Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Dispatch from the NBCC’s Good Reads in Washington, DC


We’ve never had a National Book Critics Circle event in Washington, DC before, so you’ll have to forgive my breathless fangirl prose. As soon-to-be NBCC board member Scott McLemee said to me, his fellow panelist Ron Charles, and attendee David Kipen (we were gathered around Kipen’s ten-speed en route to piling my car, “We’ve established a beachhead; we need to keep the momentum going!”

Our NBCC Good Reads panel took place at the justly hallowed Politics & Prose Bookstore on Connecticut Avenue. We were introduced by co-owner (with Carla Cohen) Barbara Meade, who urged everyone in the audience to stick around for the evening reading with Booker winner Anne Enright. She was very kind in saying that only I could have brought this panel together; as I said to the assembled, I think they came out of respect for both P&P and the NBCC.

My panel: Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed, novelist and new book critic Louis Bayard, poet and Bread Loaf Conference head Michael Collier, and senior editor of The Washington Post Book World Ron Charles.  I’d like to thank them again here for being good, giving, and game about the whole process.

It’s never easy to recap an event that you’ve actually taken part in, but I’m going to try and remember a few high points. First, Mike Giarratano, Politics & Prose’s events coordinator did a great job of promoting the event – nearly every seat out was filled, and that’s no small feat for a sunny, 55-degree DC Saturday afternoon. There were about 30 people, and they stayed until long after the end of the panel, asking terrific questions and showing a lot of enthusiasm for books and recommendations in general.

One of my favorite questions (to start at the end) came from Kipen, who wondered if the NBCC Good Reads picks are too mainstream; what about indie presses? Not only did we all agree that there’s some terrific prose coming out from small publishers and university presses, we also talked a bit about whether or not NBCC Good Reads should include a category for graphic novels.

A few highlights:

McLemee admitted that his esoteric choices don’t really come from anyone, but he spoke so passionately about one title he’s currently reading that I got a little excited about it, even though it’s something I will probably never understand, let alone pick up…reminding me that one of the most important things we can do when recommending books is to care truly, madly, and deeply about the ones we choose to pass along.

Bayard said that while most of his reading concerns his (mainly) 19th-century research, he does get his recommendations from friends, and passed along one of those:  Reasons to Believe by John Marks, which he admires for the author’s ability to be clear-headed and generous to the “surprisingly heterogeneous” religious right…reminding me that one of the best things about recommendations is how they can surprise and lead us into areas we’d never otherwise discover.

Collier responded to an audience question about how to encourage kids to love reading by talking about surrounding them with books – and with people who spend time reading themselves. His best evidence was his anecdote about leaving his younger son at home, cozily engaged with Hobbes’s Leviathan…reminding me that recommended reading doesn’t mean light reading.

Charles admitted he’s rarely in synch with other people when it comes to reading because as a book review editor, he has to work three months in advance. I mentioned him of one book he’d reviewed favorably that I also liked, and neither of us could remember its title or its author (for the record, it was The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis by Michael Pritchett from Unbridled Books)…reminding me that one of the toughest things about making book recommendations is remembering them.

That brings me to a final moment: one audience member stopped me on my way out of the bookstore. She’d just finished a narrative nonfiction bestseller, and asked me if she should read the author’s next book. I said, no, don’t read it, you’ll be disappointed. OK, she replied – then what should I read next?

I was stumped (I gave her my email address and promised to come up with a few titles)…reminding me that our Good Reads program will help many people around the country choose their next books.

No doubt I’ve left out the really good bits, so I hope we’ll have the recording of the event available to you soon.

Bethanne Patrick is a member of the NBCC and writes The Book Maven blog for Publishers Weekly.