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Too Many Books

This is the big book week in Washington, which hosts BookExpo America 2006, and perhaps the industry will get together and decide to reduce drastically the number of books, as well as their girth, heft, density and general overreliance on words. Words are the invasive species of the literary world; let them get a foothold in your book and they'll spread like kudzu. I miss the days when books were short, with lots of illustrations, and sometimes a fuzzy part that you could touch, and we had this wonderful thing called Nap Time. But now books are out of control, overstuffed with words, sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs. Before Don Delillo writes another monster like "Underworld" he should visit the economical prose of "Goodnight Moon." On my reading list right now is a history book that is so big I don't know whether to read it or harpoon it. Many of these word-intensive books are quite excellent, and a person with intellectual pretensions feels terrible placing them in the Will Never Actually Read stack in the basement.

This morning I dipped into Michael Pollan's new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Press). He's one of my favorite writers, but a bit maddening, since he writes the books that I should have written. He writes about the science and history of ordinary things: the garden, the home, the food we eat. This new work describes his effort to figure out what to eat for dinner. He studies the origin of the food at the supermarket and the fast-food joint, works on an organic farm, and eventually crafts a virtuous meal, complete with meat from an animal that he has personally hunted, killed and cooked.

Here's Pollan talking about how one-fourth of the thousands of items in the grocery store contain products derived from corn:

"This goes for the nonfood items as well: Everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn....

"You are what you eat, it's often said, and if this is true, then what we mostly are is corn -- or, more precisely, process corn."

We are all Children Of the Corn!

This weekend I also holed up for a while with "The Defining Moment," by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter (a friend; we also have the same book editor at Simon & Schuster). It's the story of FDR's 100 days. Alter writes about the desperation of the spring of 1933, when banks were failing by the minute and the entire enterprise of capitalism seemed on the brink of oblivion. Roosevelt in his armless wheelchair charged to the rescue, confident, cheerful, assuaging the fears of the people, putting government to work for the common man, taking the unemployed off the streets and giving them good jobs building national parks and whatnot. It's Democrat porn!

But there's so much more to read, particularly in the fiction section. The New York Times has tried to find the greatest work of American fiction of the past 25 years. There was a clear winner, "Beloved," by Toni Morrison. The list of also-rans is perfect for starting an argument, and as A.O. Scott notes in the accompanying essay, it's heavily weighted toward old-timers (Updike, Roth, et al), including an astounding number born in the darkest days of the Depression:

"DeLillo, born in 1936, is the youngest of the five leading authors. The others were born within two years of one another: Morrison in 1931, Updike in 1932, Roth and McCarthy in 1933.

"Their seniority, needless to say, is earned - they have had plenty of time to ripen and grow - but it is nonetheless startling to see how thoroughly American writing is dominated by this generation. Startling in part because it reveals that the baby boom, long ascendant in popular culture and increasingly so in politics and business, has not produced a great novel. The best writers born immediately after the war seem almost programmatically to disdain the grand, synthesizing ambitions of their elders (and also some of their juniors), trafficking in irony, diffidence and the cultivation of small quirks rather than large idiosyncrasies."

Maybe the younger writers know that there are too many books already. Too many words. Like what the emperor said to Mozart about "notes."

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 15, 2006; 9:48 AM ET
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