Ruth Ann Dailey: Library tax helps make a lendable feast

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Tax season hath descended, an annual ritual that always provokes grumbling and snorting at our house as we reflect on the track record of the various governments we so generously sustain.

The experience was considerably more bitter this year, given the shocking corruption of the Internal Revenue Service; but my glee will be that much sweeter when a special prosecutor eventually takes those scoundrels down.

As skeptical as I am about taxes, government and waste, though, there's one line on my city property tax bill that actually makes me smile. It's the one that identifies the tiny portion of my payment going to support the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system.

I smile because I know I'm getting my money's worth -- and then some.

So are a few more souls, at least, because we're all jockeying for position in the library's virtual request line. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Life is so short and there are so many worthwhile books to read that for years now, I've made a habit of ripping good book reviews from newspapers and magazines. I can't afford to waste any time reading dreck.

How do I know whether to trust a reviewer's opinion? If he or she writes for a national newspaper or a serious magazine, it will very likely be a fine book; the only question is whether I'm interested in the topic.

Below that exalted tier, I've gotten a feel for other sundry reviewers who are kindred spirits, at least in some genres, by testing their recommendations. (I really like a couple of folks at New York magazine and Entertainment Weekly.)

And beyond that, I go with whatever consensus seems to emerge from multiple cultural sources. Thrillers, for instance, are rarely reviewed in a "serious" forum, but good thrillers are awesome. I reward myself with them in between those "serious" reads.

Every few months, all those reviews get pulled from the stacks of clippings that litter -- I mean, decorate -- our house. I get busy sorting them into two new stacks: books I must own and books I could borrow.

Books to borrow are those fun thrillers which would deliver no thrill upon a re-reading.

Every library in Allegheny County will carry copies of these, along with a smorgasbord of the bestseller lists.

Once in a while, a book that makes the bestseller list also happens to be a book for the ages. Charles Frazier's 1997 "Cold Mountain" is one of those, and I've made sure to buy hardcovers of his two novels that followed. I expect I'll reread them a few times in the course of my life.

But as I look around my house, in which most shelves are filled two-deep, I know I can't buy everything, and don't need to.

So after I sort those reviews into the borrow-buy stacks, I log onto the regional library website, einetwork.net, and see which ones are available to borrow.

And this is where I've found I am not alone. Someone else out there has been keeping the same reviews I have. Someone else has a to-order list a lot like mine, and whoever it is, is just a few steps ahead of me.

Maybe it's you.

I'm pretty sure it's not a book club, because many reviews I'm ordering from are a few years old. (It's hard to tell the exact vintage of each stack of stuff in my house...)

Whoever I'm competing with, last year I'd have to wait a month -- or even two! -- before I could get all five or six books in each bout of borrowing.

But who cares? It's amazing: You go online, search the combined library systems of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, order what you want and have it delivered to the library of your choice -- for free!

Three days ago I walked out of the gorgeous new Carnegie Library on Federal Street with three novels -- "The Dinner" by Dutch writer Herman Koch, "Blame" by Michelle Huneven and "The Irresistible Henry House" by Lisa Grunwald -- and two recent works of nonfiction: Elliott Abrams' "Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" and "On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History" by Nicholas A. Basbanes. (Two thrillers, ahem, got into my book bag, too.)

Three books I bought arrived by mail: "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis," Niall Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" and "Beg, Borrow and Steal: A Writer's Life" by Michael Greenberg.

Every book has its review tucked inside as a bookmark and argument-in-waiting. I don't know which I'll pick first; it depends on how I feel when I finish Richard Ford's "Canada."

It's like Christmas in March. I tried to share the joy with my husband as he claimed the living room chair opposite mine.

"See that pile of books?"

He glanced at the coffee table, then cocked an eyebrow at me. "Which pile?"

Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.


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