Reading Habits: Erin Belieu

The poet and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist on reading “The Brothers Karamozov” in one night, her love of “Middlemarch,” and how she can’t seem to return a library book.

Poet Erin Belieu is the author of four books of poetry: Infanta (1995), selected for the National Poetry Series; One Above, One Below (2000); Black Box (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Slant Six (2014). She’ll be participating in Humanities Washington and Copper Canyon Press’s Pulitzers in Person live webcast on November 3.

Reading Habits is a recurring series that asks authors, artists, community leaders, and others about their lives as readers.


Your favorite place to read. 

In my own frumpy bed. I can’t fall asleep if I don’t read at least a bit first, no matter how late.

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

In the car, waiting in my son’s school pick-up line. I get too absorbed, and often don’t see that the car in front of me has moved, no doubt irritating the rest of the folks in line.

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?

Ach! What an impossible question! Ok. Can’t think about my answer too long or I’ll be here all day. I’ll say Jane Austen’s complete works. Being on a desert island would be stressful, what with needing to find fresh water constantly, and having to hunt and skin your meals. Austen’s universe is very comforting, superficially civilized, so reassuringly orderly. That would be a necessary relief in such circumstances. Of course, the more obvious answer is the complete works of Bear Grylls.

A book you’re reading right now. 

The Book That Matters Most by the wonderful novelist and non-fiction writer Ann Hood. We had dinner together the other night, and she very thoughtfully gave me a copy. One of the very best perks of being friends with writers.

A book you’ve read more than once.

I have a bunch of books I read pretty much annually. One of them is Middlemarch. And I choose this one to share with you because more people should read Middlemarch, as I have this idea maybe people don’t read it as often anymore. People these days seem to have this weird thing about long books. “Oh, I want to read it, but it’s sooo long.” But if the story is compelling, don’t you want it to go on forever? I do. There’s nothing sadder than finishing a good book. So please read Middlemarch. Eliot makes such a complete, satisfying world with that book, and Dorothea Brooke is probably my all-time favorite heroine in a novel.

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

Oh, paper books fo evah! A paper book is warm. It’s alive in your hands. You can drop it, kick it under the bed, jam it in your purse, set your coffee cup on top of it, write all over it, and it never ever needs charging. Also, it makes me so sad that I can’t see what anyone is reading when I’m on a plane anymore.

A book that changed your life in a significant way. 

Well, it might be a cliché, but I’ll never forget my first grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web to our class. We’d get one chapter, maybe two a day, and I positively lived for those reading times. And, you know (SPOILER ALERT), when we reached the part when Charlotte dies at the fairgrounds, and Wilbur in his hysterical grief has to beg and bribe Templeton the rat to carry her egg sac back to the barn, good Lord, I was inconsolable. Never been much of a weeper in public, but I cried and cried. My poor teacher! But I’ll never forget that sensation of being moved so profoundly, in a way I couldn’t name or understand in that moment. And how that should have felt scary, but it wasn’t. I craved that three-dimensional experience of the other places and the inhabitation of other souls books offer us.

A paper book is warm. It’s alive in your hands. You can drop it, kick it under the bed, jam it in your purse, set your coffee cup on top of it, write all over it, and it never ever needs charging.

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, and why?

Again with the impossible questions! Well, maybe the King James Bible, given that so much of the western canon alludes to it in various ways, from its philosophies to plot to character to image. I’d also choose it for its great sense of poetry.

A book that was better than the movie.

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass—the first book in his brilliant “His Dark Materials” sequence. It was given woefully short shrift as a movie, despite having a really smart cast. They choked especially on the book’s essential critique of organized religion. If you were going to go around that, why choose such a book to film in the first place? Very glad to hear the BBC is doing a teleseries of the book sequence that will be coming soon.

A movie that was better than the book.

Books are always better.

A book you found too disturbing to finish.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Never have been able to finish it. The banality of evil captured there is literally stomach churning.

A book you’re embarrassed to admit you like.

I’m not embarrassed by it, but I know how snobbish literary types in the States can be about books identified as “genre.” Weird how the American literati cares about that issue so much, as they don’t in many other countries. But I, along with a bunch of my women friends, have been addicted to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. And as a feminist, I really admire how Gabaldon fought her way out of the romance novel ghetto to get the respect her books deserve. She started as a zoology professor who wrote in her off hours away from her research, and you can see her growing as a novelist as the sequence grows.

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

I can’t stand to have music on when I read. Makes me feel like I have bees in my brain. I am an ardent lover of silence in a very noisy and distracted age.

Do you fold the page corners?

Yes, yes I do, dammit! And this has been a recurring source of conflict in my household. But I refuse to stop. Books aren’t dainty things on which to display your objet! They’re tough, scrappy little creatures!

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

Whoa! Want me to stick my neck out, do you? Ok, I’ll say that I’m not much of a fan of Phillip Roth’s work generally, and I think The Human Stain was unfortunately predictable. Roth has serious trouble imagining women’s inner lives.

A book you think should be considered a classic, but isn’t.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South probably deserves more critical attention and admiration than it gets. I mean it gets some, certainly, but it feels like it’s now been relegated to being an addendum on Victorian Lit classes’ syllabi.

Where you buy most of your books.

Airport bookstores. I spend a lot of time on planes traveling for reading gigs. So I’m always grateful for airports that have real bookstores, like Boston’s Logan airport. The wonderful booksellers there always have recs waiting for me when they see me.

Are you a library user? If so, what’s your favorite?

This is terrible to admit, but as much as I love librarians—and I love them and what they do to pieces—librarians are my heroes—I am not emotionally responsible enough to use the library because I never give the books back. I always mean to, truly, I do. But I don’t, because I irrationally want to keep them all. I am deeply ashamed of this.

A genre you think is underappreciated.

Referencing Philip Pullman again, I think YA as a category has all kinds of secret virtues hidden within it. But if a book has a younger female protagonist, or elements of fantasy, alternative universes, etc., it seems to get shoved into YA a lot these days. The aggressive niche marketing of books in America seems to me a real menace at this point. Thanks, Amazon!

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

I remember getting a burr under my saddle in the years between undergrad and grad school, and reading all of The Brothers Karamazov in one night. I started around 9:00 p.m. and just kept going and going and going until morning. I was pretty obsessive back in the day, as I was certain absolutely everyone knew a whole lot more about books than I did. So I made this project for myself back when I was working in a record store, trying to figure out what my next steps would be in attempting to be an adult and a writer. I made long lists of all the books I should read, and would tear through them at a breakneck pace. And I was just so taken with that book—the speech in which Alyosha calls upon the boys at the funeral to commit their lives to goodness and kindness. I’ll never forget that book, and what it meant to me at that critical time in my life.

Hear Belieu discuss the work of poets Theodore Roethke and Carolyn Kizer as part of Pulitzers in Person, a live webcast event on November 3 at 7:00 p.m. Belieu will be joined by poets Ed Skoog and Paisley Rekdal. More here.

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