Two of my favorite shortlists, the National Book Critics Circle and The Story Prize, were announced this week, and there are some really choice picks among them. Oh, I know, I say that every year. Maybe they just look extra good right now because I haven’t read many of the books in question. Even the ones that made everyone’s year-end lists, and the ones that were squarely in my ballpark from the beginning, they spent 2012 in that special, sad category of wishful reading.
Lots of reasons for that, and although this isn’t a very personal kind of blog I will say that none of them had to do with substance abuse, watching bad TV, or natural disasters. Think: grad school, work, a few cool projects, a bit of eldercare to remind a body how the great wheel of life does turn. And I’m a slow reader even in the best of circumstances, or at least not one of those people who can charge through a few books a week. I like to think that helps make me a close reader… I’m a careful one, at any rate, and when I do eventually ratchet my productivity up to turn out a review, I think it’s generally well considered. As my mother would have said, “it’s not a contest.”
In that spirit, I’m going to ally myself firmly with Michael Bourne, who wrote a nice piece over at The Millions earlier this month about his resolution to read fewer books. He points out that reading tallies are a form of “personal best,” but that, even if you’re not comparing numbers with anyone, after a point it gets counterproductive:
Because in the end, whether you’re recording how many seconds it takes you to run a mile or how many books you read in a year, what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth. For some people, their self-worth is bound up in the way they look, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so physical fitness—the number of seconds shaved off personal-best times, the number of reps at a certain weight, and so on—becomes a convenient proxy. In my case, I care about being seen as smart. In our culture, bookishness is a signifier of intellectual capacity, so the more books I read, the smarter I must be. That no one else knows is not merely beside the point; it heightens the sense of achievement. I’m a genius, I’ve been quietly telling myself for the past 13 years, and nobody even knows it.
Luckily for me, quantifying my inner sense of self-worth requires a certain amount of time for reflection, which I just plain don’t have these days. So it will remain unexamined, and I will refuse to worry about how many of these wonderful books I haven’t read. (Although I will still probably place indiscriminate library holds on a number of them.) You all, of course, are welcome to weigh in.
The National Book Critics Circle finalists are as follows:
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
My Poets by Maureen N. McLane
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
In the House of the Interpreter by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro
All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra
Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography by Lisa Jarnot
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn
Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll
Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry
On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths by Lucia Perillo
Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson
Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys by D. A. Powell
Olives by A. E. Stallings
The three books up for The Story Prize are:
with a special Spotlight Award being given for a collection worthy of additional attention going to Krys Lee for Drifting House.