Shorter <em>New York Times Book Review</em>

Reading it so you don’t have to …..

A full-page ad hawking Toni Morrison’s new line of handsome paperback editions of her novels “with deeply personal forewords reflecting on each work.” (I’ve never been able to finish the first chapter of a Toni Morrison novel. Maybe it’s just me.)

An ad for a new book called How to Have Children with Perfect Teeth. And, no, it’s not about genetic manipulation (I don’t think).

A review of a first novel by a Brit named Paul Burston called Shameless. The novel’s about the gay dating scene, so the title is absolutely appropriate. Apparently the problem with the book (although not a problem for the reviewer, who thinks it’s just dandy) isn’t its title but its content; the reviewer says the book “makes the gay singles scene ‘cute’” (the gay singles “scene” is about the farthest thing from “cute” imaginable) and that the author/narrator is comparable to “Bridget Jones’ gay brother.” Oh, great. Just what we need.

Reviews of four collections of short stories, kind of a departure for the NYTBR. One is by Julian Barnes (“helps sustain a reader’s faith in literature as the truest form of assisted living”), another by E.L. Doctorow (“His is a reasonable imagination”), and one by David Foster Wallace (“Too often he sounds like a hyperarticulate Tin Man”). One is a first collection by a Canadian writer named David Bezmozgis (“The collection is appealingly anthropological”).

A review of the first volume of the letters of Isaiah Berlin, published by Cambridge University Press (“Merely as a human story, Berlin’s life was astonishing”).

Reviews of a book about the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga (” … on Oct. 14, 1976, screams pierced the warm, inky Tongan night”) and a book about abuse at a school for the mentally disabled in Waltham, MA, in the 1950s (“documents the Dickensian abuse daily endured by the boys at Fernald and its consequences”).

Last but not least, a very odd essay by Cristina Nehring titled “Books Make You a Boring Person.” Her thesis is that book lovers are dull, pathetic, desiccated snobs, which is curious considering that her essay has been published in what is arguably the single publication that panders to more book snobs than any other in the world. Is it because she shops at Barnes & Noble that she is so bitter? Would a trip to Borders improve her mood? (" ‘Absolutely not,’ I wanted to yell, and fling my Barnes & Noble bag at his feet. Instead, I mumbled something apologetic and melted into the crowd.")

Here’s her key graf:

There’s a new piety in the air: the self-congratulation of book lovers. Long considered immune to criticism by virtue of being outnumbered by channel surfers, Internet addicts, video maniacs and other armchair introverts, bookworms have developed a semi-mystical complacency about the moral and mental benefits of reading. “Books Make You a Better Person,’’ a banner outside a Los Angeles school proclaims. Books keep kids off drugs. They keep gang members out of prison. They keep terrorists, for all we know, at the gates …. To be a reader these days is to be a sterling member of society, a thoughtful and sensitive human being, a winner.

Actually, come to think of it, this may be her key point:

Books were a mixed bag, and they still are. Books could be used or misused, and they still can be.

Which, is, um, enlightening. Wow. I never knew that a book could be “misused” before. Gee.

“Even a hint of idolatry disables the mind,” Nehring sonorously and pompously intones, reminding us finger-waggingly to be critical readers while making a golden calf of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she quotes three times in the space of two paragraphs. (She also ignores any discussion of a topic that Emerson would have found vital, namely, what is it that books are supposed to do to us? Is reading a book or other text merely a one-sided proposition? Nehring appears to think so.)

Best of all, Nehring is a whiz at straw-man argument. “Perhaps the best lesson of books is not to venerate them—or at least never to hold them in higher esteem than our own faculties, our own experience, our own peers, our own dialogues,” she warns.

I have not met a single person, book-lover or not, who does that, but maybe I don’t know the people that Nehring claims to know. She says, “We all know people who use a text the way others use Muzak: to stave off the silence of their minds.” Maybe that’s how Nehring uses a text, but I doubt that anybody I know uses any text that way. If anything, books help “stave off” the over-hyper amphetamination of modern culture: they still a mind that is too jumbled with facts and sensory input from cell phones and websites and TiVos to settle down. Books are a meditative experience, not a filling-the-emptiness experience.

“If only we [would] disperse the pious fog that is gathering around book culture,” Nehring sighs. Well, I’d rather have a “pious” book culture any day of the week—a culture that at least makes a pretense of still respecting intellect and history—than what passes for culture in this age of reality TV, screeching pundits, and teen-flick glut, but I suppose that makes me a dull snob.

I can’t speak for myself, not being objective (maybe I do over-venerate books), but the people I work with, go to school with, and am friends with, and most acquaintances I have met, love books for all the usual reasons: books are a complement to life, they make life much richer, they help make life understandable and better to negotiate, but they are obviously no substitute for life, and I have never met anyone who thinks or professes that they are.