Review: Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, by Jonathan Yardley

These days, with the Internet so practically accessible, we rely on critics (both professional an un-) for everything from what "musical do I want to see in the spring?", to "what detergent should I use on my baby's clothes". How does the saying go-- everyone's a critic? But not everyone is Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, who has spent most of the last fifty or so years as a book critic, author, columnist and teacher, and who has, in that time, read more books multiple times than most adults can claim in an entire lifetime. And it is with that literary experience that he established his "Second Reading" column in the Washington Post, now in collected form, care of Europa Editions.

This is a book to be taken on lightly. As earnestly as you may wish to plough through it, beginning to end may not be the best course. This is 360 pages of one person's opinion of many topics, and may easily alienate a reader if read straight-through. Keeping that in mind, I personally sorted the 60 essays into groups - those books that I had already read (only 4!), books I had heard of (16), books that sounded interesting (25), and then what I dubbed "last, but not least" (15). Working through the pieces in that fashion, I found Yardley increasingly agreeable. Once I was able to trust him (based on his exploration of those books I already know), it became easier to understand his point of view on books I had never heard of.

And, I should point out, it's not just about the books--neglected, or otherwise. He writes most astutely about the authors, providing brief enough biographies that it's not a collection of them, but establishing their places in the world, and contextualizing them. I've spent a week reading this book in small batches, and it's the best literary course I've taken in ages. It's easy to appreciate it when you see how clearly Yardley's passion for literature and for reading, and for these books shines through.

You can almost see him moving back and forth in front of a chalk board circling title after title, and sighing as he says "now this is a terrific book" or skipping to the other end of the board and underlining an author's name saying "you would not believe how this one's been mistreated," and then watching his eyes light up as he wipes the chalk dust from his hands and says "oh! but have you read this one?!"

I will add, as Yardley has in the book, that not all of the books from his column (which ran from 2003 to January 2010) are in the book. Thirty-seven of them were left out. However, all of the reviews from that column (including those in this book) can be found via link from Yardley's website. I have a feeling he saved the best for this collection, but considering The Count of Monte Cristo and Pride and Prejudice are both on the left-out list, I know I'll be checking out the website for myself!


  1. definitely want to read this! Also like your method of attack -- separating the essays into books you've read, have heard of, etc. sounds like a good idea for this type of work!


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