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Big Books Issue

Rafael Alvarez


Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A

Frank Klein

City Paper: So I hear you have a new literary project?

Rafael Alvarez: I am beginning a book page, sort of a classic literary supplement like you used to have in the old days in newspapers, for North Baltimore, the AOL local news project. In a world of content, people are going hungry so let’s give ’em a meal, you know?

Original fiction, book reviews, interviews with authors, serialized novels, essays, and poetry. It’s called the Alvarez Book Page and it’s going to be at Please note, however, we are not accepting any submissions.

CP: What are you reading right now?

RA: The Brothers Karamazov. Whenever I undertake one of these—like the last big thing I undertook was 2666 by Roberto Bolaño—other books try and jump in line, easier stuff or tastier stuff. I just became aware of this guy named Steven Millhauser. One of his best-known books is called The Barnum Museum. I’ve got to basically say, “Step back! Back off! I’m not ready for you yet.”

CP: Is there a genre of guilty pleasure book that you read?

RA: I have been known to read the occasional baseball book, which was the first reading I did as a kid. Like Heroes of the Major Leagues, stuff like that. What got me into reading were Dr. Seuss, E.B. White, and the sports pages of the old Baltimore American.

CP: What is your favorite children’s book?

RA: I would say Stuart Little is my favorite children’s book. The interesting thing was, it was read aloud to us by my third-grade teacher. And then I had the honor of giving her eulogy and I told the story. Somehow her kids found out that I had written here and there about her influence, and that was cool to be able to pay back to them what she did for me, what she did for the whole class. It was right after lunch. She turned the lights off and opened the blinds. It had that after-lunch, after-recess kind of peace and quiet, and she read Stuart Little out loud, and Charlotte’s Web, and it was what literature is supposed to do. I could see the story in my head.

CP: Where was this?

RA: This was in Linthicum, in the third grade, in 1966. And her name was Jean Ortgies. It was by her reading that I somehow got the idea that I would write stories. She died three to four years ago.

CP: Are there any authors you like so much that you try to read everything they’ve written?

RA: Yeah. I’m that kind of guy. I’m now on a Saramago kick. Trust me, Karamazov has been on the list for like 20 years, right? And it was like, no I’m not going back to Saramago and I’m not going back to Timmy O’Brien. I’m a big Thomas Wolfe fan. Look Homeward, Angel is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Bolaño, I want to read everything Bolaño’s written. The Savage Detectives and 2666 basically changed my attitude toward storytelling, which is odd to happen in middle-age.

CP: When you’re reading, do you always think about your own writing?

RA: If I get excited enough, I will put the book down I’m reading and go to a story I’m working on. But I would have to say that most of my reading for pleasure occurs at night, after the work day is done, after I’ve had my late dinner. And I’m reading 15 minutes and falling asleep. It will take me another year to finish Karamazov. I only read three pages a night. But I’m devoted to those three pages.

CP: Do you keep a list of books that you intend to read?

RA: I’ve kept a very faithful journal since high school. So it’s not like a grocery list per se, but when I become aware of something, I’ll jot it down. I know the big boys that are out there that I haven’t tackled yet. I probably own 10,000 books. Every room of my house is books, floor to ceiling. I’ve got rooms devoted to specific subjects. My entire parlor is nothing but American fiction. The front room is devoted to Nobel winners. Once in a while I’ll just sit in there and hang out with ’em, like Here I am, this is as close as I’ll get.

CP: Of those books that you own, how many are books that you intend to read and how many are books that you have read?

RA: I intend to read most of them. But I’m also the kind of guy if I’m at a yard sale and there’s Moby Dick for a quarter? I tell you, I own 10 copies of Moby Dick but if it’s there for a quarter, I take it. I then have 11 copies of Moby Dick. And then relatives and friends know that if a kid has a reading list, go see Mr. Ralph, you know? Part of it is a private collection and part of it is a book orphanage. I mean, I own five sets of encyclopedias.

CP: Are you running out of shelf space?

RA: I own multiple rowhouses. I just buy new rowhouses when I need more space for books. I’ve got a baseball room. I’ve got a Judaica room. I’ve got a Catholic room. I’ve got a Baltimore room.

CP: I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the e-reader.

RA: I don’t own one. I doubt I will own one. I’ll probably own one like I do everything else, when they’re giving them away in cereal boxes.

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