Surprisingly attracted to geology and mountaineers

By Amy Sutherland
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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Though born in the West Indies, Jamaica Kincaid has loomed large as an American writer since the publication of her first novel, “Annie John,’’ in 1985 and her years as a staff writer at The New Yorker. These days the writer commutes between Southern California, where she teaches at Claremont McKenna College, and Vermont, where she summers in Bennington. This year she will stop en route, at the Tuft University commencement today to pick up an honorary doctorate degree.

What kind of books do you like to read?

At the moment I’m reading the biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable, which I find endlessly fascinating. On the whole I read a lot of nonfiction.

When I moved out here to California, I became obsessed with geology. It’s impossible not to be interested in the earth if you live in a place like this. I started to read a lot of geology, much to the horror of my friends.

I also read books about the collection of and naming of plants. Or sometimes when I’m tired of that I love to read accounts of mountaineers.

What are some of your favorites of those?

Oh gosh, a guy named Frank Smythe who climbed Kanchenjunga. He’s a great writer. Well, he didn’t succeed but he tried. And then he became a plant hunter. A lot of the great plant collectors are British, though there’s a very wonderful writer named Ernest Wilson. He was at the Arnold Arboretum.

My other favorite thing is history. The Malcolm X biography has a lot of history. It’s made me think about why it is that the black separatist movement originates with West Indians. Marcus Garvey came from the West Indies, Stokely Carmichael, too.

Your mother taught you to read at a young age so that you would leave her alone while she read. Did that flavor your relationship with reading?

It must have. At the time I was taught to read, it was an Eden-like time of my life. My mother adored me. Everyone adored me. So I associate reading with enormous pleasure.

For me, one of the heavenly images would be, if it’s a beautiful day outside, I open the windows, I get into bed and I read. I don’t want to be outside, but I want to know it’s a beautiful day and I’m inside reading.

What did your mother like to read?

She liked to read biographies of great people, the most vivid example being a biography of Louis Pasteur. She was interested in medicine and hygiene. She had all these books that she bought through an installment plan. I remember a man from Trinidad who went door-to-door selling books.

Did her tastes in reading influence yours?

I think reading for her was a way of acquiring knowledge, as it is for me. She was a deeply solitary person, which reading is. One of the things reading does, it makes your loneliness manageable if you are an essentially lonely person.

Are you a fast reader?

Two books I just read, “A Box of Darkness’’ by Sally Ryder Brady and “Tiger Tiger’’ by Margaux Fragoso, I read in one sitting. They were beautiful. I wanted to read them so much I bought them on Kindle and read them right away. But there are some books I can never put on a Kindle, like “Jane Eyre.’’ The books seem trapped.

What kind of books are on your Kindle?

My Kindle is quite odd. I have a book by Olen Steinhauer, “The Tourist.’’ He’s a mystery writer. I also have Christopher Columbus’s journal on the Kindle. I’ll read anything. In fact, I’ll read while I’m doing other things, which is not a good idea.

Really, like what kind of things?

I read when I’m talking to someone on the phone, but I’m not doing that right now.

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