"Of the making of many books," the United Parcel Service man said as he handed over six, "there is no end." He is up on his Scriptures and otherwise fond of reading, but there was a doubtful note in his voice.
He arrives each afternoon; the Parcel Post man comes each morning. The Parcel Post man is cheerfully discreet about his daily book load, but he is not unconcerned.
A few weeks ago, the woman who runs the health-food store next door came over with a packet of Japanese goldenrod. The Parcel Post man had spotted me in the drugstore across the street, refilling a prescription for eye drops, and he had passed the news along. Japanese goldenrod was good for eyestrain, she told me, and it didn't much matter whether you made tea out of it or used it as a compress.
Occupy a fixed spot in any real city for long enough, and you become part of a neighborhood; even if what you do is as unobtrusive as reading books all day.
The turn of the year marks two years since reviewing books for this newspaper became a full-time occupation. And the New Year is, by ceremony, a time for looking up from whatever you are doing for a moment, and considering it.
In the case of this particular reviewer, looking up has a margin of peril to it. With the wall shelves and the desk resembling Pompeii the day after the Last Days, the floor bears the overflow. The various piles have their intended purposes: books to be reviewed, books to be seriously considered, books to be unseriously considered, books to be read for the pointless fun of it, and great industrial hillocks of books intended less to be read than to be acquired as totems for health, psychic fulfillment, making money and so on.
There was a time, quite a few years ago, when I was a movie reviewer and another time, a little later, when I was a theater critic. They have their considerable differences, but nothing like the difference between either of them and writing about books.
Some of the differences may be obvious. Clearly, the hours of a book reviewer are infinitely better than the 10 a.m. movie screenings that used to be common. It was like eating stew for breakfast. Or the transportation and insomnia problems of the night-time theater critic. A book can can be read at any hour and any place.
That is an advantage, but there is a disadvantage, as well. Reviewing theater--or music or ballet--is a public activity. A film screening is at least semi-public. Sitting with an audience gives a measure of life; you are taking part in an event. You could, just conceivably, tell your children that you were in London to see Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in Pinter's "No Man's Land," or that you were in Cannes when Bergman's "The Magic Flute" had its premiere. Would I tell them that I was sitting among my book piles, possibly not having shaved, when I read the latest Ann Tyler?
There are other differences. Books and book reviews are both writing, though of different orders, and there is a certain ease in the relationship. It can be harder and sometimes more challenging to find words for the non-verbal elements of a film or a play. Conveying just what an actor is doing on stage is one of the most demanding of critical tasks. (For some reason, dealing with film acting is easier.)
But to me, the most striking difference is that film and theater critics--individually or, if there is more than one, collectively--confront just about every professional production that comes along. Book critics, whether they choose their books or whether the choice is made by an editor, deal only with a fraction of what appears. Well or badly, it is drastically screened.
In my own case, though I do not choose only books that I like, I do choose those that I expect to find interesting. The interest may turn out to be the outrage; or the failure or partial failure of the author to achieve an intention; or I may simply miscalculate my way into sludge. But in no way is it comparable to those days when, fortified with coffee, I would march off to see a Mylar monster film or the cinematic debut of a gemstone wholesaler's tax shelter.
The image of the crabby and infertile professional critic is an undying one. John Updike has a more subtle judgment; he compares reviewing to sailing inshore as against the open-sea exploits of the novelist. I like Updike's phrase, but I would add something else. A book that makes a mark calls for a response. It is exhilarating, after being moved by a work of art, to have to deal with it. It is the difference between admiring a breaking wave and riding it.
Even at the rate of a hundred books or so a year, the larger trends in the literary or publishing scene persist in crystallizing for me into individual recollections. Clearly, though, people are still writing fiction and nonfiction about the frontiers of the human condition; and often getting it published. If you look carefully, you will see closer to the turning edge of the Earth in at least a few books than you do in newspapers, magazines or television. Sometimes the place you have to look is in small presses, run on a little money and a good deal of heart. But the books are there. If you are a reviewer, you can find them and--it is the benefit in the game--help get them a hearing.