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NCR’s annual readers’ roundup gives worthy books a break

There seems to be wide agreement that our readers write one of our most popular features every year. The deluge of “favorite books” that pours in annually bears witness, despite all the fancy technological alternatives, to an undying appreciation for the printed word.

This annual informalNCR poll, first of all, conveys an enthusiasm that in the professional book world seems in danger of petering out. As a few big chains relentlessly take control of which books will be brought to our attention, as book publishers are bought up by conglomerates with an interest only in the bottom line and as mainline media cut back on their already meager book review sections -- there is little left but word of mouth to keep many quality but noncommercial books alive. NCR’s favorite book binge is word of mouth by other means.

The essay on Robert Boorstin’s seekers is a reminder of how books, if given a first chance, can live on and shape the world. Many of those classics, if starting out today, would probably make little impact in the world of Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Similarly, many of the other books reviewed in NCR each year are of a kind that need a leg up, an initial impetus to bring them to the attention of a frantic and distracted world.

A profile in Publishers Weekly of Robert McCrum, well-known in British publishing, who recently wrote My Year Off: Recovering Life After a Stroke, tells how his brush with death caused him to rethink several things. Speaking of the London literary scene -- and the same is true in spades in this country -- he observed that “there’s a lot of activity, but not quite the same level of achievement; there’s heat, but not the sort of light there was.”

McCrum is worrying that the book industry will not recognize the important book when it comes along: “Who, in the years to come, will be seen as the towering figure of the time that we all neglected?” While this sounds book-friendly, it is also narcissistic and self-serving: He is concerned about how people like himself will be judged and found wanting as arbiters of taste.

More to the point is whether important voices are failing to get published at all, or, if published, promoted. This is where books and capitalism collide. A Danielle Steel, a Robert Ludlum and a Tom Clancy have vast money lavished on promoting their books while most of the rest, especially the dread “serious” books, languish in obscurity.

That’s where word of mouth comes in, where friends talk to friends about which books make a difference. And this is the service our readers do for each other each year.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998