On Being Badly Read

Times Book Critic

After living a good part of my life as a well-read person, I am now a badly read person. This would not be much to announce except that the change took place five years ago and coincided exactly with my becoming a book critic.

It is a well-known or at least a much propagated fact that nobody hates war as generals do, whether because they have fought one and know it to be hell, like Sherman; or because they haven't fought one and worry about the wear and tear on weapons, budgets and textbook tactics. What is less well-known--largely, of course, because it occurs in a far more obscure occupation--is that no one reads less than book reviewers.

Or so it seems. When I was doing other things, I was aware mainly of the books I had read or was about to read. For the last five years, I have been continually aware of the books I have not read and shall never get a chance to read. It never used to be that everyone I met would insistently ask: What do you think of the latest Piercy, or Oates, or Robert Hughes on Australia? Now they do.

"I don't know," I answer. "I haven't read them." Answering "I don't know" on a daily basis does very little for one's self-esteem.

Ask someone who's spent a life as a professional fisherman if he doesn't get sick of catching fish, and the real answer is likely to be: "It's the fish I don't catch that sicken me." What is truly wearying and wearing about big cocktail parties? Not the trivial conversations. You can have an intelligent conversation and still be destroyed by the presence of all those people with whom you are not having conversations.

You catch the eye of an interesting-looking person across the room while talking to someone considerably less interesting, but right in front of you and immovable. The next day comes the question: You mean you didn't know that Chaucer (or Metternich or the Blessed Oliver Plunkett) was at that party?

Well, the books pour in, 50 or 60 a week, the guests at this crowded party. But this is not itself the major problem, except physically. At that, publishers seem to have discarded their more impregnable and life-threatening forms of packaging; and a couple of libraries are happy to cart away the gross accumulations. In fact, it is no real pain but something of a relief to open a package and find things that make no conceivable demands, such as the following:

"Blood in the Streets: Investment Profits in a World Gone Mad" by James Dale Davidson and Sir William Rees-Mogg. A sort of Chicken Little guide for sky-watching, it can safely be ignored by your average literary reviewer who, by the nature of the trade, will never have to worry about losing his or her investments.

McGraw-Hill's "Sneak Preview: Selected Chapters of Upcoming Novels." The salaried reviewer not only can pass this one by; he is probably honor-bound to do so.

"Skin Secrets. A Complete Guide to Skin Care for the Entire Family." With sections on "Non-acne Problems of the Young," "Black Skin--Some Good News and Some Bad News" and "Winter Itch--The Problems of Dry Skin." Book reviewers, notoriously, have no skins.

"The English Dog at Home." Lavishly illustrated interviews with the Right People and their Right Dogs. Among these: Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk with Muffin, Mishka, Mufti, Molly, Mitzi, Millie, Mumbo, Bessie and Lara. You think of Yeats' rich fleas who bought themselves a "nice square dog, no sort of scratching dog."

That list is fun to do. It could be 10 times as long and still be fun to do; though nobody would want to read it. But I have another list, and this one hurts:

"Mary and the Giant" by Philip Dick. An early and revealing novel by this later master of what we too narrowly term science fiction.

"Tremor" by Adam Zagajewski. A brief selection from one of Poland's leading poets. An example of what is uncommon and precious: poetry erupting out of sheer need.

"Landscape After the Battle" by Juan Goytisolo. The latest novel by one of Spain's major writers. We know quite a bit about Latin American writers. What about the Spanish?

"Herself in Love" by Marianne Wiggins. A collection of short stories by a novelist of large imagination and wit. She wrote a splendid novel two years ago; what is she up to now?

"More Die of Heartbreak" by Saul Bellow. Of course.

"The Embarrassment of Riches" by Simon Schama. A study of Dutch culture in the 17th Century that--to use the language common to human-being readers and to reviewers who are off-duty--sounds absolutely terrific.

All of these are books that, for one reason or another, I will not review. I failed to get a copy early enough to fit the schedule. I will be on vacation when the book comes out. I didn't have the wit to realize its interest, or simply--and most commonly--a program of two reviews a week has to leave orphans. Not the books themselves, because others will review them. It is the reviewer who feels like the orphan.

Or the midwife excluded from her calling. Certainly the book will be delivered, but doesn't it need my own particular wit, compassion, or anger to be delivered properly? (We have a coxcomb calling as well.)

Aside from not reviewing them, I haven't even read these books. I want to read all of them. Taken up with new candidates, I shall read only some of them. A growing pile of such books lines my office walls, clamoring: So you can't review us--OK--but for God's sake, read us.

Each month, I grow more badly read.

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