By my reckoning, I read about two books a month. (It used to be more, but children have an odd way of needing a lot of attention.)
My financial adviser informs me that I must die when I am 87 because I will run out of money at that point. So, assuming she is right, at two books a month I will read only 520 books more in my lifetime. Do I want to waste one of those precious allotments on an award-winning book that I find neither enjoyable nor enlightening? I do not.
Screw the awards and their fallible human judges. I start with reviews and word-of-mouth. Then I go to the book jacket and read a page or two at the bookstore or on Amazon. Then I buy it and give it 50 pages. If I’m not laughing, crying, or learning something by page 50, out it goes, guilt-free. Life is too short to read a book that doesn’t give me something in return for my time, energy, and money.
520: astonishingly finite and sobering, that figure. I’m reminded of last year, when the Booker Prize went to a book I’d never heard of by a writer also unknown to me. On impulse, I ducked into a bookstore on my way home the day of the announcement and bought a cloth copy of D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little. I would never get beyond chapter 2. So at least I still had my time, save a few minutes. But had I held off and read a few of the reviews that soon followed, I would also still have that particular $20. Whoops.
My own expected number of books-yet-to-be-read is higher than 520. But that doesn’t make it any less stark, wherever it may fall. This is why I want to know if Critic X didn’t think a book was the best of the year as reputed, and why I don’t want critics to pull their punches. It doesn’t mean I implicitly trust any one critic’s judgment (well, maybe Wood’s, tried and true), but, like Marjorie, I do want as much varied input as possible, and I want critics to write with readers, not authors, in mind. The 2003 Booker showed me that awards committees can be every bit as fallible as critics; I hasten to add that the converse is also true. All we can ask of each is frank and searching judgment, and to please keep in mind the (shudder) 520.