LN loves it when hometown natives make it big, and we love it even more when they come back to share their talents. Ron Charles, deputy editor of The Washington Post Book World, was an English teacher at John Burroughs School before he took his first job as a book reviewer. He will visit St. Louis on Oct. 4 for ‘An Evening with Elizabeth Strout’ at The Saint Louis Woman’s Club, where he will interview the Pulitzer Prize-winner about her newest release, The Burgess Boys. The event benefits The Heritage Account, Inc., which promotes the restoration and preservation of The Saint Louis Woman’s Club building in the Central West End. For ticket information, call 367-6923 or email carolynGFarrell@gmail.com. We checked in with Charles on everything from where he went to high school to his criteria for rating books.
So you grew up in St. Louis?
Yes, I lived there for 35 years. I went to Principia and taught at John Burroughs, and I have a lot of friends there. I love St. Louis and I get back all the time.
How did you become a book editor?
When I was teaching English, I started to review books for a paper in Boston. I moved up there, and I worked at the Christian Science Monitor for seven years or so, and I moved to the Post eight or nine years ago. It’s a great job and it’s really fun—it sounds a little like Christmas every day—which is nice, but it might be nice only in theory. We receive about 150 books a day, so the volume is unbelievable.
How do you choose which books to write about?
We try to speak to authors we know our readers will be interested in—big names and best-sellers—but we also try to help readers discover new people that can be fun and exciting.
How many books do you actually read?
I only finish one a week, that’s the book I review every Wednesday in the Post. But I read all day long. A lot is triage, trying to get through this flood of books pouring in on us all the time. We’re trying to find the big name and the undiscovered gem, or sometimes trying to make a roundup of books on some quirky subject.
What are your criteria when you rate a book?
I am looking for a powerful story. I want to be moved. It doesn’t have to be sad, but in some way it has to engage us. It should be written in a way that is clever or beautiful or witty; it has to have something striking about the style. It also has to have characters that we can either relate to, or hate or love. That’s what we all want: to go into somebody else’s world for a while.
What do you hope your readers come away with when they read a review?
For one thing, I want them to have a better idea of whether they would enjoy reading this book. Of course, that’s what reviewers do; and I also want to help them understand the kind of books that they might like, and give them an idea of how literature works—what’s successful and what’s not. Together we can sharpen our own critical skills and discover new writers. So it’s partly consumer help, but it also reminds me of the work I used to do as a teacher, which is to help people appreciate good books.
Do you think you’ll still read that much when you eventually retire?
I’ll read more, because I won’t have to review it. Reviewing slows you down because you have to read carefully, take notes and remember details. If I’m not reviewing, I can whiz along and enjoy it.
What is your favorite genre?
I review what we call literary fiction and that’s my favorite. However, I’m surprised how much I’ve been enjoying Westerns. I would have never thought I had any interest in those, but I realized I’ve reviewed four or five of them coincidentally and they were really good. It seems like such an old-fashioned genre—my grandfather used to read them—but several authors are bringing them back successfully. One great example is Mary Doria Russell, who is writing a series on Doc Holliday. The first novel is out; it’s called Doc, and she’s working on the second one. She’s just great.
Are there any books you read over and over again?
No, I don’t. It’s always a race into the future. People tell me about the great books they’ve read, but if it’s not coming out in the next two months, I can’t read it. What I’m reading, you haven’t heard of, because it hasn’t come out yet; and I will have to wait until I retire to read what I’ve missed.