James Shapiro talks about the family library trips that turned him into a voracious reader - and what makes the Booker the ‘Mount Everest’ of literary prizes

James Shapiro is a writer and Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Bogliasco Foundation. In 2011 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is currently Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at New York’s Public Theater.    

Publication date and time: Published

Why do you think the Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it? What sets it apart from other literary awards, and how does the impact of the prize differ from, say, traditional book reviews or social media recommendations? 

I’ve served on book prize committees in the past, have won (and lost) a few non-fiction prizes, so have some familiarity with literary competitions. That having been said, the Booker is definitely different, the Mount Everest, as it were, of fiction prizes, one that, more than others, establishes or cements a reputation, reaches thousands of new readers, and invariably generates controversy. And because Booker judges, who definitely feel the pressure, have to read over 150 novels, then revisit 30 or so in compiling a longlist, then reread a dozen or so in winnowing that longlist into a shortlist, then reread and debate those last half-dozen in choosing a winner, it is a very demanding, very consuming responsibility. It helps to have a committee, like my own, where there is a great deal of affection and admiration for one’s fellow judges. 

Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to for pleasure?  

I typically read a lot more non-fiction than fiction or poetry or plays, driven by my research interests. And because many of my friends are writers, I get to enjoy their books as well. All that reading is pleasurable, though obviously for different reasons. I also get a great deal of pleasure from reading first-rate reviews, especially those that appear in the pages of the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books

Tell us about your path to becoming a reader. What did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading or that has stayed with you for many years?  

I read voraciously as a child. We didn’t own many books, but every Friday afternoon my father would take us to the local public library in Midwood, Brooklyn, where my brother, sister, and I would come home with an armful of books meant to last a week. I think we were allowed to check out six at a time. I gravitated by age ten or so to the longest ones I could find, usually adventure stories, such as Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Reading over 150 works of fiction has increased my appreciation of how hard it is to write a good novel, let alone a great one

Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?  

Works that I reread every year tend to be plays, mostly Shakespeare’s. I’ve spent the past 40 years or so teaching them, and always reread a play before lecturing on it. It’s remarkable how much is illuminated in successive readings: I stumble upon a word or phrase that is newly arresting, or I discover that an under-appreciated character – Juliet’s father, Claudius, Celia, Enobarbas – suddenly appears in a fresh light. To spend a lifetime rereading them is to register the passing of years, the evolution of one’s tastes and values. The comedies get darker, the tragedies darker yet. 

What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the Booker Prize, and is there anything that’s surprised you so far?  

I spent over a quarter-century reading everything written in 1599 and 1606 while researching Shakespeare’s life in those years, so reading a lot of works from this past year is an oddly familiar experience. One of the things I learned from focusing so narrowly on all the works published in a single year is that collectively they reveal things about that cultural moment and the anxieties of the time that are otherwise not easily grasped. So one of the great pleasures of serving as a Booker judge is immersing myself in the fiction of our own moment - not every work of fiction of course, which would be impossible, but over 150 novels, some extraordinary, some less so, but collectively revealing a great deal about our unsettled times. 

What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?  

I fully expect that, like previous strong longlists, that ours will contain a rich mix of new writers and established ones, old and young, racially and culturally diverse writers that will make me think afresh of where the novel has been and where it may be heading. 

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Lewis Taylor

There are over 600 books in the Booker Library, the archive of titles that have been longlisted or shortlisted for our prizes over the past 54 years. Is it possible to say that there are common characteristics that unite them all? In other words, what makes a Booker book a Booker book?  

While I’ve read many Booker Prize winners (and long and shortlisted titles) over the years, I have steered clear of using past lists as a benchmark or guide, preferring to take each book sent my way on its own merits, not measuring it against previous ones, individually or collectively. 

Has the experience of judging the Booker Prize changed the way you think about the act of writing fiction, or the way readers engage with it? Has it changed the way you read personally? 

I don’t write fiction, never have. If anything, serving as a Booker judge has confirmed the rightness of that decision: creating a world, populating it with characters, describing their interactions, their discoveries, the trajectories of their lives in chiseled prose while at the same time illuminating our present moment, is brutally hard, a high-wire act that only the very best at their craft can sustain for hundreds of pages.  So reading over 150 works of fiction has increased my appreciation of how hard it is to write a good novel, let alone a great one. 

The Plays of Shakespeare