I have no clue how many books are published every year in America. Oxford University Press NY was closing in on 400 in 1997, the year I retired, an inconsequential number when compared to the Doubledays, Putnams and Knopfs, which churn them out like so many Saltines. The number must be in the multi-thousands — you can even buy sweatshirts that mourn, “So Many Books, So Little Time.” True, for books are locked in furious combat with so many movies, so many ballgames, so many Netflix, so many microbreweries, so many blogs, tweets, restaurants, columnists and naps. (Now that’s a lot of sweatshirts — So Many Sweatshirts, So Little Time, I suppose.) Life’s highway is in gridlock, with so many So Manys that it’s hard to find an open lane.
I try to absorb the book reviews, take friends’ suggestions, follow family recommendations, heed best-seller lists, notice when favorite authors strike again (Godspeed, Robert Parker) and obey book club pronouncements, but an awful lot of good books pass me right by as I wrestle with all the So Manys.
I just finished a book club selection that was published in 2009, a book I’d never even heard of, and a book that might replace another title on my 10 Best List. Colum McCann’s stunning language skills and intricate plot construction made “Let the Great World Spin” a reading experience that left me exhausted. New York City people — from Park Avenue, from the projects, from Greenwich Village, the courts and the streets — were shuffled into a book that was at once bleak, humorous, hopeless and hopeful. After about 80 pages I had that “what the heck’s happening?” feeling, a feeling that often causes me to give up, but McCann had snagged me, his writing insisting that I continue, which I did. Three thumbs up.
Here’s an idea: Why don’t you send me your 10 Best List? I’ll do a tally and report back. One might be the book that really started you reading, others those that made you laugh, or cry, or gasp, or learn. We’ll discover whether we’re Jane Austen or Danielle Steele people; William Faulkner and Edith Wharton or Richard Russo and Anna Quindlen. Feel free to be totally honest; I’ve said this before, but someone told me never to apologize for anything I read. (Although P.J. O’Rourke said, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.) My email’s below; subject: 10 Best.
A while back I wrote about the intrusive “of” — as in “not too big of a deal” — wondering where it had wandered in from. Well, the mystery is solved: It has divorced the word “couple” and moved on. I’d forgiven sportswriters for “Jones had a couple singles,” figured they were imitating Damon Runyon, breezy for the bar crowd. But then, in a certain five-pound Sunday newspaper, an editorial page writer began an article with “When a couple dozen brawny firemen…” I thought, “civilization has finally collapsed,” but now, after seeing it a couple times, I’m not going to make too big of a fuss.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.