Washington Post books editor: 'It's a wonderful time to be a reader'

He's arguably one of the most influential people in book publishing. As The Washington Post's Book World editor, Ron Charles chooses the 20 books The Post reviews each week. A positive review can send sales soaring for the lucky author - say,...

Washington Post books editor: 'It's a wonderful time to be a reader'

He's arguably one of the most influential people in book publishing.

As The Washington Post's Book World editor, Ron Charles chooses the 20 books The Post reviews each week. A positive review can send sales soaring for the lucky author - say, Cheryl Strayed or Chuck Palahniuk, two Portland authors whose work Charles said The Post keeps tabs on.

Charles was in Portland this weekend as a speaker at the PubWest book publishing conference and made time to talk with The Oregonian/OregonLive despite his eagerness to get to Powell's Books. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What is the mission of Book World?

A: To identify current books that people will enjoy reading, to alert people to how the book culture is evolving, to bring people the literary discussions of the day, to deepen their understanding of political and cultural events through books.

You know, the news, it's what we're thinking about and what's happening over the last few - nowadays, the last few hours. But books, that's the deep sink of history, that's what people are thinking over the last few years.

Q: How is the book culture evolving?

A: I've been doing this 20 years, and things got really bleak for awhile. All the (newspaper) book sections around the country started to close, and the book critics started to be laid off.

But then at the same time, long before I noticed it, all these other avenues of book criticism started to evolve. All the blogs and all the journals and online reviewers, even the online reviewers on Goodreads and online retailers - there are lots of really good anonymous book critics out there.

So I think book criticism is more diverse and richer than it's ever been. Which is not what I would have expected 10 years ago.

In D.C. we've got Politics & Prose and Kramer's (Kramerbooks & Afterwords), a couple other great independents - they have book events every day, sometimes twice a day, and they are packed. These people are hungry for serious, witty, engaged discussion of literature and current events. I just think it's a wonderful time to be a reader.

Q: How do you choose which books to review?

A: We get 150 books a day, so it's really, really hard. We're trying to produce a book section that's very diverse in the kinds of books it's covering: subjects, people, interests, genres, fiction and nonfiction. We're trying to attend heavily to politics because that's our local interest and history. And then we've got to hit all those big authors: Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett.

When you fill all those slots, it only leaves a few extra slots for books that you pick on a whim or hope, or some new author we take a chance on.

Q: You're also doing the "Totally Hip Video Book Review." How did that get started?

A: It started seven years ago when I was really despairing about the kind of ridiculous things that journalists were being asked to do to reach a new, younger audience. I thought, well, what would be the silliest, stupidest thing you would do to reach younger readers that would be a 60-second book review? So I took my review that week in the paper and my wife grabbed the video camera and we just ran around the house and acted out the book review that I'd run in the paper and then I slapped it up on YouTube and sent it around to my friends, like, "Oh, can you believe the state of journalism nowadays?" But it took off.

It died out in that iteration after about a year. But then last year, the editors of The Washington Post asked me to start it up again. So now we try and do one about every three weeks. It's been a blast.

Q: Screen or print?

A: Oh, print. I tried once, early on, to read and review a book on the Kindle. You can take notes but it's really cumbersome. So I still read bound books.

Q: The last 3 novels you read and your impressions.

A: George Saunders' new book, "Lincoln in the Bardo," is the most structurally experimental book I've read in a long time and will baffle most people and delight some people. It's about the death of (President Abraham) Lincoln's son Willie (at age 11). Lincoln apparently went to the graveyard several nights and sat by his son's grave. So Saunders imagines this but most of the book is filled with the voices of the ghosts in that cemetery and it's all told through quotations, each one of which is attributed.

Before that was Joyce Carol Oates' "A Book of American Martyrs," which is just spectacular. It's about an evangelical Christian who assassinates an abortion doctor and then the book follows those two families for the next few decades and what happens to them. It is such an intimate look at two radically different kinds of people and kinds of families, and frankly, kinds of Americans, whom we think are irreconcilable. It's more than 700 pages long and I just raced through it.

Margaret Drabble, the English novelist, she's written a very dry, dark comedy called "The Dark Flood Rises." It's a book Americans will hate. The idea of aging and then living when living is no longer sexy or fun or comfortable or even mobile - that is not attractive to think about, and this book is about that.

Q: What else would you like people to know about books or book culture?

A: I would like them to know just how helpful it is to find a book section or some critics that they get to know so they can learn to trust those people's evaluations even if they usually disagree with them. They can really help you select your next books, and you're not always at the mercy of the bestseller lists. 

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