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Gary Shteyngart: Books of My Life

To mark the recent publication of his memoir, ”Little Failure” — every bit as blackly comic as his three novels about the Russian-immigrant experience — Shteyngart spoke to us about the books that have inspired him

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My favorite childhood books
I liked Tom Sawyer quite a bit. I had a huge crush on Becky Thatcher. Damn. Still can’t walk through the St. Louis airport without thinking of her. Also liked Geckleberry Finn (I was reading Twain in Russian), but he seemed a little wild for me. Tom was more bourgeois at heart. More of a lover than a fighter.

A book that cemented me as a writer
Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. Couldn’t believe you could write about your own kind like that and nobody would ground you or take away your allowance. There’s really nothing writing can’t do when in the hands of a dangerous woman or man.

My favorite and least favorite film adaptations
Blade Runner! I can’t believe how they took a pretty good Philip K. Dick story and made it into what might be the best movie of all time. I didn’t like what they did to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, one of my favorite books of the past decade. Could have been more visceral and scary.

A classic I’ve pretended to have read
I used to take James Joyce’s Ulysses down to the subway, pretending I was deep into it so that girls might notice how smart I was. It worked, oh, let’s see…never.

A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
How many pages do we have? Bleak House, Jude the Obscure, Jude the Famous, Jude the Reality Star, anything German basically, that unhappy Norwegian dude, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London (I think I’m the only Russian kid who didn’t like White Tooth or White Snout or whatever), The Man Without Qualities, the Twilight saga.

A recent book I wish I’d written
The one that’s selling well, with the bird in the title.

The books people might be surprised to learn that I loved
I like anything the publishers label “chick lit.” Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Sophie Kinsella, Terry McMillan. Sometimes I want to read entertaining stuff about life without pretension. To paraphrase a song of my youth, Garys Just Wanna Have Fun — “they just wanna, they just wan-naaa.”

The last book that made me cry…and the last one that made me laugh
Laugh? No doubt, Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Funniest book since the invention of the printing press. I don’t really cry much. I just sigh a lot.

Something I’ve written that makes me cringe…and something I’m still proud of
It’s all pretty cringeworthy. I wish I had stopped taking drugs earlier on. But I like Little Failure these days because it seems kinda honest and true and a little bit sad, which are not usually my strong suits.

What I’m reading right now
House of Cards, Girls, and True Detective. Wait, what’s the question?