About covering books: A promise and an invitation

January 29, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHEM

Beginnings are important. In many senses, the First Book of Moses, which friends call by its nickname 'Genesis,' is the beginning of beginnings. The Book's first words appear at the top of this page, an invocation for this new beginning of The Sun's coverage of books.

In future weeks, the first words of other books will be there, simply to celebrate the truth that books do things to human life that nothing else can do.

Two friends whom I treasure included in their wedding ceremony as silent witnesses the most important books in each of their lives, which I find both constructive and wise. They read a lot. It matters.

Even as witnesses, companions, and guides, books cannot replace people. But it is hard for me to imagine many people coming to much without books.

It is thus with reverence that we are expanding and rearranging The Sun's book coverage.

I came to Baltimore a few weeks ago, invited by John Carroll, the editor of this newspaper, to talk about becoming its book editor. I was immediately impressed by the reception he seemed to have prepared. On panel trucks and park benches all over the city was this welcoming statement: 'Baltimore: The city that reads.'

I later learned the slogan is Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's and had nothing to do with my arrival. In retribution, I demanded that the mayor be the first contributor to what will be a weekly element of our new box of bookish delights, which is launched today immediately above this column.

The purpose of that box and all its contents is to enliven, enrich, provoke, and celebrate the joys and importance of books.

So much for the little things.

It is our plan each week to publish one substantial, focused, succinct essay that in some way is related to books. Beyond that, there usually will be this column and an assortment of reviews. Those reviews will be exceptionally short and frankly judgmental.

Here is a part of the instructions that will be given to every writer who is asked to review a book for these pages:

'The Sun respects and celebrates writers, and none more than its reviewers. However, The Sun treasures its readers above all other forms of life. 'In reviewing books, the consequence of this devotion is quite simple:

'The intent of reviews is directed toward the reader, not toward the industry or commerce of books or toward careers, not toward the professional or ostensibly intellectual canons of the Academy, nor toward other cliques, castes, or tribes that have involvements or interests that are distinct from or obscure to those of the general readers of The Sun. Most of these readers are neither scholars nor experts in the fields about which the reviews are written.'

What would I like our reviews and reviewers to do?

Above all, to make intensely felt and argued judgments, drawing genuine depths of authority. Those credentials will be cited here along with the reviews. I believe the experiences from which judgments of a book are drawn are a fundamental element of respectable criticism.

Some of those reviews will speak of ecstasy. Others will find books unfit to line a self-respecting gerbil's cage, and bash them unabashedly. Some will fall between, but not inertly.

I am delighted by the coincidence of history that allows this first installment of our new coverage to include Charles Fecher's review of H.L. Mencken's final, previously unpublished book, and an essay by Terry Teachout explaining for the first time in print how that book was discovered.

Mencken's intellect and style were such that it would be madness to mimic them. But the intensity and excitement he brought to his work here constitute a paradigm that I shall try to hold up for the reviews here, and especially for the lead essay.

In Mr. Teachout's introduction to the book reviewed this week, he relates: 'Typically, Mencken took a Monday Article written for the Baltimore Evening Sun, recycled it into a Smart Set essay or an American Mercury editorial, polished that version for inclusion in one of the Prejudices and, finally, created a 'definitive' version for the Chrestomathy.'

If some of the articles we print on these pages blossom, as Mencken's did, into larger, influential, works, I will be certain that the job is going well.

But only if they are, in the first instance, clear and forthright, free of the jargon, cant, obscurities, secret winks, and confiding nudges that befoul so much critical writing.

If we fail in that, please tell me so: On paper, succinctly and angrily. We might even publish a few words of your rage in the acreage above. We want to hear from you.

Finally, by way of introduction:

I have spent most of my life writing for or editing newspapers, with brief side trips into other journalism, particularly a couple of magazines.

I have done about everything that's done editorially on newspapers except to take pictures and cover sports -- unless you consider national politics or official corruption to be sports.

I have lived and worked in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, Washington, Ireland, and Tokyo, but never before in Baltimore. For a year not long ago I was executive editor of SPIN, the national youth-culture magazine, but I have never actually played in an established rock'n'roll band.

Now, I have to go read a book.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.