SHIELDS: I’m a big fan of compression, concision, and velocity. I don’t know if it’s my dwindling attention span, obsession with mortality, or interest in literary collage but I just like crystallized, hyper-focused stuff.
BOOKS: What’s the last thing you read along those lines?
SHIELDS: A book that I really love, Renata Adler’s “A Year in the Dark.” It’s a compendium of her film reviews of her from ’68 to’69 when she was a film critic at The New York Times. It’s really a brilliant book about the 1960s as told through the prism of hundreds of acerbic film reviews.
BOOKS: When did you start focusing on that kind of reading?
SHIELDS: In my late thirties I was trying to write my fourth novel and for some reason I lost interest in novelistic machinery in my writing and in my reading. A big thing for me was reading Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.” I realized I was more interested in his philosophical meditations than all the plot stuff he threw in for conventional readers.
BOOKS: What are some of your favorite books that you wish were better known?
SHIELDS: That’s a long list though some have become well known. I’m a big fan of an early book by Maggie Nelson, “Bluets.” I like Sarah Manguso’s “300 Arguments.” John Cheever’s fiction seems conventional and kind of sentimental but I love his posthumously published journals of him, which are hundreds of fragments but ultimately a brutal self-portrait.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
SHIELDS: Because we live in such a melodramatic time of life I’ve become drawn to extreme understatement of late. It’s very consoling and calming. So I seem to be on a weird British kick of reading, authors like Philip Larkin, Julian Barnes, even Evelyn Waugh. It’s like I’m self-medicating with British understatement because the world seems so insane and toxic.
BOOKS: Do your reread books?
SHIELDS: I’m constantly rereading certain books. I love Simon Gray’s “The Complete Smoking Diaries” and JM Coetzee’s late work. I read a lot of Leonard Michaels’s work. I read and reread to feed myself and my writing. I need certain writers in my head.
BOOKS: What kind of a reader were you as a teenager?
SHIELDS: I wasn’t particularly precious; I was kind of a jock, believe it or not. I read what I thought of as the higher sports journalism, such as Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer,” or I read Updike’s “Rabbit, Run” because I thought it was about a basketball player.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits now?
SHIELDS: I will read a book from back to front sometimes because I’m so uninvested in narrative momentum. I’m more interested in reading it page by page. Certain books command me to do that. Then I’ll switch and read the book front to back. It’s a way to slow down or read against the current of the narrative.
BOOKS: What is the last classic that you read?
SHIELDS: Of all things, the novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Tolstoy is so insanely good and so insanely observant of human behavior. I read Harold Bloom’s book on “Hamlet” and then reread Shakespeare’s play. I read a wonderful book by the Scottish writer Don Paterson on Shakespeare’s sonnets and then reread some of the sonnets.
BOOKS: Is there a classic you have never liked?
SHIELDS: I don’t love “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Crime and Punishment,” or “The Idiot,” all of which I read in college. I find them overheated. There’s a Romanian-French writer named EM Cioran who writes these aphoristic, short books. I’ll take him over Dostoevsky any day. My reading tastes have gotten less apologetic. I know what I like. I try to expand my range but at this point, I’d rather deepen what I read.
Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.