I should explain that I’ve always been a heavy-duty reader, starting in third grade, when I discovered that my local public library would let me go home with five books and then give me five more as soon as I brought the first bunch back. For years I made my living as an editor — as a reader, essentially — and I used to unwind from a day of reading at the office by reading some more at home. There were stretches when I was probably averaging close to a book a day.
This year, however, I agreed to be a judge for the National Book Awards, and a day when I got through only a single book felt like a day of delinquency. I was a fiction judge, and there were 407 nominees in that category. (It could have been worse: There were some 500 nonfiction nominees.) All these books had to be read in the space of just a few months: from May, when the nominees started trickling in — the deadline for publishers to declare their candidates was June 3 — through the flood tide of July, and into the beginning of September, when we judges were expected to announce a long list of 10 prize-worthy books before winnowing that down to five finalists, and then a single winner, which was announced on Nov. 20.
No one goes into this thinking it’s going to be easy. You do it because it’s an honor to be asked, and for the same reason you agree to go on jury duty: It’s a cultural obligation of sorts. But even veterans of the judging process can’t really prepare you. To begin with, where do you keep 407 books? For a while I stacked them in various rooms, ziggurats and stalagmites of books, until my wife, not unreasonably, complained that the place was beginning to look like a thrift shop. Then I bought a couple of cheapo bookcases — the kind made of compressed sawdust veneered in adhesive paper printed to look like wood. I installed them in the garage and carefully arranged my books in alphabetical order, only to discover a couple of days later that the shelves had collapsed under the weight, leaving the books in a spread-eagle heap.
Meanwhile, many of the things I like to do in the summer went undone. My boat didn’t get painted until halfway through the season. My golf game grew rusty and my handicap soared. And yet the books kept coming — by mail, FedEx, U.P.S. Every day there was a fresh pile on my doorstep: books from big publishers, small publishers, university publishers; hardbacks, paperbacks, galleys, loose manuscripts.
There are plenty of National Book Awards horror stories about bullying judges, run-off-at-the-mouth judges, judges who don’t do the work; about panels so fractious that at the end no one is speaking to anyone else. I was blessed in my fellow laborers: the novelists Charles Baxter, Gish Jen and René Steinke, and the bookseller Rick Simonson. In fact some of my favorite moments were our conference calls and email exchanges, in which we shared insights, ventured opinions and judgments, and offered commiseration. But the fact remains that it’s not humanly possible for an individual, no matter how well intentioned, well disciplined and critically astute, to read 407 books with the care and consideration they deserve.
This is the great flaw of any literary prize that attracts a great many entrants. If the net is cast wide enough to include the sleepers, the books from small presses and the ones nobody has heard of, then the haul is just about unmanageable. You could have fewer entrants, but in a way that makes the whole process even more arbitrary. Who decides? According to what criteria? And no matter how you arrange it, there’s something slightly absurd about the notion that in a year’s worth of books there is one that is readily identifiable as better than all the others. Better how? Says who?
So you do the best you can. You don’t skim exactly, but you race, driving your eyes across the page, in the process forgoing much of the ordinary pleasure of reading. I sometimes thought of it as chain-sawing through books, tearing into them, grinding them up, leaving a wake of fluttering pages and bits of binding. Maybe that’s why my retina ripped.
Do you need to read the entire book to know whether it’s prize-worthy? No, to be honest. But you do need to read enough to be sure you haven’t missed something, and even then you feel guilty, worried that just a few pages farther on there’s a passage that might have changed your mind.