First Person Singular: Alan Cheuse,72, Washington, book commentator, National Public Radio


NPR book commentator Alan Cheuse. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 19, 2012

My first wife found an ad in the Village Voice that said “Writers Wanted.” You can see why she was my first wife; she said, “You call yourself a writer, why don’t you answer this.” I went to this address on Greenwich Avenue, a garden apartment down this long hallway, lined with steel shelves filled with coffee-table books, floor to ceiling. In this apartment was Alice Wolf, the managing editor of Kirkus Reviews and, sitting in a chair in the corner, Virginia Kirkus, who did not say a word the entire time. Alice Wolf says, “Here’s a book. Give me 10 lines by tomorrow at noon.”

Sometimes it was a novel, sometimes a book of poems, Eisenhower’s memoirs, whatever she handed me, I did overnight. Some nights, I didn’t sleep. Sometimes, I’d go out and have a good time, then write through breakfast. I did this for two years straight — 1962 to 1964. Seven dollars a review, one review a day, seven days a week.

I learned to read each book as quickly as I could, but at its own pace. Every book has its own rhythm. You read Tolstoy at a different pace than John Le Carre or Stephen King.

If you think about it, reading is like conducting music. You play it in your head, and every score has its own way of playing out in your mind. It has changed my relationship to books. It was kind of like becoming a wine taster. Someone who really loves wine doesn’t consider it a chore to drink more wine, they consider it a marvelous challenge.

I would rather praise than blame. Two-and-a-half minutes is a lot of time to talk about a book you don’t like. Now and then, however, I will do a negative review when it seems appropriate. I’ve gotten death threats over the years, usually from unbalanced people. I don’t let it stop me. There are a lot of books out there, so you want people to spend time with the ones worth reading.


“Every book has its own rhythm,” Alan Cheuse says. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

All these tsunamis are going through the business of books, but the desire to read is still there. I just got this e-mail from a friend about her 10-year-old daughter to whom I send books: “Tonight I heard the most wonderful words come out of her mouth. She just finished ‘The Shifter’ and said, ‘This book shifted me. I love reading. If I only have a second, I want to be reading.’” This desire, this hunger to read is always with us. Death will be a great blank and an awful absence; we won’t have our friends and our families, but we also won’t have any new novels to read. That’s as bad as any other loss as far as I’m concerned.

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