Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's the season of book fairs -- and guilt -- Sept. 13, 2012 column


In the 21st Century spirit of blabbing personal secrets, I’m going to tell you something.

That book I happily bought last September at the National Book Festival on the National Mall, the one I had to have after listening to the author talk about his years of hard work, the book I stood in line in the sweltering sun for him to sign?

That book I then put on the table next to my reading chair by the window?

It’s still there. Unopened and, yes, unread.

It’s not about him or his 700 well wrought pages. It’s about me. I just wasn’t that into it. I put it on the table with every good intention but after a while had to stack books on top to muffle its reproachful cries whenever I walked past.

Months passed, I read other books, magazines and newspapers but never tackled the one book I’d imagined as my erudite companion through the long, snowy winter. But last winter was mild. Could global warming have stolen my book enthusiasm?

That’s silly. Besides, as an anxiety producer, books-I -haven’t-gotten-to-yet is a large category. But it’s hardly the only one that makes me break out in hives of literary remorse. Earnest interviews with authors on C-SPAN’s Book-TV, books I start and put down, even lists of books everyone ought to read exacerbate my unread-book guilt.

This year, it got so bad that when the Library of Congress in June issued its list of Books That Shaped America, I refused to look, fearing I’d feel worse.

I was wrong.

The library chose 88 books that chronicle a wide range of American history, literature and popular culture. The earliest volume is Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” in 1751. The latest: “The Words of Cesar Chavez,” 2002.

Note that the list is not titled THE Books that Shaped America. The library intentionally omitted the article “the” to indicate that the list is a starting point, says Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

“It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this list or not,” Billington said.

Not a list from On High but a list designed to spark a national conversation? That’s refreshing.

The eclectic selection includes the obligatory “Moby-Dick” but also such how-to titles as “The Joy of Cooking” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and “History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark,” by Meriwether Lewis made the list, but so did “Gone With the Wind,” “Goodnight Moon” and “Tarzan of the Apes.”

Why 88 titles? The library thought choosing 10 or 25 or 100 would have indicated finality. The list is a work in progress. Plus, 88 books fit in the exhibit space.

The exhibit at the Library of Congress closes Sept. 29, but you don’t need to come to Washington to see Books That Shaped America. It’s online at

Be sure to take the quick survey and give the library your own suggestions for future lists. Send me your thoughts too. I’d love to hear them.

I have my candidates that didn’t make the list, and many that did I’v e not yet read. It’s nice to know others suffer unread-book anxiety.

A cartoon in the Sept. 3 New Yorker showed two guys at the beach. One, reading a big book, is only a little way into it. The other guy says, “I got tired of ‘Moby-Dick’ taunting me from my bookshelf, so I put it on my Kindle and haven’t thought of it since.”

Aha! Expiation by gadget – perfect.

But wait a minute. There’s no “read-by” expiration date on books. And unlike with e-readers, there are no dying batteries in me-readers. I can take a non-judgmental path, be glad I have the book I haven’t yet read, knowing that when the time is right, I’ll pick it up. I can move on -- to the next National Book Festival.

Yes, more than 100 authors will be at the celebration of reading and books Sept. 22 and 23. About 200,000 people showed up last year, and I plan to be among the crowd on the National Mall this year.

Among the hundred-plus authors slated to speak and sign books are Mario Vargas Llosa, T.C. Boyle, Geraldine Brooks, Robert Caro, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Eugenides.
I’ll be there, guilt-free.

One more thing. The Library of Congress plans next year to issue a list of Books That Shaped the World.

Get ready.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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