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November 11, 2002

Tacit Knowledge -- New Books


Covering the arts professionally (for way too many years) burned a lot of earnest-and-dreamy liberal-arts foolishness out of me. It may have left me a tiresome old gasbag too, but it did leave me with a number of observations, ideas and tips. Why not use the blog to pass a few of these along?

Today’s topic: the passion for new books. I’m often amazed by the way some people think they really ought to be reading the latest much-discussed book. I’m also amazed by how eagerly people discuss the merits of current writers. Is Zadie Smith really as good as David Foster Wallace? Who cares?

I’m probably deceiving myself, but I take myself to be one of the less high-minded aesthetes, yet even I’d say that in the 15 years I followed publishing, I read maybe 15 books that I felt fell in the category of fabulous-to-great. That’s one a year – not bad, really. And, realistically speaking, can any of the even the most highly-touted new books compare to the thousands of great old books that you, or I, or anyone haven’t yet gotten around to? That hot new presidential biography, even that edgy postmodern fantasia -- are they really in a class with Gibbon, or Lady Murasaki? Of course not.

On the other hand, people sometimes simply seem to be in the mood for something new, and what’s wrong with that? It’s fun to try out what friends are arguing about; it’s fun to see contemporary life portrayed; it’s fun to keep up with interests, whether they’re movies or travel. There’s a lot of information to be gleaned and entertainment to be enjoyed. And, to be fair, in my years of active service, I read hundreds of books that struck me as anything from pretty-good to excellent.

I’d never attack people’s pleasure in new books, but I do (as here) blow the occasional gasket about the way people will fall for the notion that keeping up with new books is some kind of moral imperative, or even has much importance at all.

So, a 2blowhards insider tip: any time you read or hear about a new book, take it for granted that this phrase is present: “if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing.” Ie., this new post-feminist romp is great fun – if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing. This new look at Pearl Harbor is mind-boggling – if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing. Remembering this trick will set what’s being discussed in context, will help cool the moment-to-moment passions, and will help you defend yourself against annoying and unjust moral suasion.

By the way, when these thoughts were first occurring to me, I was wary of them, and wary of myself. To make sure it wasn’t just me and my oddness, I made a point of comparing notes with other people in the field. At the time, I was lunching, partying and dinnering with people in publishing regularly – authors, agents, publicists, other media folk on similar beats, and publishers.

I asked them, How would your reading habits change if you got out of the business? Almost without exception they answered, and did so very quickly, that they’d stop reading new books. (Amazing numbers of them named famous current authors – the supposed cream of the crop, such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Don De Lillo -- as writers whose work they’d be thrilled to give up following.)

Then they’d pause and say, well, there’s a couple of fiction writers I enjoy who I’d continue following – as often as not, by the way, these were genre-fiction, and not literary, writers. And of course, they’d go on, I’m interested in photography, or flintlock rifles, or bird watching, and I’d continue following those books…

Still: ain’t it interesting that many people in the field would stop following most new books if only they could? So, how to explain the (to me) odd moral urgency many civilians feel about keeping up with new books? I can come up all too many possible explanations. I’ll, manfully, limit myself in this posting to two:

1) Because publishing is in the business of selling new books. This may not be as obvious as it seems. In fact, publishers make a surprising amount of the money they make from the sale of old books. The reason they focus on new books instead is that they simply can’t have much impact on the sales of old books; people will get around to Tolstoy when they will. An ad blitz won’t help, and it’s difficult after all to place him on Oprah. But publishers can have an impact on the sales of new books, flukey though that enterprise can be. Also, acquiring and trying to sell new books is just a lot more fun.

2) There are also the natures of journalism, criticism, and academia to be taken into account. Book readers can be wonderful people, but they can also be surprisingly dreamy and credulous; they seem to like imagining that the books field is something apart. Perfectly worldly in other ways, they forget that there are markets and economies at work where books (and the discussion of them) are concerned: publishing, of course, but also academia, criticism, editing, reviewing, and feature-writing. People in all these fields and on all these levels are (like people in other fields) hoping to have careers and do well for themselves. How to do so? One easy way is to pump up the importance of what you’re selling. The more urgent you can make something plausibly seem, the more likely you are to get noticed.

I’d never try to get people to avoid reading new books. Good lord, I have gifted friends who write 'em, there’s a lot out there to be enjoyed and made use of, and I’m writing this posting as someone who’s himself hoping to write (and sell a few copies of) a new book some day.

But I’d love to see readers develop more wariness of those who’d make us feel that we have to read a new book. You don’t, folks, you really don’t; you’re out of school now. You in the mood for a new book? Do it for your own reasons, and for your own pleasure. Which may, of course, include such perfectly good reasons as “getting better educated," "broadening my horizons," and "checking out what my neighbor won't shut up about."

I’m curious to hear about any tips you have for arts fans.



posted by Michael at November 11, 2002


My tip for art fans is don't read new books, except for genre fiction.

It's already so much work to see the new movies, and listen to the new music, and eat the new foods, and drink the new cocktails (which seem to be mostly thinly disguised vodka shooters), and wear the new clothes to the new spots... it's all just too much work.

Use some old books, books you enjoyed in high school, to rest and recover from the strain of early adopting every damn thing that comes down the pike.

Posted by: es on November 11, 2002 8:26 PM

The best selling authors today, churn out their novels as if they were in a spaghetti factory. I think they write an outline and hire young eager writers fill in the details. They must love the money so much that they just want to keep raking the money in after their first novels succeeded. And the public are fools to keep buying all that trash. There are a few authors that I love - anything by Pat Conroy - anything by Robertson Davies - anything by John Mortimer - anything by Alice Munro. There are a few others. But anyone who loves a good story would love these authors.

Posted by: Rosalie Pfaff on November 11, 2002 9:25 PM

Somehow, I just knew DeLillo was gonna pop out at some point. I pretty much love everything he's written, except White Noise (which just made me burn the book in a hibachi on the back porch - it was a paperback, though, so no harm done.)

I wish I could find a "Two Year-Old Book Review" website, so I'd know that the fury of the publishing market wasn't the sole criteria for the book getting a review.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 11, 2002 9:43 PM

Mmmm, new books for sale! What I like most about new books is the smell... When you open up a new book, the fresh ink and paper smell is irresistable...

Fortunately for my pocketbook, the form that all the little inky squiggles take is not often irresistable. I agree in one respect; books worth reading are only worth reading if they appeal to yourself. Delilo's "White Noise" had a weird charm all it's own. "The Death of Vishnu" made me actually stop when I had finished it; even part way through. Although I am passionately fond of Umberto Eco, "The Island of the Day Before" remains many times begun, and never ended. So there.

I will read anything by Arturo Perez-Reverte. And, every year, I reread everything Jane Austen ever wrote.

Posted by: pinax on November 12, 2002 2:30 AM

It looks like you've rediscovered Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crud. Old books have the advantage of having been sorted through by your fellow human beings.

There may be at least one exception to people getting around to old books when they feel like it--they're presumably more likely to read an old book if a major movie or mini-series has been made of it. I don't know whether that effect persists.

Maybe genre books are a more reliable source of pleasure because there's a much lower proportion of the market who read them out of a sense of obligation? Perhaps I should be campaigning to keep science fiction in the gutter where it belongs rather than being pleased by the evidence of increasing respectibility.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on November 12, 2002 11:08 AM

I've found that with fiction, like music, tossing a new hit in amongst the old throws new and usually positive light on both. Yes, there are clunkers (I'm looking at you Jim Crace - you need a day job), but more often than not, something ends up surprising you. For instance, I really liked "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, even though it covers a topic I typically stay away from as though it were plutonium - the rape and murder of a child. The manner in which the topic is dealt with, and the artistry of the writing, make it a good read.

But, to the point of the post, these are voluntary choices. Mandatory reading, even that assigned by friends who want you to read the new book they love, is always tedious.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 12, 2002 1:44 PM

It sounds like you've all had your adventures in new-bookland, and have all come up with your own ways of dealing with it.

I find it sad that new books aren't placed in better context by the people discussing them -- the economics (understood in a sense that doesn't just include money, but also careers, prestige, self-satisfaction, etc) of writing, publishing and reading need to be better explored and understood.

The way books are discussed is often a terrible disservice to writers and readers both. Who hasn't had the experience of reading something that's been wildly praised, feeling let down by it, then a few weeks later thinking, Hmmm, you know, that wasn't really so bad. If only so much hadn't been made of it, I'd probably have had a pretty good time with it...

Here's hoping that discussions like this one begin to help people get their bearings.

Many thanks to all for their tips too.

Posted by: Michael on November 12, 2002 5:56 PM

I noticed a long time ago that the trade paperbacks I had bought were a lot more satisfying on average than the hardbacks I had rushed out to buy. So, a simple suggestion is to wait for a book to come out in paperback.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 12, 2002 6:35 PM

I've been thinking along the same lines myself. But we all know that movies are better if you see them on their opening weekend – why can't something analogous be true of books?

And then there's the dinner party syndrome: it's hard to talk interestingly about a book you read ten years ago; it's much easier to talk about something you read within the past few months. So you read the latest books because everybody else does, and then you all have something to talk about.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 13, 2002 12:52 PM

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