So many pages, so little to read

November 30, 1998|By Robert Reno

LITERATE people tend to worry that Americans will all become so glued to the Internet and to 800 channels of television that their reading skills will atrophy to the level of baboons.

Given the state of book publishing and its retail collaborators, might we sooner worry that they will all be reading trashy junk or that their books will be preselected by such arbiters as Oprah Winfrey and Donald Imus?

Years ago we used to dream of an America in which bookstores would be as common as fast-food restaurants. Well, now they are. But walk into one of our ubiquitous book chain outlets and what screeches in your face?

Hogging space

A display pile of 580 copies of some hopelessly popular book arranged imaginatively in precious space that could have housed dozens of worthy new titles that the store doesn't even stock.

It's not just that unmitigated trash gets published. It gets reviewed. The New York Times wasted two precious columns on a major review of a heavily promoted piece of rubbish put out by Harry N. Abrams and bought by four book clubs about some Russian claiming to be rightful czar and son of the undoubtedly murdered Czarevich Alexei, the hemophiliac who supposedly didn't even bleed profusely, much less die, in that Yekaterinburg cellar in 1918. Only near the end does the reviewer tell us the book's an unreliable account of a stupifyingly improbable story that, one presumes, is not worth buying -- or reviewing.

A vile book

We could as well waste time joining this fall's gibbering literary debate over whether Lillian Hellman's former teen-age serving wench, Rosemary Mahoney, whom she treated like one, has written a vile book about a vulnerable old lady, a brilliant book about a lying harridan or a vile book about a vile woman. I say the book's vile, not nearly as brilliantly written as the rubbish in Hellman's self-glorifying memoirs, most of which was made up, so what does it all matter? I think I'll read it, guiltily.

Or I suppose we could join in the pointless cat fight over whether Tom Wolfe's new book is a major literary event or merely a predictable media circus about a guy in white clothes who every 10 years writes a slim, passable pot boiler and then hooks it to a bicycle pump and inflates it to the size of "Gone With the Wind."

Oh well, I see Monica had to give away her book at a knock-down price to a writer-typist who specializes in Princess Diana rubbish. Sad thing is, if she had brains to go to a writer with any sense, the girl's got the book of the century in her empty head.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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