Thursday, May 21, 2009

Beware the Pine-Tree's Withered Branch

There is a pause, a strange, still quite between the flash and the boom. When I was a boy, I was taught to count the seconds between the two, each second, as I recall, was meant to tell how many miles away the lightening hit. Thunder storms are quite common where I grew up. Not so much here. Rain, oh yes, but thunder storms seem not to figure as they did back East. We used to watch the progress of summer rain, not just the clouds you understand but the actual rain and lightening, as it moved across fields and roads, as the storm fell like a curtain hiding first this farm then that house and on until it came up to where we were. It came up fast when it came, impossible to quite believe or anticipate. A storm back home seemed always to be moving slowly until it was on you and by then you were wet to the skin, running, always a minute too late if you were little to outrun the storm. Here, on Tuesday night, while I was working my late shift, I did not think to count the seconds after the flash. There was, so far as I saw, just the one but it was big and bright. I had time to comment to my coworker at the desk, "Was that lightening?" and be told it probably wasn't, before the boom rattled us both. The thunder-clap was stunningly loud.

Today, when I got home, there were more than eight packages waiting for me. I haven't opened them yet. All books, I know. It isn't as if getting free books in the mail isn't still exciting because it is and will be for as long as my time on the review committee lasts. I haven't opened the packages yet because I simply do not want to look at, let alone stack, let alone read these books. I may be wrong to think this way, but my experience last year taught me to not anticipate, at least not this early in the review process, that every book I get this early on will be a book I will remember, happily or no, come the first meeting of my committee in September. Moreover, I would be hard pressed now to tell you the names of more than three of the books I read before September last year. I know there were good books among those I'd read by June, but I don't remember a single title.

What happens is that the books start coming again almost as soon as the committee finishes its consideration for the year. The first books that come, come singly, or in bundles if the books are children's titles, from small presses and large, and as these come in, I read them. I may not have to read all of a book to know I will not be championing it when the committee finally meets. The rule, and it is not a bad one for the adult categories, is that picking up a book, of whatever description, means that I am willing to read at least the first thirty pages. I've stuck to the rule so far, even reading the kid's titles to date, despite making it a firm rule for myself that there will be others on the committee far more willing to read the children's books and all the YA (young adult, a category of book in which I adamantly disbelieve, ranking it somewhere below "National Buttermilk Week" and "Bring Your Turtle to Work Day" in the scheme of useless human commercial invention.)

But my commitment to duty, and my interest in even opening packages from publishers, begins to waver almost as soon as the first twelve to twenty books I've yet to read have started piling up under my desk. There is a growing resentment, come Spring, when I have to put down a book I'm actually reading, to try another dozen I've received for consideration by the committee. I was raised in such a way that not reading nearly everything that's arrived before the committee meets makes me hang my head in shame. My nature is such though that I can not do this without lengthy procrastination, if not the outright avoidance I'm practicing tonight in actually ignoring the books that came just today.

This, you see, is the first real flash of the coming storm. There must be more than a dozen, perhaps as many as two dozen books sitting, still wrapped, on my entry-way table. Having misunderstood the process last year, when I was serving for the first time, I actually began to wonder, just about this time in April, if I had somehow fallen off the mailing list, if only the smallest publishers of pointlessly uninspired memoir, self-indulgent first fiction and hideously illustrated if ponderously earnest picture books still had my name. Then one or two good books would come, in little bursts, and I would be reassured of my continued participation. Nothing life changing you understand, but something of which I would be inclined to read more than the first thirty to fifty pages. I remember vividly getting a book, fairly early on that I actually thought enough of to write a staff recommendation for the bookstore where I work. That was a happy moment. It passed. I was by no means prepared for the number of books that started coming come Spring. Flash.

Some time thereafter, I did not count the seconds or the days, the progress of the review copies to my doorstep became noticeably heavier, or at least more regular. And then the books seemed to fall from the sky all at once, catching me unprepared. Boom.

Not so suddenly or subtly reminded of my responsibilities, I then entered a period of serious, sustained reading for a purpose other than my own. I read book after book, more and more to the end. I read about building a boat, about sailing alone around the world, about forestry and ecology, about hunting buffalo, about fish. Some of the books I read last year, in fact a surprising number of them, were really quite good. A few were exceptionally good.

I don't regret for a minute the opportunity this committee has been for me, and how it has forced me to exercise interest in subjects, such as the brief list above, about which I have not the slightest curiosity. I will admit, I do resent, even now, the number of published writers producing books, good bad and indifferent books, every year, at least the books that meet the minimum requirements for consideration by the committee on which I now serve, but that is a selfish caveat, not a statement of any principle, ecological or cultural.

I don't even really regret the many bad books of which I read only the first thirty pages. These at least allowed me to feel I was doing a service, not only to the committee or to the organization that sponsors it, but to the English speaking world as a whole, every time I voted "No" in our preliminary discussions. That was almost always the easiest part of the task. The "Maybe" category was the most work, consisting as it did of books that weren't so unfortunate as to call up a righteous rejection after thirty pages, but were not so good after fifty or one hundred as to make me not resent having gone on to finish reading them. Now that felt very much like a waste of time.

The best books, as determined not by me but by the committee as a whole, were none of them books I was embarrassed by or less than enthusiastic to see on the final list -- though one made it onto the short list that made me wish I had the power to reverse time, go back and prevent its publication, let alone our consideration of the book -- and there were books, in the end, I was very proud to have personally championed.

But those are not the kind of books I'm anticipating in the unopened packages upstairs tonight. I may be wrong. Remains to be seen. For tonight though, I'm just going to read another Orwell essay from the Folio Society set I bought recently, and go to bed. My duty will not be assumed tonight. I've seen the flash. This year I may not wait for the boom. I suspect I probably will though. The clouds are gathering darkly, even as I retire.

One Mississippi.

Two Mississippi.

Three Mississippi...

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