You’ve certainly heard of Jonathan Franzen’s most famous books, The Corrections and Freedom, but maybe not his terrific but under-read debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, now available in a special 25th-anniversary edition from Picador Modern Classics. In honor of his first novel, Franzen talked to EW about some of the other books that impacted him as an author and person — as well as some books and authors he considers overrated.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved anything with talking or thinking animals— A.A. Milne, the Narnia novels, Doctor Doolittle, Wind in the Willows, and the great collections of Peanuts strips. This seems a little strange now, given that I was afraid of dogs and that my parents didn’t let me have any pets except for hamsters and turtles, which I didn’t love, and which were always dying on me.
What is your favorite book that you read for school?
Probably Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in eighth grade. It made me a sci-fi reader for many years, and it’s an interesting book to think about even now, since it imagines the world coming to an end when its children unite to create a single global consciousness. Clarke saw this happening through telepathy, but it looks a lot like the world of social media.
What’s a book that really cemented you as a writer?
I might mention Harriet the Spy and, later, Kafka’s The Trial. What the two have in common is main characters who are at once sympathetic and morally dubious.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?
Everything I loved as a young person I read three or four times. This included The Lord of the Rings and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Two novels I’ve read at least seven times as an adult are The Great Gatsby and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
What’s a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you’ve never read?
Moby-Dick, despite multiple attempts to get past page 50.
What’s a book you’ve pretended to have read?
What’s a book you consider grossly overrated?
It would be impolitic to answer this question honestly. I will say that I am underwhelmed by E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, and that Salinger’s fiction seems to me a slender reed on which to hang the weight of world-changing genius that’s currently being ascribed to him.
What’s a recent book you wish you had written?
I’m envious of great short-story writers, since I don’t seem to have much aptitude in that line. Alice Munro makes it look easy. I wish I could make it look that easy.
What’s a movie adaptation of a book that you loved?
Most adaptations put me in mind of the movie reviewer who imagined the producers of Bonfire of the Vanities saying, “There, we did it, we adapted the sucker.” But two beautiful exceptions are John Huston’s Wise Blood (from the Flannery O’Connor novel) and Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story (from the I.B. Singer novel).
What was an illicit book that you had to read in secret as a kid?
I was a very obedient boy and didn’t do that kind of thing. Which made me all the more excited, as a teenager, to find real sex scenes in the non-illicit sci-fi I was reading.
What’s a book that people might be surprised to learn that you loved?
Maybe Gone With the Wind. But I have a hard time believing that anyone’s paying enough attention to me to be surprised by that.
If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The novel, of course. It’s already always on the verge of being the one genre I’m reading for the rest of my life.
What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?
It’s been a while since I cried. The ending of Halldor Laxness’s Independent People made me do it, and so did War and Peace, a while back. But just last week, rereading the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was laughing hysterically. I laughed all the way through Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Have you ever bought your own book in a bookstore? If so, did anyone see you?
I’ve bought copies of my book as presents for other writers. When I take them to the cash register, I feel a little like the happily married guy who’s buying a Penthouse: “No, it’s not for my own use…”
Do you read your books post-publication?
The question reminds me of the scene in the movie Singles where the Bridget Fonda character asks the Matt Dillon character if he wishes her breasts were larger. Dillon hesitates, he’s very uncomfortable, and he finally says, “Sometimes.”
Is there something you’ve written that makes you cringe now? On the flip side, something you’re still very proud of?
The danger of rereading my own books is that they’re minefields of sentences and word choices I regret. How hard can it be to publish something with nothing to regret? It turns out to be very hard. But in a way I’m also proud of having things to regret, because it means that I was pushing the writing, taking chances.
What are you reading right now?
I’m finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude and looking forward to Rebecca Lee’s new story collection, Bobcat.