The Humbling Beauty in Reading-About-Reading Books


Every writer is a reader, and every reader indulges himself now and then in a good “reading about reading” book.

This is where I’m at now as I amble through Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? (The answer is, Clearly not, P.O.!)

The thing about reading-about-reading books is how expensive they can be. No, I don’t mean the price on the book itself (this one is a $16.95 paperback), I mean the books the author tempts you with.

Think of it this way. You = addict. Author = dealer. Recommended books = the goods.

And so easy, the way this book is set up! Each chapter begins with a picture of the book Orner is lauding at great length. All oxymoronic, considering the long praise is for short story collections, for the most part. Orner, a practitioner himself, frowns on the novel-love of the publishing industry and says, six ways to Sunday night, “What about the short story, that little shining city on a hill?”

Thus he adds to my list such must-see collections as Chekhov’s Selected Stories (but of course, when talking stories, one starts at Mecca), The Stories of Breece DJ Pancake, All Stories Are True (John Edgar Wideman), The Lonely Voice (Frank O’Connor), The Bride of the Innisfallen (Eudora Welty), Selected Stories (Robert Walser), The Burning Plain and Other Stories (Juan Rulfo), All the Days and Nights (William Maxwell), Cheating at Canasta (William Trevor), Collected Stories (Wright Morris), Dusk and Other Stories (James Salter), and Spirits and Others Stories (Richard Bausch).

This is an incomplete list, but if you count the pennies in your cart on Barnes & Noble, you’ll see you’re about 1,267 poem sales away from breaking even.

What’s even more daunting is how well-read authors of reading-about-reading books make you feel as a supposedly seasoned reader. On the list above, for instance, I’ve only read the Chekhov and the Pancake and I’ve never even heard of (until I listened now) Juan Rulfo.

Where have I been, one wonders? What have I been doing with my wastrel reading life, one cries? And how is it that I haven’t fully appreciated these short story masters as much as Orner has?

All good questions, but that’s the point. That’s why you buy a reading-about-reading book in the first place. When you’re done, you select a few of the recommended books that seem most intriguing to you by weighing the excerpts provided by the author and the commentary he adds. Then you buy them to see exactly what’s been going on here, right under your negligent nose all of these years.

And you can’t stop there, either. When writing about Pancake, Orner says, “Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.” Can’t you just feel your reading to-do list growing, like that 10-year-old kid of yours who, just yesterday, was accepted to a college?

Meanwhile, there’s pitiful me, the suddenly chastened “well-read” guy who hasn’t read much anything as described in Am I Alone Here?

Guilty as charged. But even though I haven’t read all of these authors, now I’ve at least read about all of these authors. Doesn’t that count for something? At least until I buy two or three of the collections Orner waxes rhapsodic about?

Yes, it does. And it must in a world where we can’t be too hard on ourselves, even as readers and especially as writers who read and realize that reading more begets writing more and writing better.

Besides, you have to console yourself, has it ever occurred to you that you’ve read a couple hundred books the author of this reading-about-reading book hasn’t?

Ah. Breathe in, breathe out. Reading is not a competition, thank God.

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