Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
A. If I had been asked these questions three years ago, all my answers would have been different, and not because the media landscape has changed so dramatically. I am now running a daily publication, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the majority of my reading consists of manuscripts in various stages of production. So before getting out of bed, I read through the newly posted pieces, triple-checking the prose, the links, the layout. The first stop after LARB is always the email accounts, sometimes to actually get to work, sometimes just to see if any fires need putting out. Then I begin the rest of what is a very brief daily tour: Talking Points Memo and The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, then Google Analytics to check our numbers, Facebook to do some marketing, and then back to email. I bounce out of email regularly based on links—to pieces forwarded to me by friends or newsletters, and those sometimes send me on a trail of links. I somewhat less regularly check Arts & Letters Daily and follow their leads.
Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?
A. We subscribe to The New York Times and the L.A. Times, and rarely take them out of their wrappers. I recognize this as an ecologically stupid practice; I just want to do my little to help keep them alive, but I’ve always seen the stories online before the paper arrives. We take The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, The Economist (dislike the politics, love the coverage and the astounding efficiency of the prose), Los Angeles magazine, Vanity Fair, New York Review of Books, LRB, TLS, and there always seem to be a number of food magazines arriving related to my wife’s work [Laurie Winer is a culture and food writer.] When I get to any of these, except for the newspapers, it is almost always in print.
Q: What is the best article you’ve read recently?
A. Trick question: of course they have all been on LARB…..
Q: What books have you recently read? Do they stand out?
A. Much of my reading now is instigated by travel, so Peter Godwin’s books on Zimbabwe, Thant Myint-U on Burma (and Orwell’s Burmese Days), Liao Yiwu on China. Other authors this year, for fun, Edward St. Aubyn, Andrey Kurkov, Paul Cain, Derek Raymond, Vanessa Veselka, Chad Harbach, Teaching literature means regularly rereading great books. Thus Love Medicine, which is absolutely beautiful, for a course on collagelike novels, which started with In Our Time, Cane, and Winesburg, Ohio, and runs through The Noodle Maker, The Imperfectionists, I Hotel, and A Visit from the Goon Squad. I have recently been visiting some book clubs for fundraising purposes (LARB is reader-supported), and for them I reread House of Mirth, again thrilled by Wharton’s truly nasty sense of humor, and A Hazard of New Fortunes, with the more restrained and yet profound wit of Howells. I’d say the mix these days is 65% physical and 35% a mix of iBooks and Kindle, with the e-books gaining.
Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?
A. I don’t read scholarly journals anymore. I look things up in them, use them as research tools, but otherwise, no.
Q: What is your next book project?
A. I have a noir-ish novel I am ready to get published, and I am working on a book of narrative travel essays and a multimedia e-book history of the 1920s. If we can raise enough money to hire regular staff for LARB I’ll finish these before I die.
Q. What has been the most surprising aspect of starting a new book review?
A. Three: the incredible enthusiasm and kindness with which it has been received, the beautiful willingness of people to dive in and help make it happen, and the difficulty of raising money to sustain it.
Q. The book as object: Is it a pleasure, necessity, anachronism?
A. It remains a superb technology. There is nothing a cassette tape player can do better than a digital music player, but the physical book remains superior in a number of ways to the electronic book. The e-book has its advantages, too, and as we get better at integrating video and audio, nonfiction e-books will quickly outpace physical. There is no reason the pleasures of the novel in physical form need ever be superseded.
Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?
A. LA Observed, my friends’ blogs too irregularly; but the place blogs once held in my reading has been superseded by The Rumpus, The Paris Review, Jacket Copy, The Millions, TPM—blog-like online magazines by more than a single hand.
Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?
A. I have destroyed Facebook for myself by having 5,000 friends; I use it to let people know what’s happening on LARB, and occasionally see things from real-life friends popping up that I respond to, amidst the cacophony. We have Twitterers on the LARB staff, and I once in a while poke my head in, but mostly not.
Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?
A. I will just assume this is not a question about porn. My guilty pleasures are the dumb parts of Vanity Fair and television. Perhaps the least defensible are Burn Notice, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (thank god it’s over), and Tosh.0. Our film editor just did Survivor, so I’ll be watching that. I also watch shows I don’t feel particularly guilty about—Justified, Girls, Veep, 30 Rock, Mad Men, The Killing, Key & Peele—but I feel guilty watching so many of them. If I’ve had too much to drink, I watch reruns of Rockford Files or the latest bad B noir movies added to Netflix. And, on most days, the shows that keep me sane when I get depressed about our political sinkhole are The Daily Show and Colbert.
Sketch by Ted Benson