Margaret Atwood: What I Read

The novelist talks to us about being a reading 'junkie'

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How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts and the literary world, to hear their answers to these questions. This is drawn from a conversation with novelist Margaret Atwood, whose book The Blind Assassin is currently the subject of's Twitter book club #1book140.

When I wake up in the morning I might check my email to see what gruesome things have come in from Europe, but I won't go to news sites. I don't like news too early in the day. I would rather have it filter in gradually. I might go for a walk with a friend and purchase a paper newspaper, which is very nice to have in a cafe. Then I might go online later in the day and look at a couple of newspapers or other news outlets or follow links that people have sent me. I listen to the radio, but around six o'clock in the evening.

I subscribe to and read a lot of magazines. Too many. Some of them are literary, like the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the TLS sometimes, a number of little literary magazines. And some of them are scientific, environmental, and historical. When in airports I will buy Discover Magazine. When I'm in the U.K. I might buy the New Scientist. I might buy Scientific American or The Economist, and anything else that strikes my fancy. I might buy a Time or Newsweek or an Atlantic if they've got something I wish to read.

I sometimes watch YouTube items, which I find through Twitter. I have a large Twitter following. How did I get that? I don't know. I go on Twitter maybe once in a day, sometimes twice, sometimes never if I'm out of WiFi range, and see what people are telling me and so forth. I look up the URLs of things that look interesting. I've got two Internet browsers. I find it very helpful to have two, so I can look up urls on one that are mentioned on the other. I've got several news sites bookmarked. 

But there's nothing except food and drink that I can't live without (I take these questions literally). Anything else is optional, although I would be quite upset if I couldn't read any books. I read books in print form or in in e-form: I've got a Kindle and I've got a Kobo.

I just finished two books by Janet Malcolm. She's an investigative reporter who works a lot for The New Yorker but she seems to specialize in the area of literary modernism and associated fields. One of the books is In the Freud Archives and the other one is Two Lives--about what really was behind some of Gertrude Stein's more impenetrable writings. Gertrude seems to have made a comeback but I think Janet Malcolm may be part of that. She writes very well. She wrote a book on Chekov that's very good, and one called The Silent Woman about Sylvia Plath. One of her motifs is the impenetrability and unreliability of biographies, and especially of autobiographies, which rather puts one off writing such a thing.

The question that is facing everybody is: how can we find out what we want to read? Sometimes it's via friends--they say "you really have to read this." Sometimes you pick up a book online and sometimes you read a review that makes the thing sound irresistible. Sometimes you read a review that's so bad that you feel you just have to read the book, because you really can't believe anything can be that bad. So you find books in all different kinds of ways: browsing in book stores, coming across them in friends' houses where you might happen to be visiting.

People are very keen on trying to get you to make lists of what you're reading and so forth. We want to be steered towards things because we cannot possibly ever be aware of all the books that are being published. Lists are constantly coming out--of movies as well--and you often do pick up things from those lists that you're happy to have been told about. In fact I'm thinking of compiling my own list: the top ten books to have in your bathroom.

Bathroom reading is a certain kind of reading--episodic, but encouraging first thing in the morning. The bathroom is a place where you can go in and pretend to be doing one thing while actually you're reading. Nobody can interrupt you. Compendiums of this and that are very useful for bathroom reading: small reading packages within a larger book. You wouldn't want to read War and Peace in there. You'd never come out. They'd probably call the police and get the door broken down.

I like to read at night before bed, too, though it can give you some pretty horrific nightmares--and a stiff neck, because of the position of your head.  

Really, though, I will read anything at any time. If there's nothing else available I will read airplane shopping magazines. You find out some pretty interesting things in there, actually. You think: "Somebody invented this. They actually sat in a room and invented it. And then they went out and raised the money and they manufactured it and now it's in the airplane shopping magazine." Boggles the mind.

I used to read the backs of cereal boxes but I've kind of exhausted their possibilities. Advertisement used to provide a lot more reading material than it does now‹ads have become too pictorial. They used to have a lot more print. They used to be more narrative. Story ads were still going strong in the forties, and to a certain extent in the fifties. I think it probably started to change in the sixties. They used to have little poems. They used to have quizzes.

I'm a reading junkie, I guess. It's the fault of my upbringing. I was brought up in the north where there weren't any other forms of media--other than print. I certainly learned my first French off the backs of cereal boxes. This is Canada: "Eh! Les enfants! Special offer. Collect the box tops."

I think it's curiosity that drives me to read. I don't think "entertainment" quite covers it. It's not that I'm indiscriminate in my appreciation--I like to feel that I can tell an apple from a pear, and I don't expect from the pear what I might expect from the apple. In other words, if I'm reading Conan the Conqueror I'm not demanding that it be Middlemarch. They have different things to offer. But in some cases you get led to fine experiences through very devious pathways. Do you remember that spate of people parodying a movie called Downfall on YouTube? That led me to watch the original movie--actually quite an astounding movie. (The parodied scene is the one in which Hitler's losing it. ­Everyone from Hillary Clinton to who knows who, done with subtitles.)

Nobody ever gets quite the information they really want because often the information they really want is something they don't know they want. Or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it's a case of the "unknown unknowns"--the things you would have loved to have heard about, but you don't know what they are. There's a lot serendipity involved. Some of the books that have been quite valuable to me I've picked off second-hand sales shelves. I've just stumbled across them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.