I just know you’ve been asking yourself, “I wonder what Penn Jillette is reading right now?” It should be interesting stuff, for he’s a famous magician, atheist, libertarian, and generally outspoken and intriguing guy.
Well, maybe that question hasn’t crossed your mind, but it did occur to the people at the books section of the New York Times, who, a week ago, conducted a “By the Book” interview with Jillette. I won’t spoil all of it for you (hint: he likes to read in en déshabillé), and it’s longish, but here’s a few tidbits to whet your appetite. These are the gossip-y rather than the literary bits.
What are your reading habits? Do you stick with electronic everywhere? Do you take notes? Do you snack while you read?
Besides the bathtub and rehearsals, I also like to read in coffee shops (I read anywhere I’d like to be naked). I always read electronic, mostly iPad. I won’t touch paper any more even if water damage costs me a few devices. I highlight and take notes like a freak, and I have notes on my computer from every book I’ve read since 1985. Before 1985, I have no evidence there were books. Snacks are always good, even in the bathtub; I like a pot of decaffeinated tea, and some ginger snaps or some peanut butter right out of the jar. If I’m on the road, I eat cashews and wicked-expensive little orange juices from the minibar while I read in the tiny tub.
If someone walked into your office while you were writing, what would they see?
Me in just boxer shorts at the most, with a big pot of tea and three of the biggest computer screens you’ve ever seen. I like to pretend I’m commanding a starship while I’m writing. On the center monitor I have whatever I’m writing. I have it huge, so less than one page takes up the whole screen in a stupid, stupid big font. I have it just black and white, no color on the screen and no toolbars. Each letter is about a half-inch high, and it takes up my whole field of vision. On the left monitor I have camera feeds from all around my house so I can check on my family to break my focus. Also on that left monitor I have small windows of iTunes, MOG and Spotify all open. One of those is playing nutty jazz, like Sun Ra, nutty loud. On the right monitor I have a lot of browser windows open, some with research, some with porn. Between the center and left monitor I have a clear, big hourglass that’s timing the 45 minutes of writing I have to do before I can check my mail again.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?
I’ve met Nicholson Baker, Richard Feynman, Hitchens and Dawkins, and they would be top of my list. I never met Melville, of course, and I’d like to ask him to talk to me about God. I write fan letters all the time. The latest ones are to Daniel Kahneman, Lawrence Krauss and Emma Donoghue.
Did any of them write back? Who wrote the best letter?
It used to be that none of them wrote back; now all of them do. I wish I could say it was because I was successful, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just easier to write mail now without those pesky envelopes and stamps to worry about. The best mail was always from Hitchens — and I don’t imagine he will ever be beat.
Indeed. I have a very few emails from Hitchens (part of a group discussion), and they’re primo stuff.
As for the books Jillette’s reading now, his favorite books of all time, what’s the best book on science he’s read this year, and what he plans to read next, you’ll have to go see for yourself.