Booker's Dozen @ Keith Kahn-Harris

Keith Kahn-Harris answers thirteen questions in a
 Booker's Dozen. 

TPQ: What are you currently reading?

KKH: I just finished Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It's a novel of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s by a then-prominent former Bolshevik exile. The book's a savage yet moving satire and brings out the lunacy of the purges.

TPQ: Best and worst books you have ever read?

KKH: Not an easy question! The easy bit is the worst book: I once tried to read a Clive Cussler thriller called Inca Gold. I've read a lot of thrillers in my time but I didn't last 20 pages with this one. Cussler's hero is called Dirk Pitt, which is a name so ludicrously macho that I couldn't really get past it.

As for the best, I don't really know what criteria to use. But I will choose two for different reasons: David Maurer's The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man is an ethnographic classic and describes a world almost too extraordinary to be real. It was the basis of the film The Sting.

In terms of sheer enjoyment, I adore Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, which manages to achieve structural perfection as a thriller whilst also injecting a note of psychological complexity in its portrayal of the unamed narrator.

TPQ: Book most cherished as a child?

KKH: Almost too many to count! But really it depends on what stage of childhood you are taking about. I started on 'adult' books fairly early and I can well remember the sense of triumph on finishing The Lord of the Rings and James Michener's The Source.

TPQ: Favourite childhood author?

KKH: On the cusp of adolescence I went through a George Orwell phase and read ever book I could find by him.

TPQ: First book to really own you?

KKH: 1984 haunted me for years. It still does.

TPQ:  Favourite male and female author?

KKH: Female: I love the work of the sci-fi author Becky Chambers. She manages to do something remarkable in her work: to portray kindness and friendship in interesting ways; to portray a future that retains the best of humanity and other non-human races.

Male: In my discipline of sociology, I would single out Les Back and Richard Sennett as practitioners of beautifully crafted writing from whom I always learn something important every time I read them.

TPQ: A preference for fact or fiction?

KKH: I go through phases. I have to read academic books for my work but sometimes my brain is too fried to cope with non-fiction outside that. For the last, anxious, year I have been focusing on fiction.

TPQ: Biography, autobiography or memoir that most impressed you?

KKH: The Disaster Artist by Ton Bissell and Greg Sestero is the funniest book I have ever read, let alone the funniest memoire. It's the story of how the actor Greg Sestero became friends with Tommy Wiseau, writer/director of the cult film The Room. The book was subsequently filmed. I'm a fairly obsessive Room fan and the story behind it is so odd that it genuinely deserves the phrase 'stranger than fiction'.

TPQ: Any author or book you point blank refuse to read?

KKH: From bitter experience, I have vowed to myself that I will never read another John Le Carre novel. I quite like the early ones but from The Perfect Spy onwards his books became intolerably pompous and bloated. Plus all his characters seem to have bizarre verbal tics. It's a shame because he was a fascinating person and I loved reading interviews with him. His books, even the recent ones, seem to work much better on film.

TPQ: A book to share with somebody so that they would more fully understand you?

KKH: I don't think any one book sums me up. But one book sums up the kind of life I would love to live but will almost certainly never be able to: Brian Eno's diary A Year With Swollen Appendices showcases a life of endless curiosity, multiple fascinating projects and constant creativity.

TPQ: Last book you gave as a present?

KKH: I bought my mother Craig Brown's Ma'am Darling, his biography of Princess Margaret. As with everything he writes, Brown's depiction of Margaret is savagely funny yet also oddly sympathetic.

TPQ: Book you would most like to see turned into a movie?

KKH: It sort of already happened. China Mieville's The City and the City was turned into a BBC series shown in 2019. They did a decent job but nothing can really compete with the imagined world in the book.

TPQ: The just must - select one book you simply have to read before you close the last page on life.

KKH: Talcott Parsons' The Social System is a legendarily turgid doorstop of a book. Up until the 1960s, Parsons' work dominated sociology, but he has since become deeply unfashionable. I've dipped into the book and it is simultaneously unbearably dry and totally bonkers. Parsons aspires to nothing less than a total description of how the social world works. I'd like to read it properly in order to bask in the hubris. 

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).  

1 comment:

  1. Another decent addition to Booker's Dozen. All the more so due to the unusual fact that the worst book Keith had read was easier to choose than the best. Takes a particular level of dirge to prompt that response from a reader. Very good, a man whose experience I can relate to