Pete Townshend: By the Book

Published: November 29, 2012 - The New York Times

The musician and author thinks Ozzy Osbourne wrote the best rock memoir. “It made me think I should chuck my memoir manuscript away and throw a party during which I jump out of the window but don’t quite kill myself.”

Pete Townshend - Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
What book is on your night stand now?
Martin Cruz Smith who wrote “Gorky Park,” has created a Russian detective, Arkady Renko, and I am now reading “Wolves Eat Dogs,” partly set in Chernobyl. I’m learning a lot about how radiation doesn’t always kill people. Not if they drink lots of vodka. I also have “Hemingway’s Boat,” by Paul Hendrickson — he seemed to use the sea as an inspirational tool, a retreat and an escape very much as I do. I also have a copy of “Discourses,” by Meher Baba; this is a throwback, relatively new for me these days. I am trying to reconnect with this Indian master that I adored so much when I was a young man, and I’m finding this book challenging: these discourses were written for his close disciples, and I don’t think I could ever live as pure and disciplined (and obedient) a life as seems to be required.

What was the last truly great book you read?
“Les Misérables.” Somehow I’d missed it, despite it launching a grand theater musical. I was so surprised at how readable it is, how well the characters are drawn and how gripping it is. A really great modern book? I think William Boyd is doing wonderful work. His set of short stories “The Dream Lover” is one of the most evocative books I’ve read — full of clear images and emotions conveyed with few words and from the very natural points of view of each narrator or leading character. His masterpiece is “Any Human Heart.” As I write this I realize I tend to set male and female novelists in different parts of my brain. So I want to add a female great book — and so many come up in a tumult that I can’t fix on a single one. If I push myself I come up with a truly great modern book, but a bit of a stereotype, I’m afraid: Margaret Atwood — “The Handmaid’s Tale.” 

You once worked as an acquisitions editor at the British publisher, Faber & Faber. Do you miss anything about that job?
Are you kidding? That was the best job I ever had. I had lunch with the old chairman, Matthew Evans, this week, and we both went dewy-eyed about the old days. He’s in the House of Lords trying to stay awake, and I’m pounding stages like an aging clown. I loved the way the Faber editorial committee was driven as much by gossip and rumor as ideas. It was fun. Not what you expect in such an esteemed publishing house.