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A Year of Passionate Reading

By Sara Nelson

Putnam, $22.95, 224 pp


If you're reading this you could be, like Sara Nelson, a readaholic: a person who craves books the way some people crave chocolate, who has books piling up on her nightstand, and who often "double-books" (reads two at once).

Nelson, a senior contributing editor for Glamour and a columnist for the New York Observer, set out to read a book a week for a year, keep a journal about what she read, and see how each book related to what was going on in her life. The result is the very, well, readable So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading.

Like the reading habits of many random book readers, however, Nelson's plan went awry from the start. Almost immediately, for example, she abandoned her first book choice: Funnymen, by Ted Heller. She had loved Slab Rat, the last book of Heller (son of Joseph of Catch-22 fame) but suddenly realized that a book about a famous vaudeville act might not be the most appropriate to bring with her on her upcoming weekend trip. She was going to Vermont to meet Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She brought Soul in Exile, a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author.

Nelson also abandoned several other titles when she simply lost interest in them after giving them several tries. Richard Russo's bestseller Empire Falls was one. "I'm an adult," she writes. "If I don't like (a book), I stop reading."

Nelson wasn't a book junkie as a child, but now reading has become an obsession. Not content with her prescribed list, she discusses books she's read in the past. At the end is a list of books she might read, or plans to read in the future, including Elinor Lipman's latest, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. "I knew I'd found a soul mate in what some critics have called "the contemporary Jane Austen.' "

To say Nelson is opinionated is an understatement. She calls Tuesdays With Morrie "a cynical attempt to cash in on the spiritual self-improvement movement." She even trashes The Runaway Bunny as "repetitive and tiresome." Almost childlike in her frankness, Nelson is someone you learn to trust _ even if you don't agree with her all of the time.

Nelson's book is a book about books (one of her reading tips: Keep a book in the glove compartment for "something to do while stuck in traffic"), but So Many Books is also a book about Nelson. And she is as frank about her life as she is about books. She easily switches from a discussion of books by Philip Roth to scenes from her marriage. Her husband Leo's idea of reading material is a couple of magazines, she tells us. Once she excitedly told him about David Mura's Where the Body Meets Memory, a book that seemed to echo his own life _ as an artist and as a Japanese-American. Leo's response was, "Why should I read it. I don't need to. I lived it." Her young son Charley is interested in comics.

Nelson finds it uncanny that something she reads reflect situations in her life such as, coincidentally picking up A Million Little Pieces, by John Frey, after having a terrible fight with her husband. The book proved helpful because "thanks to Frey, I was more tuned in to the incremental improvements we have made over the years." In a moving anecdote, she describes how Den of Thieves, by James B. Stewart, reminded her of the discussions she and her now deceased father used to have about business. "It transported me to a dreamlike world . . . where a girl and her father sit up long into the night, drinking and arguing and talking about life."

Book clubs, in particular, will find this informative and witty memoir a handy reading guide, while those of us who are book junkies will devour every page.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a Dublin-born freelance writer now living in Cincinnati.