By Steve Donoghue
Inevitably, there are one or two T-shirt-style mottos or slogans that tend to speak to me more than others. “Let the Wookiee Win” appeals to my not-so-inner curmudgeon. There are days when my cynicism has the upper hand and I want to give a blanket thumbs-up to “Magneto Was Right.” But naturally, the winner every time is that old favorite, “So Many Books, So Little Time.”
I hear some variation on this gloomy motto all the time. That’s predictable: I’m pretty sure book critics and librarians are better aware than anybody else of the overwhelming tsunami of new books that pours off the presses every season of every year. Estimates are always a bit rough, but in every case the numbers are staggering: something like a million new books published in the US alone every year, year after year.
Cut that number in half and discard all the educational books, the religious books, the language books, the school workbooks, the devotional handbooks, fat computer manuals, animal field guides, automotive guides, tax preparation guides, cookbooks, and other such things that are mainly intended to be used rather than read, so to speak. That still leaves us with 500,000 books every year.
Now cut that number in half and discard all the reprints of any kind, all the inspirational books, quotation dictionaries, pet guides, science and nature encyclopedias, travel guides and the like, things that might be intended to be read but couldn’t possibly become somebody’s favorite book – or their least favorite (in other words, they couldn’t be reviewed).
That still leaves a brutally impossible number: 250,000 new books. Even if we allow that our numbers might be off by a full 50%, that still leaves well over 100,000 new books every year, year after year. No matter how fast I read, and no matter how much time I devote to reading, there’s no way I can do anything more than make a faint scratch on the outside of such a number. “So Many Books, So Little Time” turns out to be all too true for every reader, even though the variety itself is encouraging.
For instance, in October alone there are thousands of titles that look fascinating, like “Pandemic Politics,” a new book about the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s first flourishing. The authors – Shana Kushner Gadarian, Sara Wallace Goodman, and Thomas Pepinsky – look at the sheer sweep and severity of the pandemic, which has killed more people than any war in US history, and they lay a good deal of the blame for that severity on the fact that somehow, simple public health measures like face masks and free vaccines became politicized. Their narration is extremely well-informed but also very palpably angry; it’ll bring back many memories of this still-unfolding historical event.
That event is also the subject of “Breathless,” the new book by the great natural history writer David Quammen (author of such classics as “The Song of the Dodo” and “Spillover,” which presciently explored the dangers of viruses that can jump the species barrier). In this new book, he targets the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its precise workings and likely history, the researchers who raced to understand it, and the many ways it made its presence known in the general population. Even on so grim a subject, Quammen is a captivating writer – this is probably the best nonfiction COVID-19 book to appear so far.
If readers are looking for a break from the pandemic – and honestly, who wouldn’t be? – they can turn to “A Greeting of the Spirit” by Susan Wolfson, a wonderful book in which Wolfson presents nearly 80 selections from Keats’s work, accompanied by generously elaborate commentary by Wolfson herself, who puts her scholarship to excellent use explaining those works to readers at all levels of prior knowledge about the poet. Almost every year sees at least some anthology of Keats poetry, but Wolfson’s eloquent scholarship makes this one special.
And “special” certainly applies to one of the purest delights of the October publishing scene: “Faithful Friends” by Margaret Rockwell, new from Abbeville Press. This gorgeously-illustrated book looks at one of the elements that runs through the whole career of the beloved illustrator Norman Rockwell: dogs. Right from the beginning of his art, Rockwell worked dogs of all kinds into his illustrations, and they evoke the whole gamut of emotions, from innocent happiness to complex sadness. “Faithful Friends” has a great deal of fascinating detail about Rockwell’s own dogs who served as models. Fans of this artist will certainly want this book.
Animal lovers of all kinds will also want to consider the latest visual masterpiece from the publisher DK: “Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide.” This big book presents gorgeous photographic entries describing more than 2000 species, and the text is written by an entire team of natural history writers. All the standard DK wildlife guide features are here: the distribution of the species, its habits and history, and its current conservation status. These big DK books are perfect for endless browsing, each new edition building on the latest findings in natural science.
Speaking of new editions of classics! Fan-favorite best-selling fantasy author Jim Butcher’s son James makes his own fantasy-fiction debut in October: “Dead Man’s Hand,” the first installment in his “Unorthodox Chronicles” series of urban fantasy novels – this one set in Boston and featuring Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, a so-so witch who’s got to step up his game in order to solve the murder of his mentor. Butcher the Elder, the author of “The Dresden Files” series, has been delighting readers for decades; Butcher the Younger has clearly been paying close attention to some of those skills.
And speaking of stepping up one’s game! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) One of the month’s most entertaining new books is “The Grandest Stage” by Tyler Kepner, a history of the World Series. You don’t need to be a baseball fan to love this book, since Kepner has a grand time filling it with larger-than-life figures and plenty of tall tales in addition to plenty of history.