Charles Johnson

The award-winning author of Middle Passage talks about the author he’d take to a desert island, the book everyone should read, and much more.


Photo: Mary Randlett

Reading Habits is a recurring series that asks authors, artists, community leaders, and others about their lives as readers. Charles Johnson is the author of numerous books including Middle Passage (winner of the National Book Award in 1990), and a professor at the University of Washington. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, two Washington State Governor’s Awards for literature, and numerous other accolades. He lives in Seattle.



A book you’re reading right now.

Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston, by Mary Barr. This recent work is a history of my hometown, Evanston, Illinois, and a critical examination of that township’s legendary progressive policies.


Your favorite place to read.

My office/study at home.


Your least favorite place to read but you often end up reading there anyway.

At Seattle City Hall last winter when I had to appear there for two days to see if I’d be selected for jury duty (I wasn’t).


You’re banished to a desert island. For reading material you’re allowed to take the complete works of just one author. Who is it?

The prolific, late spiritual teacher (and former English professor) Eknath Easwaran.


A book you’ve read more than once.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—read it often, taught it often, and took it apart scene by scene, image by image, speech by speech for a play adaptation (a 20-page, single-spaced synopsis) that Intiman Theater asked me to do in 2010. That was just before Intiman’s financial meltdown.


What you’re holding when you read: a paper book or an e-reader. Why?

A pencil when I read a paper book in order to make underlining and comments in the margins; with an e-reader I sometimes hold a stylus with a rubber tip.


Average length of each reading session.

That depends on the book—four to six hours a day if I’m completely absorbed by it.


A book that changed your life in a significant way.

Just one? There are many, but I’ll say Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which got me through a rough year when I was working on my doctorate in philosophy at Stony Brook University.


You become the librarian for the entire world. As part of your newfound powers, you get to require everyone on earth to read one book. Which one?

The Buddhist Diamond Sutra.


A book that was better than the movie.

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Steppenwolf.

See Charles Johnson

Where: Bedtime Stories Literary Gala, Seattle

When: October 2, 2015


A movie that was better than the book.

Frank Capra’s 1937 film version of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933).


A book you found too disturbing to finish.

Too disturbing or disgusting? Stephen King’s The Shining.


A book you’re embarrassed to admit you like.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


Do you read with music on? If so, what kind?

Nope, I need complete silence to read with concentration.



A classic you think shouldn’t be considered a classic.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.



Where you buy most of your books.

From Amazon these days.


A genre you think is underappreciated.

Philosophical fiction, but we have so few American examples in that genre.


Longest number of hours you’ve ever spent reading something. What was it?

You can pick either Heidegger’s Being and Time or Sartre’s Being and Nothing, both of which I read for eight hours a day over three or four weeks during the summer of 1975 when I was a graduate student. I also logged 8-hour reading days for William Gaddis’s massive and rich novel The Recognitions.


Editor’s note: Charles Johnson will be writing and reading an original short story for Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary gala in Seattle on October 2. For details, visit

1 thought on “Charles Johnson”

  1. dedeej says:

    Liked this! I will answer the questions for my self. It would be interesting to see how reader would answer the questions.

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