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Cécile Alduy

Montaigne, the Double Man, and Shelled Beans: Q&A with Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Where the famously poised, self-effacing, witty New Yorker critic proves to also be an ebullient, passionate, fiery man who admits to being in rage as much as in love with contemporary culture. As we sit down to talk about his latest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (Knopf, 320 pages), he reflects on his debut as a writer and what lays ahead of him: to write a Big Book of Life and maybe try, one day, a different voice.

A prolific writer, Adam Gopnik has left almost no topic untouched, from Darwin and Lincoln to—not necessarily in that order – Mark Twain, Marx (Groucho), W.H. Auden, James Taylor, leaving New York for Paris, leaving Paris for New York, dogs, razors, artificial intelligence, libraries, Babar, snowflakes, fireflies, shopping, museums, magicians, 9/11, the DSK scandal (on which — no one is perfect — he quotes approvingly Bernard-Henry Levy), the Dreyffus Affair, television for plants, and, yes, even Jesus (more than once).

Not to mention his relentless blogging on the Jets, baseball and Canadian hockey, on which he posts sometimes twice a day.

And all that is just for his stint at the New Yorker: he also has under his belt a half dozen books of essays, two children books, a museum catalog; edited two anthologies and penned countless introductions to the works of photographers (Helen Levitt, Peter Turnley), contemporary artists (Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Avedon) and most of the big names in French literature (Hugo, Maupassant, Balzac, Proust). So: what’s an interviewer left to talk about that Gopnik has not already written about?

As we sat down for rooibos tea and pastries at the sundeck of a coffee house in the nondescript post-industrial zone around Bryant Street and Mariposa, I racked my brain and decided to use my old tricks: talk about dead people (French ones de préférence). American intellectuals love nothing more than the deep past: where the French shiver with post-traumatic stress flashbacks of high school indoctrination on the classics, New Yorkers revel in engaging with the great minds of the Renaissance.

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