Brother can you spare a totally depressing book?

Family vacation! Two weeks in the Pacific Northwest. I anticipate it will start off in the usual way, which is spending long hours on the laptop working on a story I didn’t finish before I left. One always forgets that the impossible takes longer.

And I don’t want to abandon the work even temporarily; as with a radio broadcast, you want to get it all on one take, one recording, because if you try and splice something in later the splicing will be too obvious, the sound of the language not quite right. Not to get all pretentious on you (never!), but a writer has a slightly different voice every day, a voice modulated by the unconscious, shaped by emotions and metabolism, variously amplified by aspiration or deadened by fatigue and despair.

There are days when I can’t imagine using words of more than one syllable. “See Spot run” – how can you improve on that? What else is there to say?

The big question as always on a trip like this is, what to read? I have brought James Salter’s “Light Years,” which is evocative and masterfully written but more than a bit depressing (a family’s long journey to dissolution), and the new book from Ian McEwan, who does depressing better than just about anyone (in a typical McEwan book your life is promising until one introvertibly catastrophic event). In keeping with the Pac Northwest theme I may track down a copy of Annie Dillard’s “The Living,” which I started a while back. As I recall it’s mostly about dying. Not a laugh riot, but she’s another one who knows her way around the language.

One might want to balance the heavy stuff with some Charles Portis. “The Dog of the South” is a comic masterpiece of Americana – rapscallions and mountebanks and dirt-bags on the road from the Deep South to Mexico, with writing that mines the deep humor of the vernacular.

Perhaps I could try the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy from Hilary Mantel, but “Wolf Hall,” though full of wonderful writing, and vividly imagined, and so fabulously English, satisfied this year’s yearning to be confused about who was talking and which character bore what relation to which duke or bishop or nobleman. I should have paid more attention in history class.

Increasingly I find that the subject matter of a book is less important than the craft, the care, the professionalism of the writing. At home I have a stack of non-fiction books on topics that I care about or need to read about for my work, but as I scan the titles I realize they’re not the ones I would want to bring on an airplane. They’re just not that well written.

As a reader I want to reward the writers who run their work through the typewriter a couple of extra times, the ones who understand that all the words matter, and that a particularly well crafted or clever sentence can redeem an entire page of humdrum writing. A great paragraph is a treasure, particularly when you encounter it unexpectedly, not at the very beginning of the book or on the dust jacket or in a blurb from the writer’s friend, but deep in a book, where the writer is completely in her own trance. Thank you, this reader will think when discovering such a buried gem. Thanks for writing that.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · July 22, 2013