Four hundred books in six months. Why?

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Nov. 25 2002 6:17 PM

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A National Book Award judge defends his honor.

To read Michael Kinsley's response, click here.

Judging the National Book Awards is a singular honor: No one is ever asked to serve twice. And the experience of reading hundreds of books in a few months is equally unique. I, for one, took a kind of guilty pleasure in reading so many good books. I wish my fellow judge, Michael Kinsley, had had the same pleasure.

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In an editorial published first in Slate and then in the Washington Post, Kinsley announced that he had read very few of the books nominated for the nonfiction prize. As chair of that panel, I would argue that he has demeaned not only the hard work of his fellow judges, but also the winner of this year's award, Robert Caro, whose biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate, is an important addition to the tradition of political literature and a gripping read.

When the nonfiction panel met on Nov. 20 to decide the winner, Michael Kinsley cast his vote for Robert Caro with the rest of us. I was under the impression that he had finished the book. However, we now know that Kinsley dislikes books and prizes. In his defense, he claims that too much nonfiction is published—a sentiment certain to rile anyone who has traveled to countries where books must pass government sanction or where there is not enough money to sustain the publishing industry. Even in our own country, serious literature has trouble getting a hearing. While I have far more love for books than for prizes, I believe in the work our panel undertook—with or without Mr. Kinsley's help. His failure to read more books represents an abdication of responsibility—and a cynicism about the literary enterprise. When was the last time someone boasted in print of not doing his job? Which raises the question: Why did he agree to judge the National Book Award?

I chose to serve on this panel not for reasons of vanity—who remembers a judge?—but for the chance to read widely and discuss my findings with other serious readers. Thus, long after midnight, I found myself engrossed in a profile of a writer's mentor, a biography of a German poet, a study of how the mind works—books that ordinarily I might not have found time to read. And part of the pleasure of our biweekly conference calls was hearing my colleagues' discoveries. From our discussions about what makes a book work, I learned enough about the craft of nonfiction to last a lifetime. A former judge told me her service on the nonfiction panel had deepened her sense of artistry. What I noted, in particular, was the variety of subjects that American writers tackled, from manners to murder and everything in between. In histories and biographies, in memoirs and works of political analysis, travel, science, and nature, writers had synthesized vast amounts of information and argument, in traditional or innovative narrative forms. The books that made the deepest impression on me were the ones that revealed some part of our world in a new way—explaining how things work, for example, or recounting journeys into unexplored or forgotten realms, or meditating on an idea that may one day become central to our identity.

As for Kinsley's reluctance to judge the literary merits of these books: Isn't this what we do at every turn as readers? When we share impressions of a book, we do so to clarify our own aesthetic instincts. Of course judging reinforces a meritocracy. "The Soul selects her own Society," Emily Dickinson wrote. Ideally, a book award helps that selection process. Life is too short to spend reading bad books; if we succeed in steering readers toward what we considered to be the best book this year, then we have performed a service. Like critics, judges winnow the wheat from the chaff, with only their taste to guide them. Here I will second Kinsley's remark that another panel of judges would have come up with a different list of finalists: We are human, after all.

It may be, as Kinsley asserts, that no one in Washington has time to read books—although our last president was an avid reader, and the current first lady has described "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov as her favorite passage of writing. But where I live, books are read cover to cover and argued over in classrooms and at cocktail parties. Another reason to honor The Master of the Senate: Long after the pundits and politicians leave the precincts of power, Caro's writing will delight and instruct readers.

Did I read every page of every book? Of course not. That would be impossible. But I read enough of each book to know whether it merited further consideration. And what I will remember of the judging process is the glee I felt each day at the sight of dozens of books piled on my doorstep, each an invitation to embark on a new journey. "I have traveled much, in Concord," Thoreau wrote. In these past months of reading, I traveled much, in America—an endlessly intriguing place. What a pity that Michael Kinsley did not make the voyage.

******

Michael Kinsley responds:

Chris Merrill surprises me as much as, I guess, I surprised him. At every meeting we had over the past few months, there was joking about the flood of books and the impossibility of reading them all. Just to be clear, I did read the five finalists, including at least turning every page of the Caro. Of the other 397 or so, I read all of some, dipped into others to varying degrees, and merely glanced at many. A few I didn't even open. No doubt I was the least diligent member of the panel, but I'm pretty certain this general summary fits all of us. No one claims to have read all 402, or even 201, in their entirety. Chris Merrill, our chairman, says, "I read enough of each book to know whether it merited further consideration." Me, too. Sometimes that was none at all.

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