It’s a dubious milestone, but my review appearing in this edition of The Texas Observer marks my 75 published book review. Very few publications—and certainly none others in Texas—grant reviewers 1,500 words and the option of using crass language for emphasis. Reviewing books is not glamorous work but, thanks to the fact that Karen Olsson handed me a book off the TO shelf three years ago and said “Do this for us,” I’ve come to learn that reading and writing about books is as close to intellectual nirvana as I’m likely to get. Don’t be fooled, though: I’m still just a reviewer—not a critic. But I’m an addicted reviewer with enough persistence that someday I might—perhaps after someone has had a lot to drink or maybe confused me with someone else—be referred to as a “critic.” And that, I must admit, would be way fucking cool.
I want to mention a couple of habits that I’ve cultivated to survive as a compulsive reviewer because, every now and then, people ask what it’s like to review books compulsively while keeping a full-time academic job and teaching my 2-year old son to aim his pee into the potty. To begin with, I’ll be blunt: Lacking anything as convenient as natural talent, I generally have to work ridiculously hard. I have to be compulsive because I’m simply not smart enough to be casual. Which means a couple of things:
First, because my son’s emotional attachment to a televised mouse named Maisy is too powerful for me to defenestrate the 1990 Sony I’ve banished to a stuffy corner of the house, I’ve ignored the advice of my own bumper sticker: KILL YOUR TELEVISION. But I don’t watch TV. Ever. I hear it, sometimes, squawking from that stuffy corner of the house, but I genuinely loathe it as a waste of time. “But,” I’m always told, “you’re missing sooooo many great shows.”
Perhaps. But there are too many books to read and, call me a narrow-minded twit, but the sacred act of reading is inherently more gratifying than the sullied act of following images that pull our manufactured thoughts down sordid paths of ignorance. One activity makes you furrow your brow and rub your chin, the other makes you drool and go cross-eyed. I’ve even been tempted to write angry letters to airport directors when blaring televisions in waiting areas interrupt my reading. I haven’t. But I would if I had the time because, damn it, there should be a law.
I have two little kids that I’m trying to raise into committed secular humanists and a relatively small house in which to do it. Thus the second aspect of my chronic reviewing habit involves reading and writing at odd hours and sleeping well below the recommended daily allowance of shut-eye.
More often then not I’m up at 5 a.m. My coffee is already brewed because my politically incorrect German coffee machine is equipped with a timer (which I set at 4:57 a.m.) that hasn’t failed once in 10 years. I pour a cup, make it light and sweet, grab my book, sink into my chair, and work. The brain is a nimble organ in the precious hours before sunrise. I find myself making the sorts of connections and enjoying insights rarely experienced later in the day. The isolation, the squeak of my leather chair, the pale light filtering through darkness, the click of laptop keys, and that unmistakable moment when the caffeine hits blood—these are the thrills that keep me from crawling back into bed and behaving like a normal human being.
So that’s how I get it done. But I worry about how long I’ll be able to keep doing it. While my faith in TO remains resolute (I’ve published over a third of my reviews in these pages), the business of reviewing books is a dying art. The most obvious cause, of course, is shrinking journalistic real estate. Locally speaking, Texas’ daily papers publish competent Books pages every Sunday. The imperatives of advertising, however, are forcing them to rely on staff writers burdened with other beats to hack out reviews while the books sections wither. (Here in Austin, you can read weekly columns about “a girl walks into a bar” and “faith matters” but nary a remote column on the wonderful world of books.) The city’s “alternative” paper has virtually gutted its books section, publishing an occasional 300-word blurb on a title marred by a “hipper than thou” style of writing. Texas Monthly, the Texas Review of Books, and Southwestern American Literature continue to churn out serious writing about serious books, providing welcome glimmers of hope. But these glimmers are increasingly fading into a landscape already illuminated by the glare of 24-hour television.
The pages might be shrinking, but the audience isn’t. Reviewing books hardly cultivates a vast following but fairly often I’ll get an earful. Reviewing Jane Kramer’s Lone Patriot, an investigative look into Washington State’s militia movement, I trashed the freak-o lunatics who were stockpiling weapons in preparation for the “guvment’s” impending raid on their well-armed compound. The day the review ran I was deluged with angry messages from folks with e-mail addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com threatening to do things to me that I won’t even ask the editors of TO to print.
But at least they were reading, I thought, as my wife and I discussed unlisting our phone number. I’ll also never forget when I panned a book on Donald Barthelme. It was perhaps the harshest review I’ve ever written. It was also one of the sloppiest books I’ve ever read. Trouble was that the writer was one of Barthelme’s ex-wives, a cute little old woman whose intentions were as pure as the driven snow. Even more troubling was that she had died right before the book came out, thereby making it look like I was, you know, pissing on some sweet old lady’s grave. The series editor (in addition to a dozen other angry readers) wrote me an e-mail suggesting that urinating on the dearly deceased was exactly what I had done. I responded by asking if he found my critiques legitimate. To my amazement, in so many words, he said he did, and then launched into a confession about all the editing problems he had with the author. Nevertheless, he concluded, I could have backed off a bit. Disingenuous, I insisted. But hey, at least he didn’t threaten to gouge out my intestines and feed them to his pigs like firstname.lastname@example.org promised to do. And again, at least he read the review and took it seriously.
On a final note, I’ve always felt a little odd reviewing so many books having never written one myself. Next spring, however, my first book will come out. I suspect it might get a review or two. In the course of writing it, I made sure to do what I’ve consistently expected other authors to do: Write clean prose, make sure the argument holds water, inform while entertaining, and remember that what’s left out is as critical as what goes in.
Some authors say they never read reviews of their own work. I not only intend to read the reviews but to study them under a microscope. And should some low-life, pea brained reviewer have the gall to sass my hard-earned achievement, well… I’ll probably threaten to feed his intestines to the pigs. Then again, maybe I should just be thankful that someone gave him the space to be sassy.
James E. McWilliams wants to make sure that readers know that his TV does not have cable.