In Ali Smith’s 2017 novel, “Autumn,” 101-year-old Daniel Gluck is dying in an elder-care facility outside London. When he opens his eyes one day, he finds Elisabeth Demand, his former neighbor, sitting by his bed.
They’d met when she was 8 and he was 77. (Their friendship is one of the more unusual and touching I know of in recent literature.) She became his connection to the present-day world. He became her connection to a larger world of history, art and ideas. They have not seen one another for years. But, here she is.
Hello again, Mr. Gluck, she says.
Oh, hello, he says. Thought it’d be you. Good. Nice to see you. What you reading?
“What you reading?” It was the question he always asked her. With several questions embedded in it: “You are reading, right?” And then, “What particular book are you reading?” And then, “Would you tell me about it?” I ask myself these questions all the time. (Yeah, I talk to myself. Don’t you?)
Well, let’s see: I am reading, yes. And I’m reading “Autumn,” by Ali Smith. And I wonder: How does she manage to so wonderfully weave in and out of time, to layer time, while creating something that feels like it was written this morning after she read today’s newspaper?
Actually, “Autumn” was several books back for me. I’m always reading. And when I’m not, I’m wondering why the hell not and asking myself what I want to be reading.
Shall we make that a question among us: What you reading? It’s a presumption embedded in our book coverage at the NewsHour – that writers and writing have value on a news program. That you, our audience, are reading or are at least open to learning more about writers and writing today. And now it’s a question we can bounce around in all kinds of ways in our new book club, “Now Read This”.
To all who have joined: Welcome. The response far exceeded my own expectations — 32,000 and growing when I last checked. Actually, I didn’t know what to expect. I know people watch what we do. They tell me all the time. But do they join a project such as this? Yes, they do. You do. And I’m grateful.
An amazing thing happened: Jesmyn Ward’s novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” rose to No. 2 on Amazon. (I cite Amazon because it’s an easy metric, not to push any particular retailer. I love independents! You, too, B&N. All of you, stay with us.) Quite suddenly, a work of literary fiction, hits No. 2. Highly unusual. Several of my producer friends at the NewsHour like to cite the “bump” in sales that books get when we do an author interview. (There’s the “NewsHour bump,” the “NPR bump,” the “Colbert bump,” etc.)
I confess to mixed feelings about those numbers. I don’t do this – interview authors on TV – to sell books. That’s not my job. But I most certainly do want to raise the profile of writers and writing in our culture. I want to say, by example, that writers and other artists are “newsmakers” who belong on a news program precisely because they tell us about the world we’re reporting on. Politicians, generals, CEOs, etc.? Yes, we talk with them nightly on the NewsHour. But writers and artists – them, too. Yes, make room for their voices. I learn about the world from them, too.
Join our Facebook group “Now Read This.”
And so, Jesmyn Ward’s novel is selling and that’s great. Great for her and her publisher. As important to me: We’ve made a connection through her and her book to so many of you. We’ve received lots of positive feedback. We’ve also heard questions raised – What about those of us not on Facebook? What about connecting libraries so more books are available? Why not less expensive, more readily available, books already in paperback? And more. Let me assure you: We’re on it, working out solutions. Give us a bit of time. And please do continue to let us know of your concerns or problems. We’ll do what we can.
From the beginning we were eager to make this a collaboration and in the New York Times we got exactly what we hoped for. I’m very grateful to Pamela Paul and everyone at the Times for this partnership. We look forward to making it grow together.
What you reading, friends? Like you, I’m a reader. And now we have “Now Read This.” So: What are we reading? Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” With much more to come.