisher, one of Simon’s ex-wives, as well as “Simon and Garfunkel: The Definitive Biography” (in May, 1998, two years after it was published, and just before moving on to Plato and Locke).
“I avoid fluff,” Garfunkel explained last week, on the phone from a Marriott in Florida. “The stuff that men are always reading on planes: I don’t read that.” He also doesn’t read postmodern fiction—the Garfunkel Library contains no Pynchon or Barthelme. “I tried ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ and I thought it was fraudulent,” he said.
“I read for the reading pleasure, not for the gold star,” he went on. “Reading is a way to take downtime and make it stimulating. If you’re in the waiting room of a dentist’s office and don’t want to twiddle your thumbs, you turn to Tolstoy.” (“Tolstoy is the king of writing,” he said.) Garfunkel prefers paperbacks, which he shelves in his study when he’s done. He writes vertical lines in the margin next to passages he finds exceptional, arrows next to references to places he’d like to visit, and a little circle next to any word he needs to look up. “I’m anal compulsive,” he explained. He once read the Random House Dictionary, back to front.
Though he has yet to update the Garfunkel Library on the Web, he recently finished reading “The Black Swan,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which Simon had recommended. Garfunkel had just left a message on Simon’s answering machine, asking whether he had skipped a chapter that the author had suggested the reader skip: “Did you do that, Paul?”
He hadn’t heard back. If Simon were to reply that he had not, would Garfunkel feel—
“One-upped?” Garfunkel asked. He laughed. “Paul is, after all, one of our greatest writers.” (He did say that while Simon was born three weeks earlier, technically he was older. “I was conceived first. Paul was one month premature.”)
Asked what was on deck, in the Garfunkel Library, Garfunkel sighed and said, “You know, I’m getting tired of reading. I’m thinking of giving it a rest for a couple of months.”