By the Book: Reese Witherspoon – The New York Times


By the Book

CreditCreditJillian Tamaki

The actor and author of the new book “Whiskey in a Teacup” wishes she had five days in a cabin just to read, with “no emails, no text messages and no obligations or deadlines.”

What books are on your nightstand?

I just started Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” It’s about a wealthy girl in New York trying to find her way. I loved Moshfegh’s 2015 literary thriller, “Eileen.” Also on my nightstand are an Oliver Sacks book and “Stay With Me,” the debut novel by Ayobami Adebayo that’s set in Nigeria. Someone told me about it a year ago and I’m finally getting to it now.

What’s the last great book you read?

My September book club pick: Delia Owen’s “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It’s a heart-wrenching novel about a little girl named Kya growing up by herself in a fishing community in the swamplands of North Carolina, intercut with a young man’s unsolved murder. Beyond that, it’s just beautiful. I loved every page of it. That little girl Kya stole my heart.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Well, I should start by saying that I don’t get my ideal reading experience ever. I work a lot and I have kids and a husband and about a thousand side hustles. But in theory, it would be alone in a cabin by a lake. I’d be by myself, with no one interrupting me to ask where their other shoe is, or where the car keys are, or to tell me that I’m needed on set. In this alternate reality, I would also have no emails, no text messages and no obligations or deadlines. I would have nothing at all to do for, say, five days. That would be ideal. The reality? It’s 10:30 at night. Everyone else in my house is asleep, and I read for an hour in a bath or in my bed. That’s when I get most of my alone time.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?

I like to read nonfiction, or “ideas” books in the morning — Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” things like that. At night, I read fiction to calm down my brain and to expand my sense of what’s possible. What I look for most are elegantly composed sentences that pull me into a different world.

Any you steer clear of?

I can’t stand stories in which women are held physically captive. I don’t like any of it and it bothers me how often I encounter this plotline.

What’s your go-to classic?

Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.” Oh, how I love that book! It’s about ships passing in the night and grave misunderstandings and lost opportunities and time running out. It gets me every time. I also love “Laughter in the Dark,” by Nabokov. That’s a big one for me. It’s just so beautifully constructed. If you don’t know the book: A man falls in loves with a girl who works at a movie theater. He then goes blind and she becomes his companion and helps him around. On a vacation, he starts to become paranoid that someone else is there with them. Meanwhile the girl is saying: “What? There’s nobody else here!” The finale is told from the blind man’s point of view. He’s listening to a scuffle in the room, someone’s footfalls …. It’s completely riveting, and shocking. He’s been sort of manipulating the younger girl — but she’s been manipulating him, too.

You recorded the audiobook version of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” Are you a fan of the book (and “Mockingbird”)? Did performing it aloud change your perception of it?

Look, I could write a whole dissertation on “Go Set a Watchman.” I know there was some controversy around the book but there was a radical idea at the center of it that intrigued me. Perhaps instead of Atticus being the hero of that story, what if it was Scout? And from all the reading I have done, Harper Lee’s father was not exactly seeking social justice and racial equality. He had a lot of century-old ideas about race in America. Harper Lee had lived in New York City after college and returned filled with ideas about how to create equality in her community and in our country. She wrote “Go Set a Watchman” about the struggle she had getting her father to understand her frustrations about the racism in her small town. I think we have to make room in our minds that some of the stories that we’ve been told for so many years could be framed differently. What if Scout was the equality-seeking hero of that narrative and not Atticus Finch? What if Harper Lee made her father a hero that he wasn’t? What if the world was not ready for a 26-year-old girl from the South to be the moral center of the story?

Between your book club and your production company, you’re an influential recommender of books. But where do you turn for recommendations? How do you decide what to read?

I know it’s an obvious choice, but I like And in real life, I have a small army of friends whose recommendations I seek out and trust, led by two book-loving friends I’ve known since I was in high school. Also, my physical therapist reads more than anyone I know and has impeccable taste, so I always ask for book suggestions from her.

What’s the last book that made you laugh?

Calypso,” by David Sedaris.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read everything as a kid. Summers were hot in Nashville, so I’d spend a lot of time reading on the screened-in porch to escape the heat. One that really stuck with me, besides “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt. Even as a beginning reader, I’d get very wrapped up in stories, from the Sweet Valley High books to Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game.” I read every last one of the Lois Duncan young adult horror books; my favorite was “Stranger With My Face.”

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

“The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours,” is a moving and inspiring book by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has some really good rules for life, like: “Never work just for money or for power. They won’t save your soul or help you sleep at night.” I read it my freshman year at Stanford, and it is still my favorite book to give to high school graduates. The book makes you see how important service is and it makes you believe you can make a difference in this world. I think hope is imperative right now.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

This is something I think about often! I love throwing dinner parties. For a literary night, I’d invite Cheryl Strayed, Julia Reed, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett, Jon Meacham, Joan Didion, Maile Meloy, Nick Hornby, A. Scott Berg, Zadie Smith and Celeste Ng. I know you said three, but, to me, three is not much of a party.

An expanded version of this interview is available at

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Reese Witherspoon. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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