In this second installment of our new community Q&A column, City of Readers, we hear from Portland authors and artists Carson Ellis and Colin Meloy.
Where are you from originally?
Mt. Kisco, NY
Last book you loved:
Ellis: My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Meloy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John le Carré
Describe your first memorable reading experience.
I remember being given the first of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, A Spell for Chameleon
, by my cousin, who’d just finished reading it. I think I was 10 and my cousin was six years older than me — and the book seemed very grown up! The typeface was small and it was a mass market paperback, very different from the slim middle grade novels I’d been reading up to that point. I dove in and loved it! I think I quickly overcame my trepidation about being able to read a properly grown-up book, got absorbed in the story, and felt super proud once I’d finished it. I became totally obsessed with that series of books for the next couple years.
What makes for a good book in your eyes?
I think I had a solid read on what a good book was from when I was 10 to when I was 14, then suddenly disavowed everything I’d loved previously and spent a lot of time not really knowing what a good book was, wandering in some kind of literary wilderness, reading books good and bad. I think I only now am getting a better sense of what a good book is to me and realizing that what I think is a good book is often very different from what other people think — and that’s okay! These days I feel free to hop around a lot and have been really enjoying delving into more genre fiction, trying to ferret out the really good genre fiction that’s out there. I’ve been on a John le Carré kick, a writer and genre I think I’d previously looked down my nose at for no good reason, and those books are so good! For the most part, I like smart writing — but not too smart, or too aware of its own smartness — and a writer who’s not afraid to embrace a bit of absurdity or magic. I feel like too much modern “literary fiction” steers clear of the fantastic, and that’s a bummer for everyone.
Were there any books you hid from your parents?
I don’t think I hid books from my parents. I might be wrong, but I don’t remember a lot of rules or boundaries around what I was and wasn’t allowed to read as a kid. I spent hours poring over the R. Crumb
collection that always sat on the top of the toilet in my childhood bathroom, for example. I read avidly when I was a little kid and less avidly as a middle schooler. The Chronicles of Narnia
and the novels about horses that I loved so much stopped mattering to me once I’d been plunged into the miserable nadir of early adolescence. Then the only books that interested me were salacious: Flowers in the Attic
, Go Ask Alice
, etc. I knew my parents thought these books were trash, but I was allowed to read them. I didn’t have to hide them, for better or worse.
I can’t really think of one. I mean, there was the stuff my friends and I would fish out of the ditch that ran along the gravel road between my house and my friend Josh’s house, books that would’ve been tossed there out of a car window or maybe hidden away to be dug up later. Those kinds of books. But I can’t remember ever keeping them around. I think we would just throw them back into the ditch after we’d browsed them, leaving the discovery for someone else.
Why do you think bookstores remain so popular in the digital age?
Because human booksellers are much better at connecting readers with books than Internet algorithms are. Because books are beautiful objects that we want to collect and display on our shelves. Because there’s no better place than the picture book section of a bookstore or library for a worn-out parent and a kid to spend some peaceful time on a rainy day.
I believe that physical books have survived digitalization in a way that other mediums have not because physical books, as it turns out, are a better technology. I’ve briefly flirted with the proposition of reading books on a tablet or a laptop or on a phone only to be drawn back, each time, to books made out of paper and glue. It’s just an immeasurably better experience, in my opinion. So it makes sense that bookstores have prospered, once people have dallied with the lesser version of books and returned to the tried-and-true. And who wants to browse for books on a digital platform? Bookstores allow you the time and space to hold each book, get a sense of the heft and the tooth of the paper. These things are as important to book buying, I think, as learning about storage space and screen resolution if you’re buying a phone or a computer or a TV.
What’s one book you’ll never part with?
We have a copy of The Red Book
by Carl Jung that I can’t imagine I’d ever get rid of. It’s huge and so gorgeous and weird. I haven’t even dug into it really — only looked at the pictures. You could spend a lifetime trying to parse it and someday I hope to spend more time with it. Regardless, there’ll always be room for it somewhere in my house.
I bought Carson a first edition copy of The Little Fur Family
by Margaret Wise Brown, the edition where the cover is actually made out of real fur, as a gift one year. It’s a book that we both loved reading to our first son and a big influence on both of us — not to mention that the fur cover is absolutely batshit. It’s maybe the rarest book we own? I like to think we’re stewards of it, for whoever might own it after us.
Name an author you think everyone should read, and a good book with which to start.
I feel like everyone should be acquainted with Tove Jansson. She did so many things so beautifully: picture books, Moomin
comics, novels. I would start with The Summer Book
. I think it’s a perfect novel.
Everyone should have read a Charles Dickens novel, even if you think it’s not your cup of tea. Dickens gets a bum rap these days. I really think Dickens is the bridge between contemporary novel writing and classical storytelling. Particularly in this day and age, it’s interesting to remember that Dickens was basically the Victorian equivalent of Netflix; people would binge his serialized novels. Bleak House
is my favorite, but it’s a bit of a tough knot; I’d suggest everyone start with A Tale of Two Cities
, which made me cry at the end when I first read it.
Do you collect any particular types of books?
Old picture books! I have hundreds.
I have a weird and perhaps not entirely healthy fascination with BIG BOOKS. If something looks like a doorstop, comes in at 1,000-plus pages, I can’t resist it. I probably read 30% less than I should because I get mired in these books that take ages to finish. But I love what a long-ass book can do for you, if it’s well written. Even if it’s mediocre, maybe. You become immersed in it in a way that is just not possible in a short novel. Not only do you spend so much time with the characters and their choices and actions, but you spend so much time with the book itself! It becomes a kind of a companion — sometimes a good one, sometimes a really tedious one. Grossman’s Life and Fate
, Tolstoy’s War and Peace
, Knausgaard’s My Struggle
, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
— these ended up being some of my most memorable reading experiences.
What do you do when you’re not reading?
I draw, paint, write, garden, hike, hang out with my family, do the crossword puzzle, knit, and tend to the little farm where we live.
Look at my phone. It’s awful. I did a thing for a while where whenever I was tempted to look at my phone, I made myself pick up my book instead. I got a lot of reading done.
What do you love about Portland?
I love that it’s a city, but it’s not a city. It feels, at least right now it does, like the perfect middle ground between sprawling metropolis and quaint burg. I love the food and the coffee. I love Powell’s!
What is your favorite spot in Portland?
It would have to be Forest Park, that magical place.
Name a guilty pleasure.
Ugh, video games! I like board games too, but I don’t feel as guilty engaging in them. Video games can be a real bane to my existence. I like to think I’m giving my brain a rest when I play them, but there are about a million other things I should be doing, inevitably, when I’m playing them. I have no will power.
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?
SALTED CARAMEL, MY DUDES.