This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 16, 2002 — Readers keep writing in to ask when I am going to comment on the Michael Kinsley matter. I have gotten about 402 e–mails asking me this.

I haven't read any of them, but I did scan one and look at the subject line of a few others and I now feel sufficiently informed to comment on the whole thing.

Kinsley, it seems, was a judge for the National Book Award who admitted that he hadn't even opened most of the books he was supposed to read for the award, and even bragged that he had only "turned every page" of the book that won. Many people have written about Kinsley's admissions, which he made in a column he wrote for Slate, as you may already know. Or at least, I hope you do, because I didn't have the time to read it.

But readers want me to comment on it all and so I will. And here's what I have to say to those 402 people who wrote me e–mails asking me to comment on what Michael Kinsley wrote and what other people wrote about what he wrote: There is too much to read in our lives anymore.

I mean it. It leaves a man precious little time to form an opinion.

That's why I sympathize with Michael Kinsley. I mean, you'd have to be an idiot to think contest judges read all of the books that get nominated for these awards, anyway. You'd have to be an idiot to expect them to. Of course, there are a lot of people who are idiots even though they don't have to be, but you know what I mean.

And I know what you're saying. You're saying, but shouldn't Kinsley at least have read enough of each book to have an informed opinion? Shouldn't he at least have read the book that he voted for as the winner? Wasn't it shabby, arrogant, deceitful, dishonorable, dishonest, disdainful, lazy, cavalier, duplicitous, autocratic, narrow–minded, priggish, patronizing, crooked, slothful, imperious, fraudulent, boorish, unscrupulous, unethical, unprincipled and downright presumptuous of him not to?


I mean, let's be frank here: What was the point of reading any of the nominated books in this instance anyway? You know what book won? The book everybody SAID was going to win — Robert Caro's 400–years–in–the–making doorstopper, "Master of the Senate."

And people say the conglomerate book industry has become so homogenized it doesn't make books for eggheads, or by eggheads, or with research or something! Ha! It made one, so of course it has to give itself a medal!

Now, I ask you, why should Michael Kinsley be the only person in America who has to read the thing, besides Mrs. Caro, that poor woman?

Still, for all my support of Kinsley, I have to admit he comes off as a piker compared to Lord Jeffrey Archer, also known as Sir Lord Jeffrey Archer.

Archer, according to an article in The Guardian last week that I didn't have time to finish, responded to the newspaper's request to tell them what he'd read in 2002 by saying he'd read "nine Shakespeare plays; three Dickens novels including the 1,072–page Bleak House; novels by Hermann Hesse, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, including the 768–page Sword of Honour trilogy; and short story collections by HE Bates, O Henry, Saki, Somerset Maugham and John Mortimer" — all in the first 67 days he spent in prison for lying while under oath about not having been with a prostitute.

Nobody believes him, of course. One wag — Britain is just full of wags — asked "When did he have time to empty his slop pail?" But I say it proves my point: Even prisoners don't have time to read all they're expected to read anymore.

Or take Jonathan Franzen, the well–know High Art Literary Writer, who wrote an article for the New Yorker in September in which he openly admitted — with the giddiness of a wino coming clean — the many important books he hasn't read, such as "Moby–Dick."

See what I mean? Even the man whom lots of people, including himself, say is not only our leading novelist but our leading commentator on the art, is put in the position of not having enough time to read the books one would think he should read in order not to look like a hypocrite of Biblical dimensions, not to mention ignorant. Well, thank God we live in a country where admitting you're ill–read and proud of it makes people buy more of your books! Still, it's a sad thing to see such genius put in a position like that.

Or look at George W. Bush. You'd think someone like him would have read a book or two. But even before he was president he didn't have the time! Remember how, when asked to cite the book he'd loved most as a child, he cited "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," which was written after he graduated from college?

You see? Prominent, upstanding, honest people — George W. Bush, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Franzen — are forced to behave like drunks at a cocktail party and say, "Oh yes, I read that."

Well, I say bravo to Michael Kinsley for having had the guts to fess up and speak the truth.

Or at least, I think that's what he did. As I say, I never did have the time to read what he wrote. I'm happy to talk about it, though.

Last Week’s Column: THE SECRET BESTSELLER LIST Two books from small presses about current politics are selling like crazy, but the mainstream media has barely noticed. Why?


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