I like to read several books at a time–usually a "literary" novel, a mystery novel (for times when I’m too tired to read the literary novel) and a nonfiction book. In my search for literature, I’ve noticed (especially when we lived in New York) how a certain book becomes–for no logical reason I’ve been able to discern–the "flavor of the month." Extolled as one of the "best novels ever written," it turns up in reviews, in newspaper and magazine articles and seems to be on everyone’s lips (in big cities, anyway), whether they’ve read it or not. People seem to think that if they read enough reviews, they can discuss the book (and sometimes I catch them at this).
This happened one time when a guest on "Coast" said he loved Whitley’s first novel, "The Wolfen," and had read it several times. He said he especially liked the Indians in the novel. We happened to be in the studio visiting George Noory at the time, and I doubled over with silent laughter when I heard this, because there are NO INDIANS in the book–they’re only in the movie.
I can sometimes understand why more people talk about these books than read them, because many of them are downright unreadable. I’ve learned how to judge whether or not I’ll like a book (besides picking one by an author I know I enjoy): I read the cover blurbs, then read a few pages, and I can’t tell you how many of these "highly touted" novels I’ve rejected because I found the writing style to be turgid, overly wordy and boring.
I attend two reading clubs right now, but my heart belongs to the reading club I belonged to in Texas. It’s been going for over a hundred years now, and is structured differently from most clubs: Instead of everyone reading the same book and discussing it, a committee chooses a theme for the year and assigns everyone a book based on it. Each person presents a paper on her book, and since there are 30 people in the club, there are 30 papers presented every year.
Coming to Texas from "sophisticated" New York, I felt haughty around these women at first, but then I recognized that this was a situation of "The Emperor’s New Clothes." In that fable, an emperor is flattered into thinking that he’s wearing beautiful clothes when he’s really parading around naked–and he thus becomes a laughingstock.
I found that, away from the East Coast literary gossip, these ladies had refreshing viewpoints about what they read–and most of the time, I found myself agreeing with them.
For instance, a highly-praised author who writes about the gritty side of the Old West in largely unreadable Spanglish (a combination of English and Spanish), including incidents of murder and even cannibalism, did not impress the lady who was assigned this novel. She pronounced it "the most horrible book I’ve ever read," and having paged through several of his books, I agreed with her.
Another novelist–a South African woman who wrote about the evils of apartheid–was dismissed as "boring" by the lady who presented a paper about her. I was inclined to agree with her, too–whenever I read another glowing review of this writer in the New York Times, I would run to the bookstore and look through her new book, but I never could get interested enough to buy one of them. The "Times" was reviewing her IDEAS, not her actual books.
Another female novelist who wins all sorts of prizes and accolades–and who seems to turn out several books a year–has never turned me on. I find her metaphors forced and insufferable, and the lady who was assigned one of her novels did too. "The Emperor’s New Clothes" Again!
After reading "The Help," I loved it so much that, on an upcoming trip to San Antonio, I took the dust jacket along, so that I could show it to all my reading club friends and urge them to read it. But I needn’t have bothered: They’d all read it already. They knew a fun, RELEVANT book when they saw one.
These ladies taught me something: I never go into a bookstore feeling there are certain books I "have" to buy anymore. I still read book reviews, but I’ve learned HOW to read them–I look for "buzz words" that tell me whether or not the reviewer is being honest about what he or she has read.
I’ve also learned more about how literature works: People who teach it in colleges have to publish a novel now and then in order to keep up their status (and maybe get tenure), so they give each other good cover "blurbs" and reviews. I’ve learned how these cover blurbs work: Publishers choose other writers–usually from their own "stable"–who write the same kind of books as the author of the book whose cover they are gracing. This means that blurbs are worth paying attention to, but not worth taking too seriously, because often writers do each other a favor by blurbing each others’ books (and just as often, they don’t even read them).
A funny little aside about the Texas reading club was that it turned out to be the most status-y little club in town, because it was limited to 30 members. Whitley and I were often snubbed there after he wrote his "Communion" books, despite the fact that he came from an old Texas family with members that had even fought at the Alamo (the ultimate status in San Antonio). So when I caught some nasty gossiper giving me the cold shoulder at a cocktail party, I would casually drop an offhand remark about the reading club, and it always got their attention.
I never felt snubbed or slighted by the ladies IN the club, even though they comprised the "inner circle" of San Antonio society and I was a rawboned, stumbling newcomer. If I was one of the members, I was unconditionally accepted. I like to think that reading does this–if you really READ the books you like, you learn a lot about what’s important and what isn’t. In other words, literature makes us better people.