Friday, February 04, 2022

Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley

OK, I'm dropping this on a Friday, which I'm typically not using for reviews these days, because I want to make this short and avoid total Ouroboros nature here.

Second Reading is a collection of the monthly column of the same name, by Jonathan Yardley, from the Washington Post (I'm not sure if it was in Book World or not; Yardley just uses the name of the paper). It ran from 2003 through 2010, and, in that column, Yardley re-read books that had been important to him at one point or other and then wrote about them.

So you can see that reviewing a collection of re-reviewed book reviews could get just a wee bit tail-eating.

The column ran to ninety-seven entries; sixty of them are included in the book. Yardley does not explain how he made the cut, or why he didn't make two slightly shorter books. (Well, as a former editor, I'm pretty sure the answer to the second part is "Kent Carroll was only willing to publish one," possibly with a side order of "you can't make two books called 'Second Reading'.") There is a list of the omitted entries at the end, and all of the entries are also available as part of the Neglected Books website.

Other people's opinions about books are interesting as long as they're informed and reasonably well-written: Yardley's work is both, since he had been a newspaperman and book reviewer for about fifty years when he began this project.

Some people like reading essays on books they know well, so they can quibble. Some like reading essays on books they haven't read, so they can add to their lists and bookselves. I tend to like a mix, or maybe I just get a mix, since my reading has been random and haphazard, so I don't have any category where I'm entirely one or the other. Second Readings gave me both: a few books I am familiar with, like Catcher in the Rye and A Moveable Feast, but mostly things I'd either never heard of ( a biography of W.C. Fields, the novels of Harold Frederic, J.F. Powers, and Frederick Lewis Allen) or intend to read someday (The Twelve Caesars, Tom Jones, Speak, Memory).

Yardley writes solid essays about all of them, making them interesting for the scope of five pages, and making me at least momentarily want to read every book he covers. For many, though, like the several "problems of rich prep-school people" novels and the similar ones about bishops and early 20th century provincial businessmen, the impulse passed quickly.

This book is pitched these days as a guide for book groups, and it definitely is that. I don't know how those groups pick their books - I'm no good at letting anyone else pick what I'm going to read next, so I avoid them - but Yardley makes the case for a lot of different, oddball books being worth reading, which is one of the great successes in writing about books.

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