So Many Books,
So Little Time
A Year of Passionate Reading
(Putnam)I think it is fair to describe So Many Books, So Little Time as a literary Tobacco Road. It's quick, and trashy, and has more than a hint of incest. It's obviously something that Nelson and her agent cooked up while having a power lunch at The Four Seasons. One can hear the gears clanking, the wheels turning, the pumps groaning: People who like to read books are going to be people who like to read books about people who read books, she opines. I love it! he purrs."Mark Reiter ... saw the possibilities in a book about reading almost before I did," she reports in her acknowledgments. The agent's aboard, how about a publisher? "My editor, Neil Nyren ... generously jumped at the chance to publish it." All her many friends at Glamour and The New York Observer think it's a corking good idea.So she wades through a year's worth of books, slaps a manuscript together in a few weeks, and with her many connections in the Manhattan publishing stew pot, we know this one is going to go to the top of the heap.
However, we reviewers, those us of outside the cappuccino belt, find ourselves with a burdensome problem amidst all this razz-a-ma-tazz. It is that Ms. Nelson --- how can I say this in a genteel fashion? --- is a stinky writer.There are, for example, 19 I's and 10 my's or me's on page 78. There are 20 on page 103, 12 on the less than half-page 36 --- and on pages 4 and 5, when I went back to check, I lost count. This disease is known to editors as I-itis. Not Ileitis. I-itis. It is endemic in the writers of a tiny, crowded area where the infection rages non-stop, a jungly place called mid-town Manhattan. It isn't fatal, usually --- but it is highly contagious to artists, writers, editors and other poseurs who infest the area.
Nelson also has a problem with parenthesis. She metes them out endlessly and tiresomely. It's too bad she didn't spend some time with the elegant H. W. Fowler who might have done wonders for her style. In Modern English Usage, he says "...the parenthesis is as disconcerting as a pebble that jars one's teeth in a mouthful of plum pudding."
Then there are the throw-aways. This is Nelson's take, complete, on the great and grave Adlai Stevenson: "What was it about that guy?" On Madame Bovary: a friend of hers "never knew Emma commits suicide." Norman Mailer? He's "a dancing bear." That's it for one who wrote one of the great books of WWII --- changed, probably forever, our view of the life --- and death --- of the foot-soldier.
Finally, there are her very words. "His folly was revealed in some meet-cute way." Hello? "I'm not much of a foodie," she reveals while reviewing Kitchen Confidential. Then what are you? "I'm a sauce-on-the-sider." She tries to keep away from "those open cellar-step things," whatever they may be. She does, thank god, admit to being a bodice-ripper. "You know how bodice-rippers always say things like 'every waking hour was consumed by thoughts of ... him.'" Never having been a bodice-ripper meself --- nor even a sauce-on-the-sider --- I have to pass on this one, Sara.
§ § §
It looks like a book, it smells like a book, but So Many Books is something else again. It's one of those dump-barges, filled with all that leftover detritus, drifting around, smoking too much, emitting a funny smell. So Many Books lists over a hundred titles that could be described with reverence or, alternatively, dissected with wit. In Cold Blood? "Never read it, never --- if you can believe it --- saw the movie," Nelson grunts. Walt Whitman? "I remain chronically, deeply poetry-challenged," she whines. Disgrace? "...[A] surprisingly readable novel about racism and family in South Africa." Which leaves one with the thought that books about racism and family in South Africa mostly will not, in the course of human events, be readable --- so eat your heart out Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Peter Abrahams, Athol Fugard. "I even liked Sabbath's Theatre. So sue me." Sorry, Sara --- we just ran out of lawyers. And patience.
Anyone who presumes to be one of the literati yet who only made it to page three in Ellison's astounding Invisible Man and merely to page one in Ulysses has got such a bad case of bodice-ripping smugness that we must begrudge the fact we gave this one a minute's time, much less a whole review.--- Lolita Lark