09 November 2006

Nothing Stronger or More Lasting than 26 Letters and a Handful of Punctuation Marks

I almost never read book reviews. This means I have to rely mostly on word of mouth and recommendations (and pretty, intriguing covers), which you could say either limits my exposure to new authors, or means that I get to find writers I never would have encountered - I read Indecision about five years after the rest of the world, but it meant I was reading the Margaret Drabble James' mother introduced me to, the Matthew Derby I picked out at the Brown Bookstore. (The one exception I can think of was finding The Time Traveler's Wife in the New Yorker's "Briefly Noted," a page I almost never read.) I think I've resigned myself to the fact that there are just too many books out there to read - I've worked in bookstores and libraries, and I've memorized enough bestseller lists to know that it's basically a crap-shoot. If I hadn't been introduced to A.S. Byatt in college, there'd be some other author I'd have found, and she's out there somewhere right now, and I haven't found her, but instead I read 2,000 pages of A.S. Byatt in one summer. There just isn't enough time to read it all, and as long as I've always got a good book going, and a (proverbial) stack of books waiting to be read, it isn't something worth stressing about.

It's not all insular laziness, though - I don't read book reviews for the same reason I don't read back-of-the-book summaries, and why I'm so careful now when I'm flipping through to see how many pages there are. (Lessons learned from Cloud Atlas and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - seriously, don't flip ahead when you're reading those.) When I see a movie I've seen the trailer, when I see a play I've heard god-knows-how-much about it, but a book I can enter completely fresh. And I do everything I can (not reading reviews, plugging my fingers in my ears and running out of the room screaming when they come up in discussion) to preserve that.

Which is why I'm not going to get into Special Topics in Calamity Physics here. I had heard about it - "Brilliant debut!" "The writer's really pretty!" - and occasionally checked in with James as to reviewers' consensus as I was reading - "They said it takes a while to get going [ed: 80 pages] but once it does it's amazing." - but that was it, and I want to preserve the possibility of that experience for you. Even if I write about it vaguely, sans spoilers, it gives you some sense of what to (possibly - it'd just be my opinion) expect - is the story disappointing? Should I make sure to not finish it on the bus because I'll be bawling my eyes out? Plot twists? Footnotes? Was he really dead all along? So I'm not going to say anything. Other than this: I think you should read it. After the initial slow going, which hardly discounts it from being a great book (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - 50 pages; The Corrections - 150pp), it is interesting and moving and well-written and just about everything that makes a book good. It isn't perfect, but I almost missed my subway stop half the mornings I was reading it. (And that's Times Square - doors open on the opposite side and everything.) Believe me, I want to write more - when I finish a book, all I want to do is talk about it (I might be happy if I did nothing else but read and talk about books for the rest of my life), and James hasn't read it yet (I borrowed his copy) so I'm decently stifled - but go read it first, and then come back, and we'll talk.

(I wouldn't actually be able to happily spend the rest of my life doing nothing but reading books and then talking about them, after - I'd need to be able to recommend books as well. And on that note, every book I've linked to here gets a whole-hearted recommendation, and I strongly encourage you, if you're so inclined, to follow the links and see if anything strikes your fancy. My personal variation on the run-away-to-New-England-and-live-a-wholesome-life escape fantasy features me owning a bookshop, but until that run-away day comes, I'll have to settle for doing it here.)

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