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Simon Rich: By the Book

Some other favorites include “Wisconsin Death Trip,” by Michael Lesy; “The Last Place on Earth,” by Roland Huntford; and “A Distant Mirror,” by Barbara Tuchman, which features the most vivid writing I’ve ever read about the Black Death.

I try to avoid reading books that are boring.

Who’s your favorite comedian-turned-writer?

John Mulaney is my favorite stand-up comedian, and his scripts for “Saturday Night Live” and “Documentary Now!” are some of the best pieces of television writing that I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait for him to write a book; I know it will be wonderful.

What book would we be surprised to find on your shelf?

There’s a lot of horror: Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, H. P. Lovecraft. It might seem surprising, since I’m a comedy writer, but I think there’s a thin line between the genres. A lot of my favorite writers have done both (e.g. Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Jordan Peele). Some great writers manage to straddle the line, like T. C. Boyle, Patricia Highsmith and Muriel Spark. They can crack you up and frighten you in the same page.

What’s the last book that made you laugh?

“The Bad Guys Won!,” by Jeff Pearlman. It’s a nonfiction account of the New York Mets’ legendary 1986 season. What makes the book so funny is the players’ shocking arrogance. My favorite part is when they record a celebratory rap about the season after having only played one game.

The last book that made you cry?

“The Very Busy Spider,” by Eric Carle, which I read to my 1-year-old daughter. It’s about a confident, creative spider who sticks to her guns and overcomes social pressure in order to achieve her dreams. It’s sort of like the “Whiplash” of spider-themed picture books. My daughter liked it too, and tried to eat it.

The last book that made you furious?

Madhouse,” by Andrew Scull, tells the fascinating and infuriating story of Dr. Henry Cotton, an early-20th-century quack who believed that he could cure mental illness by removing people’s organs. He ended up killing a bunch of people. His data was terrible, but everyone supported his theories, mainly because his machines were shiny. It’s an exasperating read. You keep hoping Cotton will get busted, like Elizabeth Holmes or MarcHauser, but he just keeps winning awards and getting invited to cool banquets.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I was trying to learn how to write comedy, so I made sure to read all the big names: Robert Benchley, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker, Philip Roth, Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller and so on. The “classic humorists” that I learned the most from were probably Mark Twain and Hans Christian Andersen. They were always writing stories about children and animals and inanimate objects. It’s a great trick. Readers love to feel smarter than the person that they’re reading about.

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