It wasn’t exactly a behemoth job, but it was a lot of books. I’m finished now.
As you might expect, there were books dedicated to or written about the pandemic. I generally found that a little odd since we don’t know how it turns out yet, but I understand the urge to write about the experience, to get it out where a person can see it. As today is apparently the anniversary of the day The WHO called it a pandemic, I’ll tell you a little about what I found.
I decided to look at those books as if I were a historian in the future. Any first person rendering of a moment in time can be useful, but a historian needs more than that to understand well. Out of the pandemic books one stood out as useful to a future historian because it comprised many voices, was focused on ONE location and was filled with photographs. It is an anthology of brief reminiscences by “ordinary” people. A journalist who lost his job but is out there taking photos anyway. A woman who, with her husband, is “sheltering in place” in a New Jersey apartment. A woman who works with substance abusers. Another woman with the courage to describe “lucky deaths” — people who were already dying of something worse who ended up dying of Covid. A young woman and her boyfriend who finally get together for dinner, but don’t touch. The stories are simple, every-day and short. They are every historian’s dream. “This is where I was and this is what I saw. This is what I did.” The book is “of the moment” in that very few writers attempt to analyze the experience. They are truly “being there then.”
The book is Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter. Its focus is the first four months of the pandemic in New York City and New Jersey where the death rates were high and the health system struggled to help all those who needed it.
Proceeds from the book go to feeding the hungry in America. If you want a memento of this time, this is a good one.
Someone asked me yesterday about whether I have to read all these books cover-to-cover. No. I have a rubric, a judging sheet, with “points”. In my first pass, I look at each book as a whole, a product. Some books disqualify themselves from winning for various reasons — being submitted in the wrong category, poor grammar, visual appearance, design impeding the message. Some people actually have their books printed in pale gray ink or use tiny fonts or bleed the print into the spine of the book. When I open one of these I ask the writer, “Did you think NO ONE would EVER read this?” It’s easy when you put your own book together to forget someone ELSE might actually READ it. Physical readability is important. My books would be disqualified by me on the basis of rampant typos and, I guess, that’s exactly what happened when I entered this contest a hundred years ago. The books that don’t fail in these areas — and most books don’t fail — I read cover-to-cover.
Then comes the moment of determining the book’s value to its intended audience. This is the most important question. In some categories there is a very wide range of books, from kids’ books to legal guides. The books are all basically in the same category but have widely divergent audiences. I enjoy imagining the audience for each book and thinking of how the book would be used or appreciated by the person for whom the book was written.
I have to contend with my biases, too. I don’t think anyone can fully overcome this, but it’s good to challenge them. I’m not a fan of self-help books or any flavor of spirituality. I know there is an immense audience for these two kinds of books, but that audience is never me. This is a hard thing for me to deal with when I am judging one of these books, and imagining its REAL audience is so helpful.
I love this job. Oddly, I’ve even been trained for it. One of my responsibilities as a writing teacher at a university was reading exit writing proficiency exams. We were a team of maybe a dozen instructors who met for one grueling Saturday from 8 am until whenever every semester to read thousands of tests that would determine whether the students would graduate that semester or be required to come back one more semester for one more writing class. Since a lot of students think of writing classes as something to “get through” another “stupid requirement” they pretty much hated this and many felt betrayed. “I’m going to be an engineer not a writer!” But clear communication matters in every field and we didn’t want employers who came to us for graduates to bitch that our graduates were illiterate.
You can imagine that all of us were a little insane by 3 pm on those Saturdays.