Critical Mass

Dispatch from the Good Reads in Miami


FEBRUARY 5th may have been a good day for John McCain, and a frustrating one for Hillary Clinton and Barck Obama, who remain in a dead heat, but at Books & Books bookstore it was a Super Tuesday for books and reading.

When the National Book Critics Circle, asked me to moderate a panel on “recommending books,” I said agreed with alacrity. I’m always up for a book discussion, especially if I’m in charge of the microphone. But in truth, even with a panel consisting of gifted writers Edwidge Danticat (Brother, I’m Dying), Ana Menendez (Loving Che), Diana Abujaber (The Language of Baklava), and Connie Ogle, the book editor at the Miami Herald, I thought we’d be lucky to get 12 or 15 people.

Instead, we had a packed house—more than a hundred people, Mitchell Kaplan, store owner and all-around South Florida cultural institution, told me afterward. Imagine: 100 people, smart and engaged, who could have been home watching the primary returns, or surfing the internet, or watching reruns of, oh, I don’t know, Desperate Housewives or something, came out on a Tuesday night for a discussion about recommending the books.

The discussion from the panel ranged widely, beginning with how we, as writers or book reviewers, choose books to recommend to people. The writers all tended to recommend books of their own taste, while the critics seemed more liable to recommend books according to the taste of the reader on the recieving end.

We talked—and talked—about about books that had influenced us as children, books we had come back to at a later time of life, the art of blurbing. I tend to recommend either recent books by contemporary writers, or ancient books out in new editions—The Bible, Gilgamesh, The Gnostic Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The books discussed covered the gamut, from Stephen King’s entertaining and highly accomplished new supernatural thriller, Duma Key, to the more sedate and challenging rewards of W.G. Sebald. I picked up some books for my own private reading list—Masters of the Dew, by Jacques Roumain; The Zero, by Jess Walter; The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz; Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; Diary of a Bad Year, by J.M. Coetzee.

Poets weren’t ignored either (Neruda, Charles Wright), nor was children’s fiction (Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, among them.)

And I heartily endorse Connie’s persistant championing of novelist Andrea Barrett, and I got my pitch in for J.R.R. Tolkein, H.P. Lovecraft, and Lord Dunsany, fantasists of lasting value whose work I love now more than when I read them as a kid.

It seemed we had barely scratched this topic when Debra Linn, a cruel woman who works for Mitch, prized my fingers one-by-one from the microphone so people could go home. Even so, many stayed after to talk to the writers.

This event is meant to draw attention not only to reading, but also to the efforts of the National Book Critics Circle to keep passion alive for books in an age when the Internet is happily chewing civilization into baby food.

Go here for the NBCC’s current Good Reads list of recommended books.

Meantime, what are some of the books you’re recommending to friends and family?

Chauncey Mabe is book editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. This column originally appeared on his blog, Off the Page.