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Special Report

Possession at 20

NAB: Do you have books that you haven’t read?

ASB: Not before. Now I do. I’ve got quite a lot of books that I haven’t read, and these are of two kinds, three kinds really. They’re the ones I’ve bought because I know I need them for my research, and I haven’t yet got round to reading them. There are the ones I’ve bought because they look quite interesting, and I haven’t got around to reading those as well. And then there are the ones that people send me, and in my position you get sent hundreds of books. Some of them come from the author saying, “Please write something for the back of my book.” Some of those come from the publisher. One came from my own publisher not long ago.

The only way I can deal with all of this is to write back to absolutely every single one, even my best friend, and say, “No, I will not write anything on the back of anybody’s book, ever.” And I say that if I write a review, then obviously you can quote my review, but that’s public. I don’t like the private back scratching, and also the only way I can cope with the people is to make it quite clear to them that I won’t even consider it.

NAB: Briefly, to get back to Possession, was that a liberating book for you in that it’s been called the breakthrough book?

ASB: Yes, it was a breakthrough book, and it was a liberating book, partly because it actually was quite easy to write—although it looks very complicated—and partly because everybody liked it so much. Almost nobody disliked it, as far as I can see, which ought to make one a bit suspicious of it.

NAB: Are you fearful of so much public approbation?

ASB: Well, what I feel is that after that much public approbation, this sort of cut-and-thrust young journalist will decide that you need taking down a peg or two, that you need to be cut down to size. They think somehow that because you have been well received you must now be mocked, and this is very tedious. I’ve seen it happen to other people so much that I know it’s not personal.

I’m not very good at being famous. On the whole, I would much rather be at home writing a book than being on a book tour. But it is nice having the money, apart from anything else.

NAB: What do you feel about books in the future? Do you have a sense?

ASB: I have two or three contradictory senses. I tell you, if you haven’t happened to already have heard or seen it, George Steiner has been giving a brilliant series of lectures on books of the future. He gave a brilliant one I heard in Cambridge last summer, and he has a son who teaches—I think this is right—he has a son who teaches disadvantaged children in North Carolina, and he goes there with holograms and CD-ROMs. He can offer them the whole of the Library of Congress and the whole of the British Library on these CD-ROMs, although these kids do not have the money to buy a book, and he said this is good. And he has a daughter who is an anthropologist or some sort of something, or Sinologist, I forget, but she is somewhere in Harvard or Yale, and she enviously communicates her papers by sticking them into the Internet and immediately getting comments back on e-mail. She’s connected into the major people. Now this obviously is going to make a physical book less necessary, but I still think there will be physical books, because I think people will continue to want to carry them about in their pockets and read them in airplanes.

NAB: Were you surprised by the American reaction to Possession?

ASB: No, I don’t think I was. I always felt that my earlier books, if they had gone into paperback, the Americans would have liked them. And in fact when they did go into paperback, the Americans did like them. One of the good results of Possession was that Still Life then went into paperback and sat on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for quite a long time, which was unexpected. Nobody had bothered to put it into print. I think the thing about Possession appealing to the Americans that most pleased me was that they do seem to like all the others. All the others are now in print, and they are staying in print.

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©2010 Nicholas A. Basbanes. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission of the author.

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