Book Judge: I Didn't Read 'Em All

Michael Kinsley circa March 3, 1992, while CNN's Crossfire co-host in Washington D.C., National Book Awards, Judge AP

The job seems impossible from the start: As a nonfiction judge for the National Book Awards, you get six months to read some 400 books on everything from environmental science to backroom politics.

At least one of this year's voters, columnist and television commentator Michael Kinsley, says he didn't even try.

In a column posted Thursday on the online magazine Slate, Kinsley acknowledged he looked at only a fraction of the submissions. He likened the awards to choosing "the best rhubarb pie at the state fair" and hinted that he didn't complete Wednesday's winner: Robert Caro's 1,000-page "Master of the Senate," the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography.

"Once every seven or eight years, Robert Caro wheels out another gargantuan volume in his legendary biography of Lyndon Johnson, now up to Vol. 6: The Kindergarten Era (Part 1)," Kinsley wrote. He said he agreed to be a judge out of "mainly vanity and a desire for free books."

"(D)id I actually read every page? I'll never tell."

Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, said Friday he knew Kinsley wasn't keeping up. According to Baldwin, Kinsley felt "very contrite and apologetic" over the summer and had to be talked out of quitting.

But Baldwin also said he was surprised by Kinsley's remarks because he had seemed so happy about being offered the job.

Kinsley did not immediately return messages Friday.

The chairman of the nonfiction panel, Christopher Merrill, said Kinsley was only speaking for himself and added that he was not surprised by the column.

The foundation charges publishers $100 for each book submitted, double the fee for the Pulitzer Prizes. Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press, said judges he has known over the years have "always taken the job pretty seriously, although they obviously have to make some quick decisions."

Neither Merrill nor Baldwin claimed every book was read in its entirety, but they said judges, who receive honoraria between $2,000 and $2,500, considered each text long enough to know whether it merited further attention.

Merrill said he and other members of the five-judge nonfiction committee had enjoyed a "period of maniacal reading."

"I read books I never expected to read," said Merrill, director of the international writing program at the University of Iowa.

"'Master of the Senate' is a book I would have otherwise never read. I would have said, 'This is an important book and I'll get to it, someday.' But now I know the sweep of Caro's vision and what he brought to this ambitious project."

Most of the finalists were so unknown to the general public that host Steve Martin joked that Caro "brings the total number of nominated authors I've actually heard of to two." Merrill cited this as proof of how hard the judges worked.

"I had never heard of some of these writers," said Merrill, mentioning such nonfiction nominees as Devra Davis, for "When Smoke Ran Like Water." "Those are the kinds of discoveries you make by reading as much as you can."

By Hillel Italie
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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