Books of my life: Tavi Gevinson
Writer-editor-actress Tavi Gevinson is probably tired of discussing her age, but it’s worth noting that the 18-year-old is by far the youngest author to take EW’s Books of My Life survey. Jonathan Franzen and Hilary Mantel have done it in the past, and Gevinson, who is also featured in an EW Lightbulb interview this week, more than holds her own. Read on to learn what books have most influenced the phenom, editor of the newly published Rookie Yearbook Three, and star of Broadway’s This Is Our Youth.
EW: What was your favorite book as a child?
TG: My friend gave me The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin for my birthday when I was maybe eight, and the cover alone—a chessboard with all these different faces and drops of blood—gave me chills. I remember reading the last couple sentences of the first chapter to my dad because they were so spooky. To this day I model my life after that of Sam Westing, because—spoiler alert—he’s the man who was supposedly murdered, but he’s also the guy orchestrating the mystery, as well as one of the suspects, and then at the end of the book he becomes someone else again. While it is unclear if the book endorses this lifestyle, I took it as permission to fit in a bunch of different lives just the same. There was also a sassy young girl named Turtle who dressed as a witch for Halloween and whose braids got tugged on. I was very much on her team. And her relationship to Sam Westing in his old age, in his last incarnation, is a dynamic I think I seek out or try to replicate in just about every person I meet.
What is your favorite book that you read for school?
Elementary school: The View from Saturday was a crucial read because I was so concerned with grades and academic achievements and it opened my mind up to the possibility that other things were more important. Middle school: To Kill a Mockingbird and Flowers for Algernon. High school: Light in August or Beloved or The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman … I mean, so many. Once I started Rookie and my whole GPA went down, English was the one class I still did really well in.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Franny and Zooey is, in a way, about the kids from The View From Saturday when they’ve grown up. I related to being singled out by adults as a child who is different from other children, and Franny and Zooey made me feel like my values did not always have to be those that infect you if you are lauded at a young age. Ghost World and Weetzie Bat taught middle school-me so much about choosing to find oddities of the world wonderful. As did Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem equipped me for being a person. And certain picture books were seminal, like Fat, Fat Rose Marie and Christina Katerina & the Box.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?
In middle school and high school I reread The Virgin Suicides every summer. I can’t un-blur the lines between the moments and visuals from the book, and the memories of my own life at that time.
What’s a classic you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?
Most of them! I’m not embarrassed, though, because there are countless books/movies/albums in existence, and you’ll never get around to all of them. So if you gravitate more towards something modern or seemingly low-brow, isn’t it better to just go with that than put yourself through a different journey solely out of obligation?
What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?
In high school I pretended to read The Odyssey, Jane Eyre, and Pride & Prejudice.
What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?
We read Watership Down in 6th grade. I have no clue if it’s good or popular, so I’m not really answering this question properly, but I do think it was a terrible assignment. One girl would take the test and one person would copy her answers and then everyone would copy those answers.
What’s a recent book you wish you had written?
The Simon Critchley book on the philosophy of David Bowie. You can feel how it was at once deeply satisfying and really fun for him to write it.
What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?
The Virgin Suicides, Ghost World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. All so near and dear to my heart, as much as the books were. All with soundtracks that I essentially copied whenever I’d make someone a mixtape.
What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?
TTYL, which I believe was written entirely in AIM speak, and detailed teenage girls doing stuff like drinking and having sex.
What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?
I know it’s popular to call Catcher in the Rye overrated or to point out how annoying Holden is. People don’t like to relate to something they’re told they’ll relate to. But it was a comfort to be able to relate to that book and Holden is a pain in the ass only in the ways that we all are. I love it and him.
If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Lately I’ve been weaving in and out of essay collections like Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, White Girls by Hilton Als, Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, My 1980s & Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum, and Susan Sontag’s early diaries. I think I could do that for a lifetime. Though it seems terrifying to not get to escape into fiction ever again. I don’t know. Desert island questions are designed to make you a fumbling idiot.
What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?
Tenth of December made me do both, often at the same time, often in public, often to be met with a sympathetic nod from someone else who did the exact same thing.
What literary character is your hero?
Enid Coleslaw, Eloise, Weetzie Bat, Pippi Longstocking, Turtle from The Westing Game, Scout Finch, Sheila from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. All inquisitive minds; sometimes obnoxious. I don’t know why they’re all girls; probably because I was looking for people to model myself after.
Who’s your literary crush?
The entire clan in The Secret History, and Donna Tartt, too, for that matter. She looks so fucking sharp whenever you see a picture of her. And then you read what she has to say and it makes her even cooler. It’s how I feel when I see pictures of teen Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp holding hands in leather jackets, like nobody can match that.
Is there something you’ve written that makes you cringe now? On the flip side, something you’re still very proud of?
I don’t go back and reread so I don’t know how cringey or how proud I would be, but I’ve been writing publicly since I was 12, so I’m sure the cringey to proud ratio is probably 90 to 10. I’m also sure that all of that had to be written in order for me to write whatever I write now, so I don’t get too down on myself for any of it.
What are you reading right now?
The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan, and Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. All bases covered.