Fran Lebowitz Doesn’t Have a Cell Phone, But Knows Everything That Happens on Social Media Anyway

New York’s favorite professional talker on Adele vs. The Pope, Music vs. Silence, Internet vs. Radio, and Alive vs. Dead. “The great thing about writers who are not alive is that you don’t meet them at parties,” she says, among other quips in her culture diet.

Zach Hilty/BFA

Fran Lebowitz is perhaps the only living member of society who could not only get away with not having a computer or a cell phone, but still manage to be honored as a forward-thinker. Even technology-free, the essayist, cultural critic, and professional New Yorker is somehow still tuned in: Lately, her agenda’s included the opening night of Adele’s Madison Square Garden series, and a talk with Martin Scorsese at the New Museum, which just spotlighted her for its Stuart Regen Visionaries Series. (“It went very well. Marty’s really coming along,” Lebovitz quipped.) At home with her 10,000 books, she shared what else she’s been up to with her culture diet, along with a healthy side helping of her thoughts on Donald Trump.

What’s the first thing you read in the morning? Well, first thing, I don’t read the paper every day. I read the [New York] Times only on Saturday and Sunday, and it takes me the entire weekend to read it. I don’t know how people read it every day, and I’m not a slow reader. I only read nonfiction in the morning — it’s just a lifelong habit.

I know you have quite an extensive library, but what are the books are on your bedside table right now? Zero. I never sleep, I probably haven’t slept since you were born — I don’t know how old you are, but you’re not so old that I could have slept since you were born. So, years ago, I decided reading in bed is too stimulating. Watch TV. It’s boring. You’ll fall asleep.

Have you read any new novelists lately that you’re excited about? By new novelists you probably mean people right out of writing school, which didn’t use to exist. I mean, it’s not that I’m against the idea of new novelists. I’m always asking people if they’ve read anything new that is really good. They very rarely say yes, and when they do, they’re often wrong. My idea of a new novelist is someone who’s still alive. I read Darryl Pinckney’s novel, Black Deutschland. I’m sure he’s not your idea of young, but he’s younger than me. That might be the most recent novel I read by someone who’s alive.

What about by someone who’s not? My great preference. You know what, I just read Little Dorrit, because I asked a friend of mine what she recommended and she said “Did you ever read Little Dorritt?” And I said, “I think I did not,” because when I was young, I was not the world’s biggest [Charles] Dickens fan. So I did read it, and I would highly recommend it, and he is definitely not alive. The great thing about writers who are not alive is that you don’t meet them at parties.

Do you watch any TV shows? I watch TV all night long, I flip it on and off. But I have to tell you that watching TV is really an exact description, by which I mean if something interests me I’ll watch it ’til the commercial, then I’ll flip and I don’t even remember that I watched it anymore. I know this is against the law, but I am also the only person I know of who is not presently obsessed with television. I never imagined that I would live to see a day where people talked about television all the time. I’m astounded by the number of people who — do you realize how much TV you’re watching? Thousands of hours. Thousands of hours. And people now think it’s like a requirement. I have to go, I have 75 episodes of such and such I have to watch. I’m not saying these shows are not good, I’m just saying maybe if I was three years old and I imagined I had this amount of time ahead of me, I might start pursuing it.

Do you have cable? I do. When they first invented cable television, I didn’t get it. I thought it was ridiculous to pay to watch television. It should be free, like water. [Laughs.] I didn’t get it until they built the World Trade Center (I mean the initial one) because that cut off the TV reception to downtown. So I do have cable television.

Are there any channels you usually put on? I flip around, I’m telling you, I flip around. I am not a follower. I have no allegiances.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters? I don’t remember what it was, but I would be almost certain that it was at Film Forum, because they have the best movies.

What’s the last thing you saw at the theater? “Hamilton,” probably, and it should have been the last thing anyone ever saw. I saw it on Broadway the night before it opened. Have you seen it? It is the only thing I have ever seen that was better than people said it was.

I actually haven’t. Do you listen to the soundtrack? No. I mean, I have it. I don’t have a lot of highly technological things around here, but I have it. And Questlove did an album of it that he gave to me, and I’ve listened to that. I will say this: It’s not that I don’t like music, I just never think to listen to it. I am an endless seeker of silence.

Is there any song you’ve been playing on repeat lately? No, I don’t have any of those things. I don’t have an iPod, I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t have a computer, I don’t have whatever else you’re supposed to have. I have none of them. So I only know what “repeat” means because other people talk about this stuff. It’s like television.

Do you have a record player? No. I have what at the time was an incredibly modern thing, I forget what it’s called. Bose makes it and it has a radio and a CD player.

A boombox? Well, it’s not a boombox, it’s very tasteful. [Laughs.] It was after the boombox but before whatever they have now. I also have every one of these things: phones, Kindles, because people keep giving them to me. People imagine that I don’t have them because I don’t know how to buy them. So I have them, but I don’t know how to use them.

Are they just in a pile? No, I usually give them to people. Everyone else wants them.

What about going to concerts? Do you ever see music live? I actually went to see Adele, and I am certain that the last time I was at Madison Square Garden to see a concert was to see David Bowie. That’s how long it’s been, but I have been there. The last thing I’d seen at Madison Square Garden before Adele was the Pope. [Laughs.] I think it was last summer; you can look that up on one of your many machines. The Pope was fantastic, I have to say, and Adele was also very good.

What’s the last museum exhibition that you loved? I hate museums now. I just hate them. I don’t go to museums for the same reason I don’t go to movie theaters, which is that I cannot stand my fellow man. I cannot stand their behavior. So sometimes I think, ‘You know what, I’ll just have to give up this great exhibit because there’s going to be other people there.’ But the Picasso sculpture show at the Museum of Modern Art, which was also about a year ago, was breathtaking. There have been other great things after that, but that’s what comes to mind.

What’s the last piece of art you bought, if you buy art? [Laughs.] I write essays; I don’t buy art. Not only don’t I buy it; I never think of buying it. It doesn’t seem to me like a thing you buy, and it’s certainly not a thing I buy. I don’t think of it that way. Although I once went to a museum with a very rich man who told me he hated museums because things weren’t for sale. In fact, I would say he was angry that the museum wasn’t a store, and to me, even stores are museums. I’m not the world’s biggest buyer of things, except books. If the consumer economy depended upon me, we’d be in a deep depression.

Have you bought any good ones recently? I bought Cynthia Ozick’s new book of essays last week.

Are there any new releases you’re eagerly anticipating? Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Silence, which opens right before Christmas; and [Wallace] Shawn’s new play, Evening at the Talk House, which opens in January. I’m really dying to see both of them.

How do you get your news? I know you’re going to be stunned by this, but I listen 4,000 times a day to WINS news radio. I have radios, they’re on that station, and everything I have to do something that doesn’t occupy my mind, like a chore, which is five million times a day — to me a chore is also, you know, pouring a glass of water — I turn it on. As far as breaking news, they are the best. And the other great thing about them is that they repeat the news every 23 minutes. It doesn’t matter how horrible the news is: the fifth time you hear it, it doesn’t sound that bad.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming election? I would be very surprised if it was different from anyone else that you ever spoke to. Except the difference is this: I absolutely do not think there is a chance that Donald Trump will be the president. I’m the only person I know who thinks that, including people that I know are far more informed because they’re journalists. Everyone I know is very worried about it. I am very worried, but not about that, and no one would accuse me of being a cockeyed optimist. And I know there are a lot of morons in this country, I just don’t think there are enough.

I’m surprised. Is it because you’ve been around New York for so long? Well, there can be no people more stunned at his candidacy than people who live in New York. First of all, I didn’t even know about his television show, so I didn’t know that he was so famous. I had no idea. I mean, even real estate developers didn’t take him seriously. It is stunning. I’m sure everyone thinks it’s stunning that he’s a Republican candidate. I mean, the Republicans deserve him as their candidate. He is their fault. He is, really, if you think back on him — which is the only way you can think about Donald Trump — inevitable. This so-called party, this Republican party, they deserve him. And his supporters deserve him. But no one else does.

Are you going to vote? Of course. I am the world’s greatest voter. I vote in every single election. I vote in every little primary, in elections where I’m the only person there. Yes, I vote, because I was brought up that way. And I have tremendous contempt for people who don’t vote. If people don’t vote, and they have political opinions, they cannot express them to me.

Do you ever look at social media? No, I don’t have a computer. I know I’m on it; people always say, “Oh, I saw this on YouTube,” because people are filming everything all the time. Everything. I do a lot of speaking engagements, and they always make an announcement not to record it, and it’s absolutely fruitless. You walk onto the stage and 1,000 people are holding their phones up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So I know these things are on there, and I know all kinds of things are on there because people stop me and they tell me. I can’t believe all the stuff that’s on there, by which I mean stuff that you would think no one filmed.

Do you ever feel compelled to look it all up and see what’s out there? About me? No. Absolutely not. I’m sure there’s lots of horrible stuff about me on the internet. And truthfully, to me — obviously, this is really a distant view of it, because I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a Facebook page — it really sounds an awful lot like the junior high school you never get out of. It sounds awful to me. And of course there are at any given time millions of people in junior high school, so it’s bad enough they have to be in junior high school before this even existed. They must be having some of the worst experiences in the history of mankind. Also, it seems to me that it must take some of the fun out of gossip, because some of the fun of gossip was other people didn’t know it. And, by the way, even without even looking at this stuff or watching television, I know it all anyway because people talk about it all the time. It doesn’t stay there. It leeches into conversation. What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed? I have to tell you, mostly I just try to figure out when the construction is starting in the morning. [Laughs.] I have horrible insomnia. This idea that everyone else has that you go to bed, you go to sleep, and you wake up after you sleep some large number of hours — this doesn’t exist for me.

Aw. How long has it been going on for? My whole life.

The construction, I mean. Oh, the construction? [Laughs.] Also my whole life. Let me assure you: I could go to sleep — if that would be possible — in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and I would wake up to ConEdison. They would follow me there. [Laughs.] There is a construction site without question that follows me around the world. This particular construction has been going on for almost a year. If you ask me when it’ll end, I would say never.