The Well Read Man – An Interview
This man will read circles around you.
My book game is strong and few readers intimidate me. Then there’s this guy. A man cloaked in mystery, he calls himself The Bookchemist and he will give you extensive, college level book reviews on classics and high end novels. No book is too big, no author too controversial. The Bookchemist isn’t just some random guy making a few video blogs. He has hundreds of friends on Goodreads and thousands of followers on his YouTube channel. If you consider yourself a bookworm at all, you will check him out and it doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes.
It turns out that Mattia Ravasi is the Clark Kent behind The Bookchemist. After learning that he is studying for his Phd in Literature (in Italy!), it all makes perfect sense to me but I’m still not sure where he finds the time. He’s always reviewing 1000 page books and from the videos I’ve seen, I gather he’s working on a dissertation for school. He also appears ageless. Sometimes I think he’s 20 years old, sometimes I think he’s 30 years old. If you go by some of the books he reads, he’s about 80.
Between the studying and the piles of books in his que, Mr. Ravasi was able to squeeze in an interview for me. Yet another mystery, but I sure am grateful.
Can you please tell my readers who you are and where you’re from. For the longest time, I could not place your accent.
Hi Nikki (hi everyone!) and thanks a lot for the great opportunity! My name’s Mattia and I’m from Monza, near Milan, Italy. I’m an English Literature PhD (or at least I’ll be one starting next October); I also have a YouTube channel called The Bookchemist, where I talk about books. I’d like to be a more omnivorous reader, but I tend to focus on the stuff I love and study, which largely belongs to the general area of contemporary American literature.
What is behind your channel name, The Bookchemist?
It’s supposed to be the fusion of the words “book” and “alchemist,” get it? When I was in high school I was a huge fan of a Japanese manga series called Fullmetal Alchemist (I still think it’s one of the most impressive narratives I’ve yet experienced – it’s pretty flawless, really); my fascination with the term comes from there.
It’s a silly name for sure, but I do believe there are more than a few affinities between literary scholars and wizards: you have to study vast libraries of cryptic stuff, you’re always looking for hidden meanings and obscure secrets, and lots of people think you’re a fraud.
What was your first book blog about?
My first vlog was a review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, a terrific book I still believe to be his best. That video was dreadful though! The quality of the filming was absurdly low and I’m not sure my comments made much sense. I still got a few promising comments, and I decided to film more videos like that. (Come think of it, I’d like to re-film that review – the book’s so good it deserves a proper discussion!).
But before that video I’d been reviewing books on aNobii for a few years, ever since my first year at uni.
Thanks to you, I now know how to pronounce Michael Chabon’s last name. I’m a huge fan of his and my favorite book is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. If they were making the movie, who do you think should play the leads?
Chabon’s name remained a mystery to me for the longest time, so I’m glad I could be of help! It’s also high time they filmed the Amazing Adventure‘s movie, it’s truly golden movie material. If you ask me, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy would make an awesome Kavalier & Clay, with Fassbender playing Kavalier of course (and they would also help promote the movie…). They might be way too old though, so, even better: Ryan Lee from Super 8/Goosebumps as Sam Clay, and Kit Harington as Joe Kavalier! That would be awesome! As for Rosa, I don’t know – Emma Stone?
Besides Chabon’s next book, are there any upcoming releases you’re looking forward to?
Lots! Though I have so much stuff to read, especially for my PhD, that I’ll be lucky if I manage to read a fraction of what I’m interested in.
I’m looking forward in particular to reading DeLillo’s Zero K, Volume #3 in Mark Danielewski’s series The Familiar (I’ve decided I’m going to make up my mind about the series after that!), and also the new upcoming novels by Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, which should come out this year. Oh, and I still have to finish Franzen’s Purity (not that much of an ‘upcoming’ release, but still); I started it as soon as it came out, but dropped it halfway through.
Does any book or author intimidate you? Any at all?
There are lllllots of books and authors who intimidate me! The one author who scares me the most is probably William Vollman. I’ve never read any of his books (also because some are rather hard to find at an acceptable price), but I’ve always heard him described as an upsetting, disturbing writer with a very complex style. His books also tend to be endless. Gaddis’ Recognitions is another endless book I’ve never yet found the courage to start, and so is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I understand is also pretty disturbing in content.
In general, it’s content that scares me, much more than length or difficulty. I guess Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was enough of a disturbing read to last me a lifetime!
You have said that Thomas Pynchon is on a reading level of James Joyce. That’s a pretty big statement. I’ve read Joyce but not Thomas Pynchon. What would you suggest should be my first book and why?
The more I read and study Pynchon, the more I believe he’s up there in the truly Major Leagues, together with Joyce, sure, but with Eliot (George I mean) and Dante and such too. He’s a difficult and peculiar author, but he’s definitely worth it. Crying of Lot 49 would seem like the most logical starting point, as it’s very short, but it’s actually quite cryptic, and I don’t think it’s a good first Pynchon novel. I’ve been asked this question lots of time, and I always suggest people start with Inherent Vice. It’s highly enjoyable, it’s not a hard read at all, and it’s still 100% Pynchon. It’s a hell of a ride, but it’s super rewarding, and quite deep and layered too.
I love asking this question. What is the worst book you’ve ever read?
OK, first things first: I love fiction to bits, and I believe that as a way of expression it’s always worth something. It’s a bit like with music, especially live music: the band might suck or be boring or be very derivative, but you usually can grasp a basic level of enthusiasm that makes the experience worth it. I remember lots of ‘meh’ books, uninteresting, silly, but only very few books that I’d call capital B Bad.
… that said, I have found my share of those, but they were mostly novels and novellas by Italian uni professors who thought they could write fiction. (They couldn’t). Moving to more widely-known stuff, I think Andrea Camilleri’s short stories are truly, truly awful. His Montalbano novels are generally quite brilliant, but he can’t write short fiction to save his life. Also David Foster Wallace’s short fiction is monstrously overrated if you ask me (although on this front there are legions of people – I personally know a few – who could prove me wrong). If I had to point at one single book as the worst I’ve ever read, I might say it’s his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: seems to me they take all the Bad of the last 50 years of world literature with nothing of the Good.
Are you working on or planning your own novel?
I actually am! It’s called The Page Turner. It’s a fantasy book! Remember that parallel between Literary Studies and Wizardry I talked about a moment ago? It plays a lot with that concept.
I’ve been working on that novel for the last two years; it’s technically finished, although at the moment I’m halfway through its third or fourth major review, adding or changing bits here and there, improving the parts that don’t flow as well as they might. I have every intention of finding it an agent and a publisher – it will likely take ages, but I’ll get it out there, someday.
So what is your bookshelf situation? Are you running out of room in your home? Are you close to drowning in books?
The fact is, my room in Monza is packed with books; a good third or fourth of them are stuffed away in my wardrobe. But in the last two years I’ve been living in Venice – to study at the uni here – and I’ve filled my current flat with books too. A week from now I’ll be leaving Venice for good, and I can’t wait to see the two collections merge. I honestly have no clue where I’ll put all that stuff. And lots of it is still unread, so the problem’s not that I read a lot, not really: I’m simply quite daft.
Luckily I’ll be moving to England at the end of the summer, where I’ll start accumulating more books that I’ll one day have to carry someplace else. I call it “the Circle of Life.”
I do not envy you having to worry about moving your books through different countries. Thank you so much, Mattia. For everyone else, click on the social icons below, to follow him and find out what makes him the most well read person I’ve ever known!