Background Research

Well, I got my reviews filed on time last Thursday (there were six in all-I forgot to mention The Science of Parenting, by Margot Sunderland). I haven’t read all that much since then. No matter how much I love reading, the rush to finish books in time for deadline often leaves me with a craving for low-mental-effort activities like watching TV. Or maybe just staring blankly into space as my two-year-old does chin-ups on the tray of my CD changer.

I often tell myself, after yet another writing period in which I didn’t quite pace myself as well as I should have, that this time I’ll do better, that I’ll add up all the pages and divide by the number of days I have to read them, so that I can read a leisurely 100 pages per day instead of 25 pages the first day, 40 pages the second, and 950 the last. Some writing periods I do better than others.

I did do a little reading over the weekend, about 100 pages of Green Eggs and Ham-I mean Jarhead. I’m reviewing Anthony Swofford’s first novel, Exit A, very soon, and as I haven’t read Jarhead I thought it would be useful to do so now. Because Swofford made his debut in nonfiction, readers (and I) will be curious to know how much, if at all, his real-life experiences have made their way into his made-up ones.

I don’t always have the luxury of doing background research. Plenty of times I’ve been assigned an author in mid-series without any time to read the older books. (Andrew Klavan, Ken Bruen, C. J. Box, Jasper Fforde, Bill James, Chuck Logan, John Shannon, Denise Hamilton, to name just a few.) I don’t worry about it too much, because as I discussed in a long-ago blog entry, I have the perfect resource – Booklist reviews.

(To read the review of Jarhead, click here-if you’re not a subscriber, you’ll need to sign up for a free trial first.)

But whenever possible, I like to take a look for myself. It can be a lot of effort for little reward-in a 175-word review, I can allocate at most a sentence to discuss how the new work is different from the previous one – but I do think readers like to know how the work fits in to the author’s oeuvre (what would book reviewers do without the word oeuvre?) and I can tell them better if I’ve done the reading myself. I may not have time to finish Jarhead before I start reading Exit A, but even reading half of it would help.

A couple of times this backgrounding has been exceptionally fun. I reviewed Mark Kurlansky’s book of short stories, The White Man in the Tree, for the Chicago Tribune before I came to Booklist, and I read Cod first to get a sense of his nonfiction work. His short stories were quite good, but as the world knows, his nonfiction can be marvelous.

In a research-related anecdote, when I was in college, I had the opportunity to interview to be John Irving’s literary assistant. Coming into college, I had a William S. Burroughs fan and had never read Irving. I went straight to the library, checked out a copy of a book that the rest of the world was apparently familiar with, The World According to Garp, and plowed through it. When the day of my interview came, Irving asked if I had read his work. “Well, I’ve read Garp, of course,” I said nonchalantly, and he nodded approval.

But I still didn’t get the job. Probably I should have read The Cider House Rules as well.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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