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Yet More Echo-Reviews in the Penny Press!

By (February 11, 2016) No Comment


The latest New York Review of Books, in addition to its usual spread of great reviews of books I nyrbhaven’t read – the standout this time probably being Jacob Weisberg’s “We Are Hopelessly Hooked,” a review of a spate of new books on digital media that was full of great quotes (my two favorite: “We can’t just deal with the emotional toll of brutality on the Web by toughening up. We need a Web that is less corrosive to our humanity” and “Even teenagers who don’t remember a time before social media express nostalgia for life without it,” neither of which is true but both of which are well-put) – had a mini-plethora of that peculiar phenomenon of the reviewing life: pieces about books I, too, have reviewed.

I’ve mentioned these echoes before here on Stevereads; they perennially fascinate me. In 2015 I reviewed a large number of books for a large number of venues, and my pace hasn’t been too shabby in 2016 either. But encountering a review by somebody else of a book I’ve reviewed myself is nevertheless always a strange feeling, a weird cross-current of confidence and doubt. The confidence comes naturally (a little too naturally, some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues might say) – I bring to every book I read every other book I’ve read, and I’ve midwifed enough books into existence to feel no reverence for them that they don’t earn. And the doubt comes from simple realism: I’ve been lucky enough in my life to know many better readers than myself – better readers, more subtle and sensitive readers. Hell, just in the present moment, look at my OLM colleagues, as strong a collection of readers as can be found at any literary journal in the world. Such reading company teaches the value of perspective.

You encounter another critic reviewing book you yourself have already reviewed, and you just naturally ask, “Did I miss something important? Was more going on there than I knew?” And of course you also quickly assess for tactical differences: does the critic in question have more space than you did? Is he an expert on the one key subject involved? And finally, most uncomfortably, you have to ask yourself: is this just a better review than mine?

I had several such encounters in this issue of the NYRB, although some were, to put it mildly, easier than others. When Tamsin Shaw, for example, reviewed a bunch of books on human psychology and not only included Steven Pinker’s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature but called it “extremely influential,” I can just instantly give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s never actually read the book, in which Pinker tortures enough statistics to come with a straight face to the conclusion that mankind is getting less violent as time goes on. I was first flabbergasted and then enraged by this book (it featured prominently on my Year’s Worst list that year), and I’d be dismayed to think it was rust waldmanhaving any influence on anything. I’m going to hope Shaw is wrong about that.

Equally easy was the quick mention Elizabeth Drew made of Jonathan Waldman’s Rust: The Longest War in an omnibus review she did of a slew of books on America’s crumbling infrastructure. She calls Waldman’s book “very readable,” and I concur: I liked it and would gladly re-read it this week if my copy hadn’t, you guessed it, disappeared.

It was also enjoyable to watch Eliot Weinberger grapple with two very different translations of the I Ching in his review of the recent translations by David Hinton and John Minford. I reviewed both of those translations and spent chunks of time in each case genuinely trying to understand even the smallest aspect of the venerable masterwork itself. In neither case did I undertake what Weinberger does so effectively here, a fast-paced tour of the work’s history in English-language translation, so this was a case of enjoying somebody else’s take on the books in question – or mostly enjoying it, since Weinberger breaks with his usual form by occasionally throwing up real clunkers. He says that the two translations “couldn’t be more unalike,” minford i chingwhich is a distractingly donnish way to say they couldn’t be more different, and when he writes the line, “It is not difficult to recuperate how thrilling the arrival of the I Ching was both to the avant-gardists, who were emphasizing process over product in art, and to the anti-authoritarian counter-culturalists,” you stop listening to his historical points as soon as you hit that erroneous and downright weird use of “recuperate.” Which makes me wonder about the NYRB’s legendary cadre of copy editors.

A purer enjoyment came from reading Neal Ascherson on Their Promised Land, Ian Buruma’s gentle and glowing tribute to his grandparents. Ascherson is a terrific writer, and his opening gambit of drawing parallels between the story of Buruma’s grandparents and the family of Anne Frank never even occurred to me when I was writing my own review, and he moves his discussion very smoothly to the book itself:

It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read.

And of course it’s dicer – although not necessarily less enjoyable – when a reviewer goes easy on a their promised landbook I walloped, as happens in this issue when Joseph Lelyveld reviews Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, a deeply flawed hagiography that Lelyveld calls “affectionate, sometimes gushy.” He writes quite correctly, “Not infrequently [Meacham’s] authorial distance from his subject shrinks to the vanishing point.” Which is a mighty polite way of saying Meacham lies in his book, often and enthusiastically. Lelyveld doesn’t quite accuse him of that, but for me, he makes up for his forbearance with some destiny and powerwonderful insights into the whole Bush clan:

More recently, the promise of yet another Bush, a prospective Bush 45, quickly flashed and then even more quickly dimmed. The latest chip off the old dynasty – George W.’s younger brother Jeb (sometimes spelled Jeb!) – hasn’t been able to keep up with the dark currents churning the party he seeks to calm and lead. There’s a spiral here. The way George W made the progenitor look good, Jeb’s campaign misfortunes have reminded some Republicans that for all his failings in office, George W was a winner.

Also in this issue were a few examples of a slightly different phenomenon, the circumstance where some other reviewer finds a way to wring an entire piece out of a book that left me flat-out uninterested. For instance, Arlene Croce does it superbly in her review of What the Eye Hears, Brian Seibert’s recent history of tap-dancing – but that’s a subject for another ramble!