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The Reading Life

Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot and other wonders in a critic's mailbox

July 01, 2013|By David L. Ulin | Book Critic
  • What treasures await in the padded envelopes in a book critic's mailbox?
What treasures await in the padded envelopes in a book critic's mailbox? (Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles…)

I love the mail. For more years than I care to say, it’s been a source of serendipity: an array of books, magazines and journals -- something to which I look forward every day. The mail is also, it should go without saying, essential to how I do my job.

I rely on the books that arrive in my mailbox. Right now, along one wall of my home office, there are five tall stacks of advance reading copies, waiting for me to think about what I want to write and what I do not want to write, what I'm going to review.

I get something like 100 books a week, and often, the bulk ends in a discard pile, waiting by the front door. Partly, this is a matter of survival -- how much reading can one person do? -- but even more, it has to do with interest, with engagement, with the sheer volume of books that are published and sent out, an unending monologue in print, a blur.

For a writer, that can be humbling -- to see how continuous is our torrent of printed language, to understand how unlikely it is that anyone will notice what we do. At the same time, it’s also liberating because if it offers any lesson, it is to follow your instincts, to write what you want and let serendipity (that word again) take care of the rest.

And yet, there are times the glut narrows to a trickle, and we uncover astonishing books. Such was the case Saturday, when the mail yielded a new translation of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (one of the most remarkable novellas in literature), a collection of essays by the Belgian writer Simon Leys (with the brilliant title “The Hall of Uselessness”), a new volume of short fiction by the woefully under-recognized Aurelie Sheehan and a facsimile first edition of T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," with an introduction by Paul Muldoon.

Quite a haul, eh? That's what I thought as I took the books out of their padded mailers, made a small stack on the table in the dining room. One by one, I paged through them, feeling that familiar pressure of anticipation, a sensation nothing short of visceral. This is what I love about books, that they light up both my guts and my imagination: language, narrative given physical form.

All of a sudden, I didn’t want to do anything with my weekend but stretch out on the couch and read. Which is, of course, another reason why I love the mail.

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