Books Worth Buying and Reading

PETER A. JAY

January 10, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Book sales are up, but reading is down. The last research I came across indicated that a majority of American adults haven't read a single book in the last year. So who's doing all that buying?

Either a small number of people are buying and reading lots of books, or a lot of people are buying books but not reading them. The latter seems more likely. And though it's a little bizarre to think that all those people crowding into Waldenbooks just before Christmas were buying books neither they nor the people they intended to give them to would ever read, what they were doing wasn't necessarily wrong.

For one thing, it's undeniable that much of what's published these days isn't worth reading anyway -- though it may make just as good a gift as an unwearable tie or an inedible fruitcake. And for another, a society in which books are widely sold but not widely read is obviously better off than one in which they're not sold at all.

Still, as Mark Twain observed, people who don't read good books forfeit any advantage they might otherwise have over people who can't. And there were plenty of good new books to be found in 1992. Here's a look at a few of them, worth buying and reading.

The quality of its new fiction is a pretty good guide to a nation's general literacy, and in the United States both have plummeted in the last two or three decades. But there are encouraging signs that this trend has been reversed.

By far the two best novels I read this year were Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres," which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Cormac McCarthy's too-little-noticed "All the Pretty Horses." These two, and especially the latter, are of a quality we haven't seen in quite a while.

"A Thousand Acres," set in the corn-and-beans Iowa farm country, recounts the destruction of a family precipitated by the transfer of a successful farm from one generation to another. It catches rural life in the agribusiness era with eerie accuracy: farms consolidating, $100,000 combines, nitrates in the drinking water. Good journalism could do that, but Ms. Smiley, by doing it so much better, reminds us why we must have novelists, too.

She gets all the rural details right, from eggs and sausage on the table at six, to the way a farm crew feels after working day and night in harvest time, to the way drivers in the deep country acknowledge each other when they pass on the roads. (Very subtly, perhaps with a nod or a finger lifted from the steering wheel.) "A Thousand Acres" might make a successful film one day, but even if it does, you can be sure Hollywood will ignore, over-emphasize or otherwise screw up these exquisite details.

"All the Pretty Horses" is the first of a projected trilogy about the west Texas-northern Mexico border country. The tale itself is a plain one, set in the late 1940s: Two teen-age Texans, one a gifted horseman, ride deep into Mexico, find work on a rich man's ranch, get into life-threatening trouble and return.

The novel has echoes of some of Larry McMurtry's early writing, but Cormac McCarthy's use of language, especially in the evocation of land and man's relationship to it, is better than anything I've seen since William Faulkner was writing about north Mississippi. This book haunts me; I find myself going back to it again and again to reread passages I've suddenly remembered.

These weren't the only good books of 1992. On a slightly less-elevated level, there was interesting fiction by the more established writers Susan Sontag ("The Volcano Lover") and Robert Stone ("Outerbridge Reach"); a splendid biography of Mary McCarthy by Carol Brightman; and the best book about American troops in Vietnam ("We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young," by Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway) since James Webb's "Fields of Fire."

This personal and subjective list wouldn't be complete without mention of three other 1992 publications on Maryland subjects by Maryland authors, whom I should add are all friends of mine. The three are:

"Water's Way," by Tom Horton and David Harp. This beautiful book combines essays by Sun columnist Horton, the author of "Bay Country," with Dave Harp's color photography, the best I've ever seen of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Exploring the Chesapeake Bay in Small Boats," by John Page Williams of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation staff. This is what the title suggests, and much more. It ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to poke around in the Chesapeake rivers and creeks but isn't sure just how to do it or what interesting plants and critters might be encountered there.

Josh Pons's "Country Life Diary." Country Life Farm, near Bel Air, is one of Maryland's oldest and best-known thoroughbred horse farms. Josh Pons, who runs it with other family members, has written a literate, thoughtful and detailed account of three years in a complex, demanding and sometimes thrilling business.

In my own parochial and no doubt astigmatic view, these all made 1992 the best year for books in a long time.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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