Off the Books: On Literature and Culture

Off the Books: On Literature and Culture

Off the Books: On Literature and Culture

Off the Books: On Literature and Culture


Head Off the Books in this collection of newspaper columns, where J. Peder Zane uses classic and contemporary literature to explore American culture and politics. The book review editor for the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer from 1996 to 2009, Zane demonstrates that good books are essential for understanding ourselves and the world around us. The one hundred and thirty columns gathered in Off the Books find that sweet spot where literature's eternal values meet the day's current events. Together they offer a literary overview of the ideas, issues, and events shaping our culture--from 9/11 and the struggle for gay rights to the decline of high culture and the rise of sensationalism and solipsism. As they plumb and draw from the work of leading writers--from William Faulkner, Knut Hamsun, and Eudora Welty to Don DeLillo, Lydia Millet, and Philip Roth--these columns make an argument not just about the pleasure of books, but about their very necessity in our lives and culture.


Reading the return address on my package, the Raleigh postal clerk asked, “Are you the man from the News & Observer?” I was thrilled. My photo ran with my Sunday books column, but I was hardly even a local celebrity. “I am,” I said. Fishing for a compliment, I added, “You like our pages?” She was nonplussed. After an awkward pause, she explained, “You’re the one who gets all those boxes.”

Guilty as charged. Every day was like Christmas during my 13 years as the book review editor and books columnist. Around mid-morning I’d hear the gray cart’s rattling wheels, then I’d see Gus’s straining face as he delivered four or five white postal containers stuffed with cardboard envelopes. For the next half hour, I’d valiantly tear them open—paper cuts be damned—organizing my bounty into pileirs in that.

A few went back in the mail, to the critics from around the country who filled our section. Most wound up in the discount bin, where my colleagues could buy hardbacks for $2 and paperbacks for $1 (the proceeds went to charity). the rest ended up in the four-foot-tall stacks lining the walls of my office; anything higher angered the laws of physics. I didn’t see these books as a fire hazard but as windows on the world. From the confines of my Raleigh office, they told me what was going on in America and abroad, in big cities and tiny hamlets, in the minds of the mighty and the many. They were a mirror, reading me as I read them.

I did not come to the Book Review column through the traditional route—I majored in history, not English, at Wesleyan University in . . .

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