I’m a very slow reader, which is my great failing in life. I think if I could change one thing about myself, it would be to be a faster reader. At the Book Review, my colleagues and I will talk about what we’re reading, and it’s a lot of fun, but at the same time, there’s this constant thread that winds its way through our conversations: All of us have gaps in our reading. Books, authors, whole genres that we’ve really never read.
It’s depressing to contemplate the fact that I won’t get to read everything I want to read. So depressing that I sometimes slip into a kind of delusional thinking: “Well, if I read an extra hour every day, maybe I will get to read it all.” Which, of course, is nonsense.
A similar dilemma is also reflected in my work at the Book Review, where we have to decide what to feature in our pages. This is exciting, but also daunting: We go in knowing there are many more worthy books than we have the space, or the resources, to cover.
When I first started at the Book Review, I was the children’s books editor. We had the only full-time children's books editor in the country, and that person had to read all the children’s books as they came out. When I got there, I realized that my predecessor had only two pages in every month. I went to Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review at the time, and said, “It’s not enough.” I asked him to make it three pages every month, and to add an extra issue once a year with 10 pages. But even that was not enough. So I wrote a weekly online book review in addition, just to try to cover all the books.
Even expanding coverage in that way, I quickly realized I couldn’t cover all the books. There were still so many children’s books. There were very deserving picture books, novels, YA books, and non-fiction that weren’t getting in. I called my predecessor, Julie Just, who’d been the children’s book editor before me. I was frantic. “Julie,” I said. “I can’t get all the books in."
She said, “No one expects you to get them all in. There’s no way to get them all in. Everyone knows you can’t even cover all the important books, or all the good books. So stop worrying about it.” That was a tremendous relief, even though I felt badly about it. I still do.
At the same time, I know that we’re ultimately not there to serve the authors and the publishers and the illustrators. It’s easy to forget that we’re not out there trying to help all the writers, even though we love them, or everyone else who works so hard to bring these books into the world. Ultimately, that’s not our job.
The people we’re trying to serve are readers of The New York Times. I know—because I’m one of them—that readers of the Times have a limited amount of time to read, so they’re looking to us to do an essential triage.
When you turn it around that way, it becomes clear: What we’re really doing here is providing a service by narrowing it down. We’re not covering everything that’s worthy of coverage, but we are covering books in a much more comprehensive way than anyone in this country. And the fact that it isn’t such a large number of books is, in itself, helpful to our readers. That makes me feel better.