Photos by: Laurel Golio
Molly is a native of San Francisco currently living in Manhattan's Chinatown, partially because it makes her feel more connected to her place of origin. Molly writes features for places like New York magazine and the New York Times Magazine. She also does a column for the New York Times Style section and a bimonthly column for the New York Times Book Review.
Girls at Library: You are currently writing a Self Help column for The New York Times Book Review. Could you please describe for us the most helpful, the least helpful, and the just plain absurd self help books you have come across.
Most helpful: Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck taught me that I don’t have to go to another bachelorette party in my life. Score!
Least helpful: There’s a shocking number of books about breastfeeding on the market, which is not relevant to my interests at this time.
Just plain absurd but also helpful: 100 Deadly Skills is a book by a former Navy SEAL which teaches you how to improvise body armor and waterproof the muzzle of an MP7 submachine gun with a condom. (Not ultra-useful.) But it also teaches you about the best places to hide contraband inside your apartment, which is VERY useful! (Good hiding spots include the inside of a shower curtain rod, the inside of a zippered cushion, and inside the cover of an ironing board. Apparently nobody looks in these places.)
GAL: Have any of these books made it to your favorites list?
MY: Not yet, but the “favorites list” is a very elite club.
GAL: Do you remember the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
MY: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s about two kids who run away from home and live at the Metropolitan Museum, scrounging change to buy food, bathing in the museum restrooms and sleeping in priceless antique beds, which still describes my ideal lifestyle. They also solve an art-related mystery.
GAL: What is your current—or “forever”—favorite book?
MY: Current favorite is London Fields by Martin Amis. It’s dirty and dark, just like moi.
GAL: What is the power of story? Feel free to describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
MY: A good book allows you the gift of occupying someone else’s consciousness for a period of time. It heightens your capacity for imagination and your capacity for empathy, which are the two values I prize most in all humans.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
MY: Henry James and Edith Wharton were the best at describing what it feels like to be a human. So they win. And they were pals, too! If you alternate reading their books, you start to feel like a lucky third wheel to that friendship, which sounds sad but feels terrific.
GAL: If you were to estimate, how often do you read? Every day? Six hours per week?
MY: Around four hours per week for pleasure and ten or more hours per week for work. I’m a slow reader.
GAL: Please tell us where your current favorite reading spot is.
MY: On the subway. Reading while you are in transit is the only way to turn reading into a multitasking event, which makes it doubly thrilling. (I have extremely low blood-pressure and am easily thrilled).
GAL: Or—can you read anywhere? Place is not important?
MY: Other places I like to read: stomach-down on the floor with a fan blowing in my face. Marinating in the bathtub. Sunbathing nude on my roof (I pretend an apocalypse has wiped out all of my neighbors and they can’t see me).
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
MY: For the column, I visit The New York Times' Book Review office— which is the quietest office in New York City—and spend some time going through the shelves. They have an intricate shelving system with steering wheels affixed to the end of each aisle, and you spin the wheels to expand or contract the shelves like an accordion. If you’re inside an aisle and someone else starts spinning a wheel, you could hypothetically get crushed like a panino between shelves, but I haven’t tested out this situation.
Anyhow, there’s a special “Molly” section where the Book Review editors store new self-help books, and I go through and read the first page of all the books, and then I organize them in piles according to theme, and then I stare at the piles and shuffle them and look for interesting patterns, the way Sherlock Holmes might if he were imprisoned in a library with no crimes to solve.
I also get catalogs from about forty publishers and comb through them looking for self-help books that haven’t appeared at the office. Once I’ve narrowed it down to a couple dozen books, I take them home and skim them and figure out which titles might be most interesting to readers, and then I read each of those books twice with a highlighter in hand. It’s incredibly laborious but it’s also my all-time favorite kind of labor, so I manage.
GAL: Do you prefer nonfiction to fiction? If so, why?
MY: Hell nope! As John Waters once wrote: “Fiction is the truth, fool!”
Most of my recreational reading is novels. I like Edith Wharton, Agota Kristof, Amelie Nothomb, Margaret Drabble, Goethe, Henry James, and W.M. Spackman the best.
GAL: If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
MY: Anything by Katie Roiphe, William Deresiewicz, John Waters, Renata Adler, Peter Schjeldahl, and Michael Lewis.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
MY: Your friend sounds wise. Here is what I prescribe to myself when I need to trend sanityward:
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
What Maisie Knew by Henry James
…and all of Roald Dahl’s books.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
MY: Buffering: the Molly Young Story.