Elaine Pagels: By the Book

Elaine Pagels: By the Book

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?

Best of all, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which plunged me into another world, terrifying and glorious, where I could roam on my own. To me it all made sense, and helped make sense of the ordinary world: Oz, posing as “the Great and Terrible,” distant and omnipotent until he was unmasked as a “humbug”; the Wicked Witch of the West playing counterpoint with Glinda the Good; the tin man who needs a heart; the scarecrow who wants a brain — and Dorothy, suddenly transported from Kansas into a land of color, danger and excitement, setting forth with only her wits and her dog, Toto. She’s still a favorite fictional character — along with her later incarnation as Princess Leia in “Star Wars.”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Although this question is, of course, totally counterfactual, the answer is obvious: the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Delighted to imagine a table for six, with Barack Obama, Michelle Obama — whose forthcoming book I can’t wait to read — and David Remnick, Jacqueline Novogratz and Madeleine Albright.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

Poetry, always — a worn navy blue copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse, which captivated me when I first discovered it at age 14, starting with Anonymous’s “O Western wind, when wilt thou blow” and then going on to all the poems that sing, like those of Robert Herrick, John Donne and Christina Georgina Rossetti; some slender books by contemporary poets, including C. K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Tracy K. Smith, Marie Howe, Kevin Young, and Robert Pinsky’s anthology, “Essential Pleasures,” which these surely are!

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