Chris Hayes Credit Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
The author of “A Colony in a Nation” says his ideal literary dinner would include Walt Whitman and Hannah Arendt. And “James Baldwin is a no-brainer. (I’d let him smoke inside.)”
What books are currently on your night stand?
There are two: The first is “Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction,” by Thomas Holt. It was published in 1979, but it’s still one of the most comprehensive looks at the black elected representatives who held power in South Carolina from 1867 to 1876. To me, this is perhaps the most fascinating and tragic period in American history. The other is a galley for the novel “Touch,” by Courtney Maum; it comes out in May, and I’m about halfway through it. So far it’s a really smart and funny look at the insane psychological and social costs of our era of constant connectedness. I know Courtney from college, and my wife really liked her first novel, “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” which got raves.
What’s the last great book you read?
I’ll name two because I basically read them at the same time, as I was working on my own book. “Ghettoside,” by Jill Leovy, which is at one level just the story of one homicide detective in L.A., but is more profoundly about violence and policing and the ways in which our criminal justice system exhibits its contempt and devaluation of black lives through policing as well as overpolicing. The other is “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life,” by Karen and Barbara Fields. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’d not heard of it until my research assistant for the book, George Aumoithe, who’s a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, recommended it to me. It’s a book of essays that grapple with a pretty simple question: What is race? It’s permanently altered the way I think about the concept and the language I use to describe it.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
There are way, way too many for me to list here, particularly journalists, because there is just an incomprehensible amount of amazing work being produced right now. But here are a few: Ta-Nehisi Coates; David Grann; Masha Gessen; Junot Díaz; Stephen Karam; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Sarah Ruhl; Tony Kushner; Lynn Nottage; Rebecca Solnit; George Saunders; Michelle Alexander; China Miéville; and my brilliant, talented friend Alix Sobler, who is a playwright you will be hearing a lot from.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
The vast majority of book reading I do right now has to do with writing projects I’m working on, so for about a year and a half it was mostly criminal justice, policing, race and early colonial U.S. history. Now I’m reading a ton of history books about Reconstruction; in fact, it’s basically all of what I’m reading.
What’s the first book you turned to after the election?
“Fraud of the Century,” by Roy Morris Jr. It’s a chronicle of the 1876 election, and I turned to it for two reasons. One, 1876 was the last time that the candidate who won such a large margin of the popular vote lost the Electoral College. But more importantly, it also marked the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of the reversal of what had been years of the most radical agenda of racial egalitarianism the U.S. has ever seen — before or since. That seemed pretty relevant.
What books in your opinion best explain the current moment in America?
Well, if you’ll allow me a point of personal privilege, I think my own first book, “Twilight of the Elites,” lays out the basics of our institutional dysfunction, elite failure, populist backlash and crisis of authority in ways that seem more relevant than ever. There are lots of others, but one that I’ve found incredibly useful is Alexander Stille’s fantastic book “The Sack of Rome,” about Silvio Berlusconi, who, in many ways, is the closest analogue you can really find among world leaders to Trump.
And what’s the one book you wish all Americans would read right now?
“Black Reconstruction,” by DuBois.
Tell us about the best book you’ve ever read about American government.
I don’t know if it’s the “best,” because there have been dozens (Robert Caro’s L.B.J. series comes to mind, James Wilson’s “Bureaucracy,” etc. . . . ), but one that always sticks out is “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner. First, it’s a masterpiece, an absolute tour de force of historical writing. But it also shows there is no such thing as a market without government; that the state, in a literal physical sense, constructs the conditions for market exchange; and that government and big business often operate in this partnership to tame and extract the earth.
What was the most informative book you read while working on your new one?
I really loved “Smuggler Nation,” by Peter Andreas, because it’s about, fundamentally, the fact that America is a nation of hustlers and con men, and never has that seemed, um, more true.
What’s the best book you read as a philosophy student in college? Is there one philosopher whose work you find yourself returning to again and again?
In terms of moral resonance in my adult life, it’s Camus. I return to “The Myth of Sisyphus” over and over as a kind of touchstone: Meaning is found in the struggle, not in victory; in the process, not in the outcomes. It’s the closest I come to having a theology, or, I guess, antitheology. In terms of pure philosophical thought, it’s definitely Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations.” Each paragraph of that book absolutely exploded my brain cells when I read it. No philosopher I’ve read has ever packed more profound insight into fewer words.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I always read simultaneously, usually electronic on my phone, because I always have it, but I’ve recently come to realize what the research on this topic makes clear: Reading on paper greatly enhances focus and attention. So I’ve started to migrate back to that. I’m reading a bunch of Reconstruction books right now, and they’re all paper. I tend to read in the morning, on the subway ride into work.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Hmmm. This question requires me to make a mental model of what the typical person thinks about me, and I’m not quite sure I’m up to the task. We definitely own a lot of translation dictionaries, which I always find startling when I see them: English to French, English to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Hindi, Urdu. They’re mostly my wife’s.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When I was studying abroad in Italy in 2000, it was before the era of e-books, and English books were hard to come by. My parents sent me a care package for my birthday and included “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” by David Foster Wallace. That book is astoundingly good and vastly underappreciated, and I read it over and over that semester in Bologna, returning to it every time I ran out of English books to read. When I got back to college for senior year I actually staged a version of it in a student-run theater, and one of the people I cast was John Krasinski, who would later buy the rights to it and make it into a film.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I’m not sure if Porfiry, the detective in “Crime and Punishment,” is the hero or antihero, but I remember finding that character absolutely thrilling, partly because I so fully and totally reviled Raskolnikov. The best villain has to be Iago, now and forever. If I ever go back to theater and there’s one role I could play, that would probably be the one I wanted more than any.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most? What books do you enjoy reading with your own children?
I was a pretty precocious and active reader as a kid, but even then it was more nonfiction than fiction: history books, magazines, big technical books about airplanes. The first fiction I absolutely fell in love with was “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which I tore through as a little kid and were the first chapter books I read. I tried to get my 5-year-old, Ryan, into them, but she was ambivalent. She absolutely loves Roald Dahl books, however. David, who’s almost 3, is a literary omnivore, but his current favorite book is “Dragons Love Tacos.” That will almost certainly change by the time this is published.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Well, it’s pretty clear the president doesn’t read, so I wonder if there’d be a movie or TV series that would make more sense. But in terms of books, I think Tony Judt’s “Postwar,” which is, in its own way, about how the postwar international order was created, and why, for all its tremendous faults, it is worth preserving. The thing that terrifies me most is world war, and I feel as if we’ve entered into a period in which the generation of people who lived through world war have nearly all died and we’ve forgotten, as a kind of global society, just how horrible it is.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
James Baldwin is a no-brainer. (I’d let him smoke inside.) Then I’d say Walt Whitman and Hannah Arendt.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Well, I put down a lot of books without finishing. Particularly in the world of nonfiction, I think it’s entirely fine to skim, skip around or not finish. The last book I remember reading that I viscerally disliked by the end was “Gone Girl,” possibly because the characters themselves were so hard to like. Although, obviously, it was technically incredibly well done.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I mean, honestly: me. We all want control, don’t we?
What do you plan to read next?
I was at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, and someone from Knopf handed me a copy of a new novel called “American War,” which is set in the future during a second American Civil War. Looks pretty good, if not particularly escapist.
COURTESY OF NYTIMES