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Adventures of a Book Critic

By Steven G. Kellman

Book: A quaint artifact of the pre-postmodern period, when men and women sat for hours transfixed by a bound ream of paper.

Leading institutions of higher education such as Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and Boston University once tailored entire curricula to the premise that studying books by Thucydides, Aristotle, Euclid, Dante, Hobbes, Newton, Shakespeare, Kant, Freud, and other major thinkers constitutes a meaningful liberal arts education. In the current age of distraction, when attention flits from cellphone to Twitter to streaming video, many lack the patience — and training — to follow a single sinuous sentence by Henry James. Two years ago, Bexar County proudly announced a new chapter – so to speak – in the digitalization of civilization: Bibliotech, the world’s first bookless public library. That was three years after UTSA inaugurated the Applied Engineering and Technology Library, the first completely bookless library on an American college campus. Pity the poor book critic, as obsolete as a cooper, elevator operator, or lamplighter.

The National Book Critics Circle, however, rejects pity, even if some of its 600 members are pitiless in assessing books. In fact, more than 300,000 new titles are still released annually just by American publishing houses (close to 450,000 new titles are published in China, 180,000 in the United Kingdom, 100,000 in Russia). The recently merged Penguin Random House conglomerate alone publishes more than 15,000 new titles each year. Add to that more than 400,000 new self-published titles annually. Last year, reversing a growing trend, new printed books outnumbered ebooks. And, after several years in which bookstores have been an endangered species, independent brickand- mortar operations have been setting up shop throughout the country. For readers, the problem is not privation, but plethora. How to make sense of this robust glut of books?

"It is a heady experience to sit around a large conference table and argue about books with some of the nation's leading critics."

Not even the most ardent bibliophile can possibly read every book published in a year just in this country. We need critics to sort through the bounty, to examine, analyze, and assess which works are worthy of attention and why. For most of my professional career, in addition to publishing scholarly studies in comparative literature, I have been a book critic, appearing in non-academic venues including Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. And I have been an active member of the National Book Critics Circle.

I have served four terms on the organization’s board of directors and was at one point its vicepresident for membership. During my three decades on the board, book reviewing has changed dramatically. The separate book sections that used to appear in Sunday editions of big-city newspapers have largely disappeared, and literary coverage now often receives less space than coverage of TV premieres, restaurant openings, and other endeavors. However, online discussion of books has spread like kudzu.

The NBCC maintains a website,, that is a good source for book news and reviews, and it sponsors live events throughout the country. But it is most famous for the annual awards it bestows on the best new book in each of six categories: autobiography, biography, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. The NBCC awards are, along with the National Book Awards and the Pulitzers, the most prestigious honor a volume published in the United States can receive. The awards ceremony, held in New York every March and broadcast on C-SPAN, might not rival the Oscars in glamour, but it is closely followed by publishers, editors, literary agents, and authors.

The NBCC board chooses the award recipients, which means we spend the entire year scouting prospects. Responsibility for each category is delegated to a committee, and each board member serves on at least two committees. In a long, sometimes contentious meeting in January, committees narrow the possibilities to five finalists in each category – 30 finalists total over all six categories. Between January and March, every board member reads all 30 books. And in a meeting held only hours before the awards ceremony, we debate the merits of the finalists and vote on the winners. It might be easier to choose a Pope than arrive at a consensus on the best novel or biography of the year. Voting is frequently so close that it requires four or more ballots. Later, in a packed auditorium, the award recipients are announced. After making their way to the stage, the stunned authors of course thank spouses, agents, and pets, and, since they are literary folk, their comments are often uncommonly eloquent.

During my tenure, fellow members of the board have included critics and book review editors from such prominent venues as the Washington Post, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic Monthly, BBC, and Chicago Tribune, as well as a scattering of academics from institutions including NYU and Harvard. It is a heady experience to sit around a conference table and argue about books with some of the nation’s leading critics. It is also humbling to realize that none of us can possibly read everything, and that books are not racehorses. They aspire to immortality, not victory. Choosing one excellent work over another feels arbitrary and impertinent. Nevertheless, over more than 40 years, the NBCC has compiled a remarkable record of honoring brilliant, enduring titles. Yet I remain wistful about the formidable finalists that did not win and the worthy books that were overlooked entirely

This year, we presented a lifetime achievement award to Toni Morrison, and her gracious, moving acceptance speech made the author even more beloved. During my time on the board, we have recognized sustained contributions by such luminaries as maverick scholar Leslie Fiedler, movie critic Pauline Kael, literary prodigy Joyce Carol Oates, feminist pioneers Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and the dean of Chicano authors, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith.

I have fond memories of time spent with each of them, and vivid recollections of more anxious moments at the awards ceremony. One year, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was running for president of Peru, was a finalist, and his bodyguards arrived early to check out the security of our auditorium; Vargas Llosa ended up not appearing at the ceremony. Another year, when Wendy Doniger’s magisterial study The Hindus: An Alternative History was a finalist, a group of fundamentalist Hindus, enraged over alleged blasphemy, picketed the proceedings. And when Neighbors, Jan Gross’s chilling account of how the citizens of Jedwabne murdered all of the Polish town’s Jews, was a finalist, we received threats of violence from a Polish American organization.

Pickets and protests demonstrate that books still matter. “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend,” quipped Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Books and critics continue to make darkness visible.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature in the Department of English.