The National Book Critics Circle’s Good Reads discussion hit Third Place Books in Seattle on Feb. 18, bringing together four panelists who showed through the quality of their thought just how much they really, really love books, as well as the importance of the ecosystem around books. The ecosystem problem echoes debates I’ve written about before—see, for example, here, here and here—and all four speakers offered eloquent, brilliant defenses of book criticism that will be, I suspect, ignored, as previous efforts have been. When I opened my browser last night, a New York Times headline said, “For Publisher in Los Angeles, Cuts and Worse,” and book reviewing will probably be part of the cuts. But critics, thinkers and scholars beat on, boats against the current, and that events like Good Reads happen shows the continuing vitality of the book.
As the blurb on Critical Mass states, the panelists were “Charles Johnson, Jonathan Raban, Seattle Weekly editor Brian Miller, and Seattle Times Book editor & NBCC Board Member Mary Ann Gwinn.” All four shone. Gwinn moderated and first passed the mic to Raban, who talked about the quality of book criticism when he was a younger man and now, saying we aren’t in a “great age” of book reviews. Although this might sound like an example of The Wonderful Past, I think it’s not, given how relatively little press coverage books generate—as demonstrated by the links in the first paragraph. Raban directed particular ire at the habit of “grading” novels, citing Michiko Kakutani as a prominent offender. Although I agreed with him concerning the importance of engaging books, I also think it important to consider how one should decide which books only deserve notices or grades versus which ones are worth engagement. I asked that question later, and Johnson gave my favorite answer when he said that he uses many criteria, including the quality of their writing, and above all whether a book succeeds in “showing us something we haven’t seen before.” You can hear an echo of the modernists’ credo, “Make it new.” Johnson didn’t define what that “something” is, and I can’t blame him: you don’t know what’s not there until someone shows you what should be. Furthermore, as Johnson said, you have to evaluate each book individually, which makes it difficult to generalize about what books are worth study.
None of that should detract from Raban’s main point about the importance of quality reviews. Johnson followed up by saying that a “fine review puts a book into context,” which I also try to do (see more here), and that there are fewer places to read good reviews. This practice harms both readers and writers, with the latter hurt because, as Johnson said, the “best way to learn about something is to write about it.”
They went on to give wonderful anecdotes and examples of problems in book reviewing and recommendations, which I would repeat if I didn’t think the power and humor of their stories would be lost in my reconstruction. Their delivery was that of adepts. Still, I think it important to note two things: Johnson said that reviewing is like pointing a finger at the moon, and not the moon itself–which is the book. In addition, Gwinn said 500 books hit her desk in a week. Five hundred. The number boggles me, and she said that the publishing industry seems to use the “shotgun” method for book sales, and fire a lot of pellets just to see what hits. Some books do, and she cited The Kite Runner as an example. She also said that not all is or should be doom and gloom, as last year book sales were up seven percent. That might just be a Harry Potter bounce, but I liked hearing it regardless.
Johnson also put the book reviewer, reader, and others, as being in part of a “matrix” or “web of education,” with books alluding to each other and readers building a kind of map or network. He echoed The Name of the Rose (a quote: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means […]” and one more: “Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then a place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”) Yes, and we’re constantly trying to keep up with the worthy books of the past while trying to find good ones from the present and connect those with the past. Those older ones are easier to identify: you have publishers’ special imprints as well as the benefit of teachers, professors, and others, and they have by definition withstood time. Judging those from the present is harder, and much of the conversation revolved around that difficulty. In the end, finding good criteria is impossible and, as Gwinn said, part of a lifelong education. Or, to put it in Johnson’s phrasing, we’re trying to discover what it means to be educated and civilized. I wish there were better answers to these impossible questions, but regardless of those answers, it’s great fun hearing strong minds bandy the issues.
No one talked much about recommended reads, but the alternate discussion about art, reviewing, and life more than made up for the lack of recommendations. Some came up anyway: The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, which Johnson liked, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, which Raban said every boat should have onboard, and several from Miller that he spoke too fast for me to catch. None were on bestseller lists but all sounded worthy, and that’s the point of the NBCC’s effort: to find books that are likely to matter but that aren’t at the grocery store and deserve more attention than they get.