Hawk Book Talk: An Interview With Dr. Hartnett and Mr. Kirby


“By the Book”  is a particular highlight of the “The New York Times Book Review” and has fostered widespread interest in the reading habits and tastes of some of the world’s most prominent figures. This feature has inspired the first installment of our new regular column, Hawk Book Talk. We interviewed A.P. Literature teachers Mr. Kirby and Dr. Hartnett regarding their literary preferences.

What was the last truly great book you read? Do you remember the last time you said to someone, “You absolutely must read this book”?

Mr. Kirby: “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy. That was great. I told Mr. Kramer that he absolutely must read this book. He had no choice.

Dr. Hartnett: Mine is “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. The problem with that book is that it is over 1,000 pages so it took me a long time to read. When I recommend “Infinite Jest”, I warn my friends to allow months to get through it.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Which book(s) did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t?

Mr. Kirby: “Frankenstein.” It is written by a 19-year-old girl, and it reads like it.

Dr. Hartnett: But a very smart 19-year-old girl.

Mr. Kirby: True, true.

Dr. Hartnett: Mine is “Wuthering Heights.” I want to like that book … I have never warmed up to the book. No matter how many times I read it. A student reads it. A student loves it. I read it again, and I still don’t like the book.

The last book that made you cry?

Mr. Kirby: I can’t think of one.

Dr. Hartnett: “Twilight.”

Mr. Kirby: Essays make me cry.

Dr. Hartnett: “Twilight” was so bad that it made me cry – cry from the pain and suffering. I read it because my students were all reading it many a year ago, and I had to read it to know what they were reading. And it was bad, truly bad. Most of the time when students recommend a book, I like the book. Usually they are pretty well written. This wasn’t the case with “Twilight”.

What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

Mr. Kirby: I don’t really have a favorite genre. I do enjoy challenging works. I used to really love detective fiction–Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler kind of stuff. Guilty pleasures? Not really.

Dr. Hartnett: I have also read a lot of the detective fiction, particularly Chandler and Hammett… Walter Mosley is another one. But I like almost any kind of detective fiction or story that is set in Europe. I am a sucker for any of those. Give me the same story in America, and I am not very interested in it. But if it is in Europe, if it is in Italy… I just read a whole bunch of books by this author Charles Finch that deal with a detective during the Victorian Age. I enjoyed each one of them, again, because it put me in another place and time and I like those type of books. A guilty pleasure is probably the author Daniel Silva who writes these Secret Service and Mossad books about Israel that are somewhat ridiculous. But I like them anyway. Every time there is a new one that comes out, I will read it in a day, and I wait until the next year and read another one like that. They are very formulaic but very well done.

When was the last time you were disappointed with the ending of a book?

Mr. Kirby: I can’t even remember. Usually, if I’m going to be disappointed with a book, I stop before the ending.

Dr. Hartnett:  The book that always stays with me because I think it’s such a truly terrific book, but the ending is a mess, is “Huckleberry Finn.” It disturbs me so much because it’s such a great book;  it’s almost as if Twain is trying to destroy his own book.

Mr. Kirby: Oh, “Blood Meridian”–one of my favorite books. The last page is totally bizarre. I have no idea what it’s about. So that was kind of disappointing.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

Mr. Kirby: J.K. Rowling, because my life is boring and so is her writing. Something good might come of it.

Dr. Hartnett: Carl Hiaasen. He writes very funny novels set in Florida. I would pick him mainly for the same reason that Mr. Kirby [chose Rowling]–because he would make my life a lot more interesting than it actually is.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Mr. Kirby: Shakespeare, H.L. Menken, and someone bizarre… Edgar Allan Poe. I’d give him a few drinks.

Dr. Hartnett: Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, and I need a woman in there … so Julia Alvarez. I have an affection for Latino writers.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

Mr. Kirby: “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. It opened my eyes to a lot of different things. And it opened my eyes to nonfiction, which I read a lot of.

Dr. Hartnett: “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a book that I read and go back to and read every five years or so. I still don’t really understand it. But there’s enough in there that interests me, and I learn from it and go back again and again and again. It reminds me a little bit of “Moby Dick” in that I return to reread it, but, because I teach “Moby Dick”, I cannot look at “Moby Dick” as a wonderful diversion.  That book’s too much a part of my everyday rhythm.


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