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Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Discerning Reader's Dilemma

I have what I'll call a discerning reader's dilemma. I'd like your help if you've had an experience like mine.

To avoid being unduly influenced, when choosing contemporary (i.e. non-"classic") novels I try to avoid reading what critics have said or paying attention to which books have won awards or made "Top 10" lists. Instead, I often rely on recommendations from a small group of discerning readers - my wife, my sisters, my oldest niece, the moderator of my favorite book club. When I love a book like Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad" or Patti Smith's "Just Kids" or Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and later learn they are prizewinners, I'm gratified that I detected quality writing. So far, so good.

I recently finished a novel recommended to me by someone not on my usual list. I found it dull in the extreme and I'm not someone who is big on ACTION kinds of books. I love Richard Russo and very little ever "happens" in many of his books. OK, lesson learned, I thought; I'll skip future recommendations this particular person makes. Then, I learned the book I'd recently completed won the National Book Award in the late 90's. And there's the dilemma for this discerning reader - What did I miss?

Saying it's just a matter of taste is inadequate. The judges for the Pulitzer, the Booker, the National Book Award are, by definition, highly discerning readers; you don't get selected for a panel like that if you're not. This book had no overt literary ambitions like Joyce, was not at all experimental like David Foster Wallace, & had no dense language like Faulkner. It had a straightforward narrative line with just a few characters. What did I miss that the judges for the National Book Award did not? Help from other discerning readers?

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