So, you give up on a book? You are in good company HTC

August 16, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

There are books that deserve to be punished. Others deserve to be ignored. Many are worthy, but aren't your cup of won ton. I can think of nothing fit for discussion in a family newspaper that is more privately personal than the question of what you read.

I love books. I love the idea of them. In principle, I am fond of the people who write them. I admire the energy, the mission that sets people to scribbling, and the discipline that keeps them going. I believe little of enduring and purposeful importance in the world has not been expressed originally in a book. I respect almost anybody who starts and finishes.

So isn't there a moral - or at worst a sentimental - duty to finish reading any book you start reading? Isn't giving up evidence of a character flaw, a failure of seriousness?

No. Life is finite. No one can read every tempting volume. Vastly too many books are being published. Every reader's initial decision, of course, is what books to buy or borrow, to pick up and read. To help, we put out these pages. There are other devices, of which word of mouth is the most influential.

But once you have begun, another decision looms And that is the subject of today's exercise on the adjoining page ` in which we asked 21 people if and when they stop reading a book once they have begun. From time to time, we publish on these pages answers by thoughtful people to questions somehow related to books. I find the responses delightful, often surprising and always provocative.

To today's question only one respondent, Lyle Denniston - who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court longer than any reporter now working - says that he finishes every one he begins. I know no one with a more judicious mind and thoughtful heart than Denniston, and I congratulate him for his sense of immortality - or anyway the apparent interminability of life. But I find myself with the majority.

Fast getaway

Like Terry Teachout, I read each word of any book about which I am going to write judgments. But in the course of professional criticism, I have learned to drop quickly books that do not work for me: I echo and applaud the observations of Ann Hornaday and Jim Rouse.

I can't agree with everyone. Bill Marimow, with whom I have shared bookish enthusiasms for about a quarter century, rejects Henry James for bogging him down; I still read James for lyric delight. But I would not argue that anyone should - voluntarily - read anything in the face of a sense of tedium.

I read books for a living. That's an enchanting privilege. I read between 50 and 60 a year with the exhaustive attention I believe is owed any book I am going to critique. But more, I decide upon every one of the 300 to 500 books that will be reviewed in The Sun each year.

I do that by studying the catalogues of a hundred or more publishers of significance, by listening to or reading the persuasions of others - people I know and some I have never heard of. I handle, skim, dip into, contemplate probably 2,000 books a year that for one reason or another I feel might be important to have reviewed.

And then I choose them, almost always with the hope that those I choose will turn out to be delightful or important.

I never ask a reviewer to favor or disfavor a book, and in selecting reviewers, I choose them for their expert knowledge and their analytical and writing abilities - not my sense of their cultural leanings. And it often distresses me how many books are damned - with faint praise or undiluted vitriol.

Why does that happen?

In part, I believe, because many reviewers have a deep feeling, perhaps left over from school days, that if they don't find fault somewhere they will be thought to be napping at the job. Sometimes, because a book - that most personal of companions - simply does not have that reviewer's vibrations.

A sea of books

But, more often, I believe, unexpected rejection comes because books - many, many books - are simply not as good as they should, and used to, be.

The book industry's generally accepted estimate today is that 50,000 new books - not reprints, but never-before-published manuscripts - are manufactured and marketed each year in the United States. That is, go figure, about 1,000 previously unread books a week. Each week!

Technical progress has made producing and manufacturing books inexpensive and simple to an extent unimaginable only a couple of decades ago. Publishing paperback books as originals, instead of simply reprints, has added to the flood. Today, it can be easier and cheaper to begin a publishing company and put books into the market than it is to open a corner gasoline station.

So there are too many books. Vastly too many. Making things worse, the levels of competence of editors in publishing houses, and the attentions of agents who once were threshold constructive critics, have diminished precipitously.

Dozens of seasoned writers I know have complained that their manuscripts get little or no attention. They far too often tell me that little if any attention has been given their work from the time they ship off an electronic disk till they get galley proofs - or for that matter, finished and bound copies.

Corporate mergers and other industry news all make it unlikely that this lamentable trend will be reversed.

So, if there is a message - beyond the provocations of today's thoughtful respondents - it is to be discerning. And when discernment turns out to have failed you, my advice is this: Stop. Move on to better fare.

! Pub date: 8/16/98

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