Posts from July 2015
July 19th, 2015
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.
July 15th, 2015
The Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.
I refer, of course, to corgis.
Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.
Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.
Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this particular owner:
The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”
One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:
“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”
To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.
One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.
Just this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.
Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.
July 10th, 2015
The always-delightful “Summer Reading” issue of The Weekly Standard came out recently (with its typically witty cover, only this one, unlike all the earlier classics of its kind, worries that its central joke will be missed by the general readership – so the punch line, “The Turn of the Screw,” is actually spelled out, just in case), full of book reviews. As usual in such issues, the books involved aren’t particularly “summery” in any way (and unlike the great such issue currently on display here at Open Letters Monthly, there isn’t even any theme in The Weekly Standard‘s round-up), but it’s still a wonderful variety, including Amy Henderson reviewing The Algonquin Round Table New York by Kevin Fitzpatrick, Daniel Heitman reviewing The Prince of Minor Writers, a collection of Max Beerbohm’s writings, edited by Phillip Lopate, and Stephen Smith reviewing Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon, about the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry in Wellington’s army (a book so ably reviewed by OLM freelancer Matt Ray here).
For me, the highlight of the issue was Dominic Green reviewing Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (which I reviewed here) and tossing off some choice zingers. “Only Churchill can coin a phrase, especially when Gibbon and Macaulay have coined it first,” he writes, for instance, and alas, our well-intentioned author doesn’t escape unscathed: “Deborah Cadbury comes from another beloved British dynasty, the Cadbury chocolate maker. Her prose is higher in calories than nutrients, and its velvety smoothness has a honeycomb center of cliché.”
And over in the TLS, there’s a plaintive letter from a dreamer named Christopher Denton, calling forlornly (and in excellent prose) for the return of sanity to modern poetry – and the poetry of the New Yorker in particular:
It would be refreshing if we could have poetry once in a while that makes sense, which contains at least a modicum of rhythm, which eschews narcissism, honours nature as well as humour, elucidates politics and philosophy, presents and element of form which actually differs from prose, avoids profanity at all costs, declines the use of idioms except in dialogue, and respects the language and the reader.
In the same issue, Trev Broughton reviews two George Eliot pastiche novels, Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen and Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl, both trying some kind of re-imagining of Daniel Deronda. At Open Letters, we’re lucky enough to have the services of our very own Victorianist, Rohan Maitzen, who, among other things, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the works of George Eliot – and who wasn’t all that impressed with Souhami’s book, as you can see here. I thought Broughton’s piece was very good, especially his own glimpses at what might have been:
These two books share a desire common since Eliot’s earliest readers exchanged notes, to spring the spirited Gwendolen Harleth from Eliot’s final novel: to salvage her story from its wordy, worthy Zionist co-plot, and to save her from the most unerotic of erotic triangles between the priggish Daniel and the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt.
Of course, neither Gwendolen nor Sophie and the Sibyl nor Daniel Deronda itself are what most people (pace Professor Maitzen) would consider “summer” books, but I guess not everybody can have Jackie Collins right there on their nightstand.
July 5th, 2015
I’m one of many periodical readers, I suspect, who read Usman Malik’s superb mini-essay “Rockets, Robots, and Reckless Imagination” in The Herald magazine out of Pakistan; the piece has been linked and shared liberally since it appeared a couple of days ago, and deservedly so. In a little over 2000 words, Malik manages to write a piece that’s equal parts manifesto, celebration, and slightly agonized cry from the heart.
On one level, his subject what he perceives as the brain-dead pedagogy of his native Pakistan, its schools and teachers lacking imagination. But, wonderfully, he expands this to embrace the genre of imagination: science fiction (stipulating that by this term he means to include all branches of speculative literature or fantastika). He concedes (just a touch too glancingly, but still) that “mimetic” fiction, the stuff of realism and the like, has its purposes and joys, but for him, science fiction opens doors to wonder that are closed to all other genres:
Mimetic or realist literature has its own uses, but mimetic fiction doesn’t always explore alternative ways of living, learning and growing as individuals or peoples. It doesn’t necessarily evoke a sense of awe that could take us back to an age of innocence when the stars were a million hot eyes in the sky, the moon a silver sickle dangling from God’s Hand and the world a place filled with mystery.
For me, the most interesting part of his essay wasn’t the obvious fact that he himself has had his mind “lit up with revelation” after reading works of science fiction – in ways that no other genre quite does – but rather his call for a greater incorporation of the literature of science fiction into the various reading lists of the Pakistani educational system. Reading along in complete agreement with him, I was struck by the wonderfully bizarre company of names he invokes:
Writers like Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, M A Rahat, Ray Bradbury, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Vandana Singh, Samuel R Delany, Mazhar Kaleem, A Hameed, and Anil Menon should be discussed and celebrated alongside Hemingway, Mohsin Hamid, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Bapsi Sidhwa and other (predominantly) realist writers.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person to read that roster and immediately think: Hemingway? Is Hemingway that big in Pakistan?
But mainly I was nodding enthusiastically, because I’ve felt that key core of wonder that Malik describes. I’ve felt the particularly strong wavelength of that wonder that emanates only from the world of science fiction, that feeling of having the boundaries of your imagination abruptly stretched and redefined. I’ve experienced it with works ranging from A Princess of Mars to Dune to A Million Open Doors – indeed, it’s what keeps me coming back to speculative fiction. I’ve been reading a larger than average amount of science fiction and fantasy so far this summer, and a dozen times since April (when Boston still had ten feet of snow on the ground, so I guess it only technically counts as anything close to summer), I’ve found myself wondering a question very near to Malik’s: why isn’t this stuff taught more often in schools, especially high schools where kindling the wonder of reading is more difficult and more important than ever?
So hats off to Usman Malik! Here’s hoping lots of teachers – in Pakistan and well beyond – were paying attention.
June 9th, 2015
I don’t often give my second-tier periodical reading the attention it deserves here on Stevereads, which is a little unfair considering how much reading enjoyment it so regularly gives me. It’s true that my main fare comes from mighty banquets like the TLS or the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or the Atlantic or The National Geographic, but there’s plenty of other magazine reading to be done, and it’s the second-tier journals that fill in those gaps. Basically, I’ll go wherever there are book reviews, no matter how repulsive the journal itself may be.
And when it comes to repulsive, the quasi-respectable journals don’t get much more odious than the Weekly Standard, the cover story of which this week is something called “Obama’s Reformation,” a story about various “religious freedom” exemptions to US anti-discrimination laws that naturally portrays the religious groups in question as victims of authoritarian governmental overreach. The piece is written by Adam White, who’s identified as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is exactly what you’d guess it is from its name, a ‘think tank’ New York cabal that would have to become more progressive before it could even be called crypto-fascist.
And the crypto-fascism if anything increases before it levels out, in this particular issue of the Weekly Standard, with somebody named Gary Schmitt turning in an excellent review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, full of lively descriptions such as this quick bit about the odd couple nature of Sky’s relationship with General Odierno in Iraq:
A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and a bald, six-foot-six massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam – with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy – she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead in such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.
The review might have been good, but Schmitt himself? He’s “Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” It’s not often that you don’t even need to Google something to know everything important about it, but this is surely one of those times.
That’s the besetting problem with magazines like the Weekly Standard, and it’s the reason why mentally reasonable readers tend to give them a wide berth: the writers for such magazines, even the book reviewers, are duty-bound to import an ideological slant into their pieces – in this case, the standard American ultra-right wing nutjob “conservative” ideology that’s currently embodied by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, craven little megalomaniacs who constitute the warped version of the Republican Party today. In the Weekly Standard, this ideology takes the usual form of a wistful, semi-angry regret on the writer’s part that we’ve all allowed those shrill feminists and homo-sexuals to drive society’s agendas so far from the Lost Golden Age “we” all remember as being so much better, so much more sensible than the crazy way things are today.
This kind of nonsense is bad enough in lead stories like that piece of crap about “religious freedom” under fire, where even an unwary reader goes in expecting that the whole thing will be a code-worded screed designed to attack all inroads made by social equality into the time-honored preserves of wealthy white people in entrenched positions of power (gays wanting to marry? Women wanting equal pay? Minorities wanting protection from summary execution by the police? Aw, c’mon – remember how things USED to be? Why do we all have to CARE about this stuff?). But it’s worse when it crops up in book reviews, which are supposed to be about the books under review.
Take Charlotte Allen’s review of Medieval History by Kevin Madigan, in which there’s this little tidbit:
Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, as [sic] least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic” – that is, strictly sequential – accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters.
Ah yes, those “contemporary” historians pandering to the PC learning disabilities of their pill-popping, lawyered-up never-went-to-Choate students by serving up bite-sized “diachronic” topics instead of normal meat-and-potatoes sequential history (remember how things USED to be?). I seem to recall that Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – in all its diachronic glory – was written back in 1860, and was preceded and followed by countless other such works, but maybe Burckhardt & co. likewise had lazy, Commie students to accommodate.
And sometimes, this ideological mission creep can go from oily to genuinely offensive, as in the case of Edwin Yoder’s review of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which ends, incredibly, with this:
Constitutionally speaking, John Wilkes Booth’s act had the effect of largely confining the postwar examination of Lincoln’s official stewardship of the Constitution to scholarly literature. Only there, and only in scattered instances, was there any searching evaluation of Lincoln’s huge expansion of presidential powers. Lincoln the agile lawyer adroitly rationalized quite extraordinary executive measures as essential exercises of war powers, identifying what Booth viewed as “tyrannical” as mere normal precedent. Succeeding wartime presidents have not been slow to follow. This was, perhaps, the crowning irony of Booth’s heinous and destructive crime.
Quick: despite the ridiculous sop of that “heinous and destructive,” do you think Yoder is for or against Booth shooting Lincoln in the head?
Expansion of executive powers … in the wrap-up to a piece on John Wilkes Booth. It would be funny if it weren’t so revolting.
But lest I give the wrong impression, there’s quite a bit of legitimately wonderful stuff in these second-tier journals! It’s not all code-worded crypto-fascism! Take the last issue of the Boston Review, for instance. It has a very good review by Meghan O’Gieblyn of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed;
The ritual takedown of a scapegoat may gratify, however fleetingly, an impulse for justice, but it often benefits the very institution supposedly under attack. We perpetuate the system when we limit our outrage to a single person. That is not to say systemic problems are immune to public activism, but even minor change requires persistent and sometimes tedious work.
And the last issue of the venerable American Scholar has a wonderful (too short!) review by Graeme Wood of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder:
One of the pleasures of her book is that it demonstrates how Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, rather than copying reality, showed that it contained within it more than one could have supposed – inner space, both psychological and biological. To see the world in a milkmaid’s averted gaze, or in a splash of pond scum, takes genius of a high order …
It might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep me coming back.
June 1st, 2015
Reading the cover story of the latest Harper’s, David Bromwich’s magisterial, damning assessment of the Obama presidency, certainly did no wonders for my lunch-time digestion. Just the first paragraph reads like a cold halibut across the face:
Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled twice by what followed – there must be millions of us – will feel that this president deserves the kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor mostly likely will also be worse.
I read Bromwich’s long piece with mounting admiration at his rhetorical ability and almost not one single scintilla of agreement at his conclusions, and the combination ended up being so depressing that I turned with great relief to the “Spring Books” issue of The Nation – and was very nearly depressed all over again. I opened the “Spring Books” issue and encountered … well, hardly a big lineup of books any normal readership would be likely to read this Spring – or any other Spring. There’s a review by Aaron Thier of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, a William Deresiewicz review of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, a dual review of Moira Weigel of Keywords by Raymond Williams and Distant Reading by Franco Moretti … you see what I mean: not exactly anybody’s idea of ‘it’ books, although the pieces themselves, typically for The Nation, were first-rate.
But my spirits not only perked up but soared when I got to Corey Robinson’s long essay in the same issue! It’s even less a “Spring Books” piece than the others – it discusses Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt, Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, and Becoming Eichmann by David Cesarini, for Pete’s sake – but what it lacks in edge-of-summer topicality it more than makes up for with edge-of-your-seat brilliance.
Robinson looks at the literary firestorm that was sparked into existence by Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, including multiple excoriations by some of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals of the day, and the discussion is invigorating throughout – in fact, I wanted the piece to keep going, and I knew I was in good hands right from the beginning of the piece:
Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fe. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?
The fact that the Penny Press regularly provides me with such gems is the reason I keep the whole anachronistic machinery of magazine subscriptions wheezing and clanking along. Bravo, Corey Robinson!
May 14th, 2015
Any given issue of the mighty TLS will be an intellectual and even emotional journey, and the 1 May issue was no exception. The showpiece of the issue was the great conductor Leon Botstein reviewing two new books about the composer Franz Schubert, one of which was Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, so ably reviewed by our Open Letters Editor-in-Chief Greg Waldmann in our current issue. Like Waldmann, Botstein is actually a fan of this composer’s wretchedly lachrymose song-cycles, although unlike Waldmann, Botstein panics and falls back on quasi-reviewspeak gibberish:
Schubert’s music transfigured the particular without falsifying suffering through cheap sentimentality. His was not confessional music. Rather, he used the vantage point of the deeply personal, to reach beyond his particular historical context and communicated both an uncanny emotional and philosophical intensity and a resistant realism about the human existential predicament.
That was disappointing, granted, but the same issue had plenty of compensations, from a review of Pat Shipman’s prehistoric-dog book The Invaders by the great Ian Tattersall, in which he dissents from the book’s main thesis but agrees with its rueful inspiration:
Still, few if any readers of this lucid and compelling exposition will come away believing that the early modern Europeans were not deeply implicated in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Clearly, our guilt complex about these unfortunate hominids is entirely warranted.
And other good stuff, from a review of The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela done by Open Letters friend and erstwhile contributor (and mastermind of The Quarterly Conversation) Scott Esposito to a short bit of praise by John Ure for Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the doomed Lusitania – a short bit of praise during which Ure feels compelled to take up a chunk of his precious space doing a note-perfect imitation of a classic reviewer-pedant:
British readers may be exasperated by some of the Americanisms. The First Lord of the Admiralty is not ‘Britain’s top naval official’ but the minister responsible for the navy in the government; and the use of the word ‘rug’ rather than ‘blanket’ (on a deck chair) may not strike readers as a peculiar case of ‘the ship’s vernacular’. But these are minor quibbles.
And speaking of Open Letters (as, indeed, when am I not?), how could a passage in David McKitterick’s review of Lotte Hellinga’s Texts in Transit fail to bring to mind many a hectic late-night deadline session:
At the centre was not so much the press as the compositor, the man who set the type. Whatever his copy might offer, whether direct from an author, from an old manuscript, from a new one, or even from a mixture, he had somehow to fit words into the given space available on the press.
There’s not one of us associated with Open Letters who hasn’t breathed a silent prayer of thanks for our own compositor, Kennen McCarthy, on those hectic nights when the monthly issue is springing into being, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t at least once received one of his politely pointed (or is it pointedly polite?) emails asking where X is when X is something we thought we’d sent him days ago. McKitteridge is right to point out the vital nature of such people in actually getting a publication to its intended recipients.
If only the whole of this issue of the TLS could have been so congenial! But no: instead, on the letters pages a note was struck that was so sour, so bitter, so selfish that it effectively soiled the entire issue.
Historian and biographer Fred Kaplan, writing about the documentary remains of the great Gore Vidal, sends a letter about ‘four substantial loose-leaf volumes of chronologically arranged typescripts of Vidal’s letters that have an honoured place on my basement storage shelves.’ The context is the open question of a “Collected Correspondence” volume of Vidal’s letters, and the more you read Kaplan on the subject, the more your jaw drops in astonishment:
Vidal is a magnificent letter-writer. The letters ought to be published. Perhaps I could be persuaded to edit them for publication under the right circumstances. No one else, I suspect, will ever collect them or be able to collect them from their owners. But it would take a lot of persuasion. And there is the question of who controls the estate (contested, I think) and probably issues of control and costs. Why don’t I simply turn over all my transcriptions to the Vidal archive at Harvard and let someone else edit them for publication? Perhaps I will, at my death. In the meantime, I suppose, I’m getting a small bit of revenge, which perhaps doesn’t speak well of me, But I trust that some of your readers will not be entirely unsympathetic.
Revenge – on a man who’s been dead for years. At the expense of all that man’s fans and the entire scholarly community. But Kaplan has the nerve to say that PERHAPS this doesn’t speak well of him, and he says this in the middle of a thinly-veiled and incredibly petulant demand that the Republic of Letters court him – perhaps with flowers and chocolates (but really with a pile of money) – to calm down and stop holding a grudge against Vidal. We understand you’ve been hurt, we’re supposed to say, those of us who’d like to read the letters Kaplan is hoarding, but if you’ll just accept our groveling apologies for how he treated you, maybe …
It’s nauseating, and Kaplan follows it up with a steaming pile of bile:
Vidal had a self-destructive or at least a self-defeating streak. I suspect that he believed he was punishing me for disloyalty or non-obedience when he ended our relationship. The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one. This short-sightedness was part of a lifelong pattern. He was a witty but not a wise man. He alienated or expelled almost every friend, family member, editor, publisher and literary peer, with the exceptions of Howard Austen and Jay Parini, both of whom put up with abusive treatment in order to stay close to him; he made decision after decision, including his residence in Italy, that limited or damaged his American career and presence; and he allowed a desire for celebrity and celebrity-mongering to dominate his life. Indeed, he accomplished much as a novelist, essayist and political polemicist. But his arrogance, manipulativeness, cruelty, alcoholism, and self-deception were always all too evident and limiting … Towards the end his dementia added a sad coda. It was a great talent heavily burdened. I wish it could have been otherwise.
The classic bent reasoning of an abusive bully: the attempt to characterize his own boorish actions as mere reactions, the disgusting “I’m sorry you made me do this” line of every two-bit extortioner in history. “The result, though, is that there is no edition of his letters. There may never be one.” And why? Because Gore Vidal, who’s now, it bears repeating, dead, was mean to Fred Kaplan. That’s why Kaplan will neither produce a “Collected Letters” volume nor allow anybody else access to his unique materials. That’s why – the threat is plainly implied – he may destroy those materials rather than allow them to fall into some scholar’s hands after his death.
Like I said, reading his letter, seeing that such despicable self-absorbed censorship exists even at the heart of the writing world, soiled the rest of the issue for me. If there’s any justice in the world, Kaplan will be raked over the coals in subsequent letters pages for his abominable behavior, but I won’t hold my breath.
May 5th, 2015
There was never any real doubt that I would return to The New Republic even in what Penny Press historians will refer to as the Post-Chotiner Period. After all, the magazine still has an ample Books section, and even though that section is now run by a couple of guys who did themselves no PR favors during the melodramatic “Whither TNR?” Transition Period a few months ago, the institution itself still has (relatively) deep pockets and will therefore still attract some noteworthy freelance work. How could it be otherwise, smart writers being what they are? Like what I suspect was the majority of the magazine’s long-time readers, I stood back for a few months, waited for the dust to settle, and then warily returned to the scene, as it were, of the crime.
I bought the May issue for the headline takedown of Cornell West about which I’d already heard some intriguing things. And I wasn’t disappointed: Michael Eric Dyson’s piece is very good, and all the more powerful for being so personal. Likewise the first-rate investigation of “click farms,” shady outfits where social media users can pay for clicks and ‘likes.’ I hadn’t known anything about such places, but I suspect I’ve experienced their handiwork, since my paltry number of followers on Twitter, while adamantly refusing to reach 300, fluctuates in the upper 290s with such week-to-week regularity that I long ago suspected some sort of low-wattage fraud had to be involved (I’m annoying, yes, but I’m amazingly consistently annoying).
If only I’d quit while I was ahead! If only I’d stopped after Cornel West and the compu-bots! But nooooo! By that point I was engaged with the issue – so I read William Giraldi’s piece on why the world will always need printed books.
The simple description itself should have warned me off. Articles about the joys of physical books tend to fall into one of two categories: self-congratulation or semi-brainless knee-jerk conservatism. Aw, who am I kidding? Articles about the joys of physical books always, always cover both categories.
Giraldi’s little essay here is no exception on either count. The two things you’re supposed to take away from reading it are: printed books are cooler than e-books ever could be, and William Giraldi is the coolest collector of printed books on Planet Earth.
He hits all the usual notes for this kind of clap-trap. He talks about how many books he owns; he talks about how early in life he caught the book-collecting bug; he quotes from all the usual suspects when it comes to sound bites for his piece, from Leigh Hunt to E. M. Forster to, of course, Borges; and he reduces the whole alleged superiority of printed books to two things: their aura and their odor.
The odor part is the single most annoying refrain printed-book snobs always harp on whenever the subject comes up: the smell of the paper. In my bookselling career, I heard it so often that I ended up wanting to bop all of these budding Hannibal Lecters in the kisser. Giraldi goes at it with a vengeance:
The physicality of the book, the sensuality of it – the book as a body that permits you to open it, insert your face between its covers and breathe, to delve into its essence – that is what many of us seek in the book as object.
I’d call the cops if somebody started sticking his face inside my books, and it’s all so ridiculous anyway, all these professed book-lovers going around sniffing pages and lapsing into weak-kneed euphoria.
When Giraldi shifts from odor to aura, things get even worse, in part because he references a better writer than himself, pointing out a piece in which Sven Birkerts speaks of “that kind of reading which is just looking at books,” the “expectant tranquility” of sitting looking at his library, the sense of “futurity” he gets, etc. How woeful that a former Brattle Bookshop acolyte should ever have written such codswallop as to assert that looking at his books is a kind of reading, and how lamentable that somebody like Giraldi should then praise such an idiotic idea: “Expectant tranquility and sense of futurity,” he writes, “those are what the noncollector and what the downloader of e-books does not experience, because only an enveloping presence permits them.”
“I’m sorry,” he goes on, “but your Nook has no presence.”
So this fierce defender of printed books is mainly praising not reading them or studying them but simply having them, on display for others to see. Lovely. What clearly bothers him most about the idea of reading on a Nook is that this element of external display is absent – it’s just you and the books.
“You scroll and swipe and click your way through your life,” Giraldi insufferably scolds, “scanning screens for information and interruption, screens that force you into a want of rapidity.” (That fumbling fake-antiquing of “in a want of rapidity” – here simply an incorrect way of saying “into a wanting for rapidity” – is typical of windbag essays of this kind, where every junior G-grade book poser tries to sound like William Hazlitt; Giraldi also uses “mounts” instead of “mountains” and “wilderness grot” for “wilderness grotto”), but a printed book encourages you to “be alone with yourself, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination.”
None of this kind of hooey is ever true. The pretentious ninnies who swoon over the odor of printed pages neither noticed nor cared about such a thing before e-books showed up. And this one’s important: people who rhapsodize about reading in silence and solitude share one thing in common: they don’t currently read at all. They might dabble and sample, but this gauze-tinted scenario they describe, where they retreat to some wilderness grot with a beautiful leatherbound tome and soak it up in blissful silence and solitude? It’s pure hogwash. It never happens. They never do it. Indeed, it’s been my suspicion for years that they can’t do it anymore.
It’s true you can’t swan and swoon in front of admirers when you’re reading on an e-reader. You can’t make wistful, faux-woeful comments to less literate onlookers (Giraldi describes an encounter with a neighborhood cop that would make a less foppish writer cringe in embarrassment) about how much they add to your life, even though you know you’ll never read them all, etc.
But you can most certainly read on an e-reader. You can most certainly lose yourself in a book on an e-reader. Inevitably in pieces like this, the qualities of printed books that are sung the loudest are non-literary qualities, but you can read books on an e-reader, just as genuinely and easily as you read printed books. Hell, you can even call up your library and just sit there looking at your e-books – but nobody else can, which is clearly the rub.
April 16th, 2015
As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:
February 19th, 2015
Nothing warms up the icy snowbound ventricles quite like a burst of outrage, and I got one of those recently when I encountered a block of pure editorial cowardice in the Penny Press. Specifically, it was in the 5 February 2015 issue of the London Review of Books (although the cover is misprinted as 2014), and perhaps predictably, the subject was the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the letters column, a reader named Simon Hammond writes:
As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.
To which Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB, replies:
I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue …
The craven nature of such stuff is matched by its worminess; the dodge in the reprehensible first line is only deepened by the insinuating obliqueness of the last line – “there are many other things to be said about the attacks” … many things other than ‘freedom of expression,’ that is, and what might those things be? Are they in fact really plural? Can those ‘other things’ really be anything except some damn variation of “Charlie Hebdo had it coming”? Isn’t that the only construction that can be put on the weaselly line “I don’t believe I have the right to insult whomever I please”?
I read Wilmers’ disgusting response to Hammond over and over, trying and failing to see it as anything other than a preemptive plea for mercy from the same people who sent the killers to Charlie Hebdo. Why, except from cowardice, would Wilmer voluntarily, eagerly surrender a right she in fact does possess, the right to insult whomever she pleases? Not slander or libel whomever she pleases – nobody was slandered in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and you famously can’t libel the dead – but insult, which indeed is the kind of freedom-of-expression thing (without the noxious scare-quotes, as if the term is some baroque oddity she found in a dusty old book) the editor of the London Review of Books should defend.
But she directed me to Tariq Ali’s piece in the same issue, so I went and read it, which did nothing at all to calm my outrage. Ali’s piece is of course much longer than Wilmer’s cringing, posturing little paragraph, and if anything it’s more opaque, more careful in its appeasements. Ali is always a careful writer, but I’ve hardly ever seen his prodigious gifts exercised in making less worthy points:
In the week following the atrocities, a wave of moral hysteria swept France. ‘Je suis Charlie’ became almost obligatory … Slowly, a more critical France is beginning to speak up. An opinion poll two days after the big march [in the wake of the shootings] revealed a divided country: 57 per cent were ‘Je suis Charlie’s, but 42 per cent were opposed to hurting the feelings of minorities.
More critical … incredible. As if the thousands of people – including hundreds of writers and intellectuals just like Ali – put no critical thought into their ‘Je suis Charlie’ responses but were just wildly – hysterically – flailing. The baiting-and-switching going on here is even more revolting than the kind Wilmers uses; the opposition being set up between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and hurting the feelings of minorities is revoltingly deceitful in its use of euphemisms. “Je suis Charlie” is not an empty slogan; it’s an expression of solidarity with the idea that satire should be possible without the threat of lethal retaliation. And “hurting the feelings of minorities” is a prelude rather than a point; of course everybody’s opposed to hurting the feelings not just of minorities but of majorities. Of course hurt feelings are bad. But how were the hurt feelings of minorities expressed in this case? With a barrage of very pointed letters from Muslims and Muslim sympathizers cancelling Charlie Hebdo subscriptions? No: with a highly coordinated paramilitary attack designed to murder the Charlie Hebdo staff.
That cowards like Wilmers and Ali are so complacently willing to equate ‘insulting Muslims’ with ‘incurring Muslim violence’ – that they’re apparently willing to live in a world in which you refrain from hurting the feelings of minorities not because hurting feelings is rude but because you’re personally afraid of what will happen if you don’t – would be deplorable enough if they were just private citizens. But in a public intellectual and the editor of the London Review of Books? With the earth still turned on the graves of their slaughtered Charlie Hebdo peers? Freedom of expression had better watch out for its life, if two of its presumed defenders are half-way to Munich the instant clear battle-lines are drawn.
Maybe I’ll enjoy the rest of that LRB … provided nobody’s feelings are hurt …