It’s beginning to be that time of year in the Penny Press, the infamous season of year-end book-lists. And since I’m the proud proprietor of the most authoritative of those lists (if I do say so myself)(and I do), I’m always irresistibly drawn to them wherever I find them – even if it’s in the pages of a lad-mag like Esquire. In fact this especially so in the case of a lad-mag like Esquire, since I’ve been a champion many times in the past of the last thing you’d associate with such publications: intellectual content.
So naturally I turned with interest to Page 42 of the latest issue, for something promisingly titled “Esquire Year in Reading,” where the sub-title read: “And What a Year It’s Been! Here’s an Incomplete but Sufficient Roundup – The Great, the Good, and The Detestable.”
It has indeed been a year, I thought. In the United States alone, something just under 300,000 new titles (and new editions of old titles) were published in 2013 – which is a staggeringly vast array even without taking other countries into account. So any roundup must perforce be incomplete, but I liked the cockiness of that “sufficient” – such a claim is vintage Esquire.
The first page was encouraging (despite the illustration showing a glass of scotch sitting on top of a pile of books – clear visual shorthand that reading isn’t something you’re supposed to do sober, in long stretches, no: you’re more a flip-a-few-pages kind of guy, you know, while you’re waiting for your lady friend to doll herself up real nice for a night out on the town): Benjamin Percy gives a very short but pretty good rave for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “Tartt publishes a novel every decade, and damn if she doesn’t put her whole heart into it. This is what a major literary event looks like.” Up next, the always-awkward phenomenon of a really good reader recommending a weak book – in this case Esquire‘s resident literary light Scott Raab (who does a really – dare I say it – engaging interview with Patrick Stewart elsewhere in this issue … just flip past a few dozen ads for getting mouth cancer from processed tobacco products and you’ll find it) praising football player Nake Jackson’s sports memoir Slow Getting Up. But since the pleasure of reading Raab would outweigh the awkwardness even if he were recommending something truly awful, the entry was painless enough.
Things get much rockier in the next little mini-review, Tom Chiarella writing about The Cuckoo’s Calling, the murder mystery J. K. Rowling wrote under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Chiarella is an intelligent writer, but no good can come from an amateur trying to ape the obscure impenetrability of a professional weekly book critic: “The Cuckoo’s Calling is talky and overlong for a story that’s not too complicated. Rowling would have been better off just putting her name on it and taking the heat, enjoying the sales, and doing the work that comes with being the woman she is.” Hmmmm.
More promising was the next piece, where the always-excellent Luke Dittrich manages to turn in an intelligent appreciation of Wil Hylton’s excellent WWII book Vanished in only about 100 words. Vanished is a very good book, and it was nice to see Dittrich mention it here. Even nicer was the surprise of the next and much longer piece, in which Tom Junod writes about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath in tones of measured contempt despite the fact that the book, with its brainless boosterism of guys who don’t want to think, seems tailor-made for the Esquire core audience that thinks smoking is cool and women are meat products and there’s nothing obscene about paying $2500 for a wrist watch. Very nice, I thought: that’s readerly integrity trumping bro-expedience.
Then I turned the page, and bro-expedience came rushing back at me – in the form of actress Addison Timlin’s shapely little breasts.
Because the “Books of the Year” feature – the one that was “incomplete but sufficient” – was over.
I actually doubled back a few times at my lunch table, momentarily certain I’d accidentally stuck two or three pages together by handling them with gang hung lay-covered fingers. But no: Esquire‘s “Books of the Year” for 2013 consisted of … five books.
Very patently, that is not sufficient. But the debacle has at least one up-side: it serves as a perfect occasion for me to remind you all that the very antithesis of such a squib is nearly here: the great annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year is only days away, and I’ve made it bigger and more elaborate than ever. It still won’t be but a patch on those 300,000 new books published in 2013 … but it’ll have just a few more notices than six. SIX! Come on, Esquire – as you yourself have pointed out over the years, real men can read books. Dude!