Sunday, December 28, 2003

'So Many Books' diary for inveterate readers



By Pauline M. Millard
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Sara Nelson's friends used to joke that she should set up an 800 number that people could call when they needed help picking books. That way, when they were going on vacation or breaking up with a true love, they would know exactly what to read.

Nelson even made sure her fascination with books surrounded her at home. The family room in her New York apartment is lined floor to ceiling with books tucked into in shiny, cherry wood shelves, custom made by her husband. She's read many of the volumes, while others await the perfect time to reveal themselves to her.

It's in this room that Nelson did much of the reading for her book, So Many Books, So Little Time, a memoir about spending a year reading a book a week. She acknowledges that being something of an insomniac helped the process. But being a lifelong book lover, she welcomed the late night assignments.

"I think there is something about the experience of reading," she says. "I think there are fewer book buffs than there are movie buffs and I think it's partly because books require an energy on the part of the reader. When you go to the movies, you pay your money, you sit back and you are entertained. With a book, you make the choice and make the effort and stay with it."

How books affect life

A year ago, Nelson, who is a contributing editor at Glamour magazine as well as a columnist for the New York Observer, got the idea while chatting with a friend who was a literary agent. Nelson said the goal was not to review books but to keep a diary of how the books fell into her life.

For example, when her son struggled with Little League, she found herself reading two books about baseball. When her writing process started to hit a brick wall, she revisited Anne Lamott's, Bird by Bird. Other times, she couldn't get into any books, not even the hot titles of the moment such as Jonathan Frazen's The Corrections and Jonathan Safran Foer's, Everything Is Illuminated.

"The idea, I guess, is to turn a book into a media event, but this is a strategy that has major backfire potential," Nelson writes in her book about the influx of young writers over the past few years. "For me - as, I believe, for a lot of readers - when a book gets over hyped, we get mad. We're a funny, cliquish group, we book people, and sometimes we resist liking - or even opening - the very thing everybody tells us we're supposed to like."

To prepare for the year, Nelson created piles of books she had in her home, made lists of books that people recommended to her, accepted a few for free through her job and bought a lot through amazon.com.

She didn't get to all of her planned books since she realized that some books found her in the process of writing the book. This, she realized, was probably typical of many readers who buy books that end up collecting dust, sometimes for years.

One thing she wants to make clear is that she doesn't see her work as a book telling people what to read and what to avoid. Rather, she sees So Many Books as a memoir of spending a year reading and how it affected her life.

After all, many readers may not have the same connection to Nora Ephron's Heartburn that Nelson did when she read it as a young woman who had just moved to New York City in the early 1980s. She also hopes that readers don't love White Palace as much as she did. The book drove her to call author Glenn Savan in the middle of the night and thank him. Lucky for Nelson, she reached an answering machine.

Can't read everything

Nelson thinks that the truth is that "book people" and anyone else, need to just accept the fact that they can't read everything that comes out.

She also encourages people not to shy away from whatever is popular at the moment.

"It's not about deciding to sit down and read an 'important' book," Nelson says. "It's more about seeing what comes your way and what you learn about yourself in the process."




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