Pamela Paul's delightful compilation of The New York Times Book Review's greatest hits, By The Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life, came to me as a Christmas gift. Unexpectedly, I found it filled a need for me as both a writer and a reader.
As a writer and editor, I'm careful about how I devote my attention. I take projects on judiciously because I know I need to reserve brain space for my own creative work. Ironically, a great novel, nonfiction work (or even House of Cards) can overwhelm my inchoate creative impulses. When I'm trying to plot a novel or flesh out a character, having the characters of Downton Abbey (or the genius of David Foster Wallace) crowding my brain does not help. As a result, I often leave books that I know will be all-absorbing unread for extended periods of time (thus does "Unbroken" gather dust on my bedside table).
One alternative is to read dreck, but who wants to do that? Life's too short to drink cheap wine or read crap books. This is where "By The Book" makes me happy. The compiled interviews with authors give me 15 minutes of wisdom, humor and insight into the writing world before I go to sleep -- but don't fill my dreams.
By reading between the lines I get a sense of how small the community of great contemporary writers is. And when the same names come up again and again in conversation (ahem, Hilary Mantel), I make a note about what I might want to read next -- whenever my own creative endeavors will allow. My reading persona must take a back seat to my writing persona, but it's going to try to drive all the same.
Books, someone once said, are like friends I haven't met yet. I'll be happy to pile a few more on the table.