Dispatches | November 18, 2005

One of my lesser duties at TMR is to line up reviews for our book review section. This involves, among other things, flipping through the many review copies that arrive in our office and deciding what we want to review and then phoning or e-mailing to find someone who might be able/willing to do it. When I say many review copies, that translates to about five a week. That’s two hundred and fifty books a year, at least. We review less than ten books per issue, with three (soon to be four—yes, we’re going quarterly in 2006!) issues a year. Do the math, and you can’t miss the point that we end up with a lot more books in the office than we can review. Actually, we end up with a lot more books in my office than we can review. And my office is not large.

Now, if you’re a bibliophile that might sound like paradise, but I stopped being a bibliophile quite some time ago. I love what’s in some books, but the physical objects themselves are just that: physical containers for the human mind/soul, both its riches and its garbage. I have two large shelves in my small office, pretty much full, and at any given time there are probably books in toppling, sliding piles on my desk and on the floor. There are books in my closet, too. A handful are books that arrived for review, that I keep because someday I really do want to read them: The Travels of Marco Polo; The Penguin Book of English Verse; a massive history of Africa; Don Quixote; and miscellaneous novels that capture my interest because I’ve seen them reviewed or I know the author, or often because I just have that reader’s intuition that right now I ought to read this.

But what about the others? They’re junk, right?

Well, no; the truth is, most of them are perfectly respectable and worthy literary efforts that their authors ought to be proud of. I do have some Westerns that an unnamed publisher keeps sending us, though we’ve never reviewed one; and there’s a best-selling domestic mystery that according to Romantic Times is a masterpiece. But then there are the latest by Louise Erdrich and T.C. Boyle and Michael Cunningham, all good writers, whose books would deserve my shelf space, except for the fact that we’ve reviewed all those writers and with our limited review space we can’t just keep reviewing the same folks over and over again; and besides, I’m just not intrigued by these particular books. The chemistry isn’t there. There’s a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which I browsed in for a while but ultimately got bored with because I was a French major in college and got de Beauvoired and Sartred to death. Actually, I mostly looked at the pictures in the insert of the biography. There’s a nude, from behind, of de Beauvoir doing her hair in the mirror in Nelson Algren’s apartment. Somewhat ironic? The author of The Second Sex allowing herself to be photographed nude and primping? And there’s a picture of Algren, whom I realized I had never seen in a photo before because I fell head over heels, briefly, for the handsome social realist who’s been dead for a quarter-century. I confess I’ve looked at his photo a couple of times, to see if I still have the same reaction, which I do.

Perfectly okay books, most of these, and I wish they would go away.

I wish they would go away because I once worked in a trade-a-book store selling romances that I guarantee were not worth the paper they were printed on, and every genre novel that crosses my desk brings that miserable era to life again.

I wish they would go away because they remind me of my scary old-house basement, which is stacked with dozens of boxes of books that are probably mildewed, and which I don’t want to open because I’d rather not know that they’re ruined.

I wish they would go away because they are visible proof that I could read all day, every day, for the rest of my appointed time, and not finish a fraction of what I could/should/need to/want to/yearn to read.

I wish they would go away because I’m convinced there is an appreciative reader for them somewhere, and it’s clear that I’m not it. They’re the leftover food on my plate that it ought, somehow, to be possible to send to the starving children in India.

Any idea how to get them there?