Matti Friedman is a journalist and author. He won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for his first book The Aleppo Codex. Matti’s reporting has taken him all over the globe, stopping in Israel, Lebanon, Moscow and more. His writing has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and more. Matti Friedman’s work has triggered intense discussion, in particular his two essays he penned about the media coverage of Israel after the 2014 Gaza war. I was intrigued as to what such an interesting character, as Matti Friedman is, reads in his spare time. Here is my interview with Matti Friedman…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say I’m a journalist.
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 by Alistair Horne, a classic account of France’s war in Algeria. That war ended in 1962 but remains all too relevant for those of us who live in the Middle East in 2016, unfortunately.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
I remember reading old series from the ‘50s, like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. I used to buy them for a quarter at used book sales in Toronto, where I grew up. They were obsolete by the time I was a kid in the 1980s, but they appealed to me – maybe because of the fundamentally optimistic world they represented and the way things were always neatly wrapped up. Maybe because they suggested that adventures would happen, and would end well.
Can you remember the first real story you wrote?
In 7th grade I wrote a story about a boy sleuth named Detective Dan and his nemesis, Matt the Rat. I believe Dan had the upper hand by the end. The first real piece of journalism I wrote was a short article about Israelis living on the Golan Heights in 1997. At the time it seemed their homes could soon be returned to Syria in a peace deal. I was 19, and had an internship at a wonderful magazine called The Jerusalem Report. The postscript to that article is a good indication of the utterly unpredictable way that history works: those Israeli homes still exist, and Syria doesn’t.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A journalist. Seriously.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
My school-aged self would probably be surprised at the number of kids I have (4) and where I live (Israel). I think he’d be happy that I’m not bored.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I read early in the morning before my kids start waking up at 6 a.m. and at night after they’re in bed. I’m not picky about where, and sometimes find myself sitting on the stairs or standing at the kitchen counter.
Around 2001 or so I picked up River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, about his time as a volunteer in China. I never took a college writing class, and had been in the Israeli military until not long before, so I didn’t have an organized writing education. I don’t think I had seen an example of someone who took their own experiences and turned it into a long narrative with the authority of journalism and the power of fiction. It made a big impression. That was the first time the genre really caught my attention and struck me as something I could do.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
I don’t think I’d take advice from myself. But if forced to give some, I might say that it’s a good idea to remember that college is only one way to learn things, and maybe not the best one; I sometimes think that it does more damage than good for many people by forcing them into uniform thought patterns. Get out there by yourself, learn a new language well, become intimate with a strange place, read a lot. I don’t have a degree and I’ve never missed it. I could offer another piece of advice but I’ve probably done enough damage with that one.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Many of the best books I’ve ever read have been put in front of me by my parents, with more art than I appreciated at the time. When I write I often find myself going back to some book or other and realizing that I would never have seen it had one of them not said, “I think you might like this,” or if they hadn’t just left it on a shelf for me to find.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
In recent years it’s probably Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, a brief masterpiece about Soviet life and life in general.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Non-fiction. When done well there’s nothing better.
Do you think reading is important?
I don’t think there are many things that are more important.
I really enjoyed This Is London by Ben Judah, an empathetic look at the underbelly of one of the world’s great cities. It’s some of the best social reporting that I’ve encountered since reading Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, and it made me think differently not only about London but about all cities.
I also read and loved the late Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books about his great walk from London to Constantinople in the ‘30s: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Fermor is compelling as an observer with a brilliant ability to nail a moment in a turn of phrase, and also as someone who approaches the word with a smile and expects it to smile back. He’s rarely disappointed.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I have never read a digital book and hope to be still able to say that when I’m 90.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
If I’m making laws that every human must obey I have a few other things I’d like to start with.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
I grew up with the stories of the Hebrew Bible, stories whose unique and wild character I can only really appreciate now – ones which are not really appropriate for children but are read to children anyway. Before bed would you like to hear the one about the father sacrificing his son? It stays with you.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Next up is The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, about naval convoys in WWII. I’m going to read the last part of Fermor’s travel trilogy, The Broken Road, published after his death. I’d like to read more about India and China. For my own work I read a lot about Israel and the Middle East, so when I’m reading for pleasure I try to steer clear of those topics. This region can be a bit much.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
This Book Is Not Worth Your Time.