Saturday, January 06, 2007

A disturbing trend

in book reviewing: the aggressive proclamation of the reviewer's boredom/ignorance in the opening paragraph. I don't really hold it against the individual reviewer, it is sometimes very difficult to come up with the right hook and you take what you can get (one of the reasons blogging is more fun than book reviewing is that you can just plunge in medias res and make your point or two without worrying about the formalities), but surely there is something deeply anti-intellectual about this particular opening move.

Here's Allan Sloan at the NYTBR on P. J. O'Rourke's new book about The Wealth of Nations:

Before we had radio, telephones, television, the Internet and iPods, we had books. Long books. Complicated books. Books that got read, their length and complexity notwithstanding, because before talk shows and chat rooms, what else was there to do?

Back then, people like Adam Smith wrote long, long, long volumes like “The Wealth of Nations,” which revolutionized economic thought and theory when it was published in 1776. Smith’s treatise, as transformational in its own way as the American Revolution, established the intellectual foundation of capitalism, free markets and individual choice, which are taken as givens in American life the same way that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are.

Today, however, almost no one other than the obsessed (or the assigned) is likely to read Smith’s book, which runs more than 900 pages; the author’s convoluted prose makes it seem even longer than that.

Well, of course I'm totally taking offense at that, I have read The Wealth of Nations several times through (and will read it several times more I hope before life is altogether and conclusively over) and it's pretty much a great read and also the prose is NOT CONVOLUTED, there is good reason for Smith having been considered one of the most masterful stylists of his day. Seriously, I promise you, I know I am fanatical about the eighteenth century but Adam Smith is a great read; and is this shtick really necessary, anyway?

I don't think it would have struck me so strongly if I hadn't then gone on to read Paul Gray's piece on Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games":

This immense, demanding novel can be recommended, with scarcely a cavil, to well-educated Indians who have lots of free time, are fluent in (at the very least) English and Hindi, and have a thorough knowledge of South Asian politics; Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religious practices; and the stars and story lines of hundreds of Bollywood films. Longtime Bombay residents will have an extra advantage, since they will know, without consulting a gazeteer or Google, why the city is now called Mumbai. Prospective readers who don’t fit this profile will have some catching up to do.

Fortunately, “Sacred Games” supplies the uninitiated with enough information to prevent them from giving up in despair — although not, it must be mentioned, with much solicitude for slow learners. If Vikram Chandra were a swimming instructor, he’d be one of those no-nonsense types who toss pupils into the deep end of the pool and then walk away, confident that immersion and panic will provide sufficient motivation for staying afloat.

So it goes here. Those who plunge into the novel soon find themselves thrashing in a sea of words(“nullah,” “ganwars,” “bigha,” “lodu,” “bhenchod,” “tapori,” “maderchod”) and sentences (“On Maganchand Road the thela-wallahs already had their fruit piled high, and the fishsellers were laying out bangda and bombil and paaplet on their slabs”) unencumbered by italics or explication. A “selective glossary” appears at the back of the book, but consulting it is more troublesome than simply forging ahead. Context and repetition can work wonders, though, and those who persevere will discover that what one character describes as “some knocked-together mixture, some Bombay blend” of English and Hindi, begins to make sense — especially the naughty bits — in the same way that Anthony Burgess’s futurist Russian-English in “A Clockwork Orange” eventually becomes comfortably ho-hum.

Come on! First of all, by what stretch of the imagination can anything about the experience of the idiolect Burgess produced in that novel be called "comfortably ho-hum"? And do we really feel that novels should only tell us about things we know already? On this count, there would be no point reading War and Peace or Bleak House or any of the other big novels that are not just "classic" in some abstract-timeless-value sense but are also among the most entertaining and satisfying reads of all time. Every great novel makes its own language and asks us to enter into an imaginative compact during the time we spend reading in which we stretch and expand our own sense of what's possible; a gesture like this seems to me in that sense morally as well as aesthetically inadequate.

There's a hint of defensiveness in both cases about the reviewer's own intellectual engagements. I would rather see the reviewer worry less about a conjectural reader's interaction with the book and think more about his/her own engagement with it. If you're reviewing books in the first place, you should be beyond worrying about whether people think you're a nerd, but insofar as you do care what people think of you you are surely better off throwing yourself into things and being passionate than being all, like, "Oh, I am too cool to read Adam Smith."

(Nobody is too cool to read Adam Smith. Adam Smith is cool!)

On a ridiculously tangential/associative note (I have noticed before that I am excessively literal-minded and often more or less hostile to metaphor), I had a swimming lesson myself yesterday, it was very good. Other small consolations of the last few days: blogging (obviously--whistling in the dark in the purest possible form); yoga (first time I have been able to do it since the wretched MRI, I'm not clearing myself for running till I'm a whole stage further better than this but getting back to yoga in moderation will be a great relief); a very good production of The Yeoman of the Guard last night; an absurdly delicious helping of baklava ice-cream served in a brandy-snap cup.

Especially during the first act, I was mesmerized by the strangeness of the whole Gilbert and Sullivan phenomenon. It is really almost science-fictional, like something from the kind of science fiction that's closely allied to anthropology: can it really have come about (how contingent, how frail these cultural developments seem) that a hundred years later fanatical devotees gather to celebrate a bizarrely English and seemingly completely outmoded form of light opera in an outmoded kind of performance space all over the world?

But of course the quality of the material is exceptionally high, and you can also distinctly feel the continuities of a certain kind of English humor, it runs from my eighteenth-century guys (Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith) down to Monty Python and Rowan Atkinson and so forth. The whole thing is immensely soothing.

I also found myself wondering about why a certain kind of comedy seems to thrive disproportionately on collaboration: I love the novels of Neil Gaiman and I love the novels of Terry Pratchett, but I also think that their collaboration Good Omens is pretty much one of the funniest and most altogether delightful books I have ever read, bearing the stamp of both authors but somehow moving up to an even higher plane of genius....

(I need a sabbatical so that I can have more time to make good things--teaching is a different kind of good-thing-making, I find it enriching but also very tiring, the writing kind of making things leaves me bizarrely invigorated in a way I have really missed this fall--thinking about my dear lost friend Helen over the last few days has reminded me how strongly she believed in the value of creative work, and the goodness of made things whether they are vegan biscuits or zines or hand-made animated films or whatever.)


  1. I find it very disheartening that you're hostile to metaphor, to me one of language's glories.

  2. Not morally hostile to metaphor, just temperamentally--for some reason it mostly (not always) leaves me untouched, I don't know why. Did you ever read the famous essay by Roman Jakobson on aphasia and linguistic disturbances?

    (Here's a brief synopsis:".)

    Part of his thesis is that we all skew towards either metaphor or metonymy as a mode of thinking (I know that metonymy is broadly speaking a category of metaphor, but you see the distinction); one of the reasons I was so struck by this essay when I first read it was that it gave me some insight into my own preferences and patterns of thought.

  3. I'll definitely read it, sounds interesting, thanks.

    Thinking of you for obvious reasons.

  4. These people are indeed silly. Far more people have read and will read Adam Smith than have or will read this Sloan person, anyway. (whether or not one approves of Smith, and plenty of people don't, he is certainly read.)

    Stick him on a desert island, tell him he can have one book. He'd choose a long one then. Proust, perhaps.

    Hope you are OK, Jenny, in light of Lee's comment which is cryptic to me. My best wishes to you.

  5. You just had one (a sabbatical)! Well, maybe that didn't count, but the one in 2003-4 must have, certainly! But you must be due a semester one soon, right? At least a semester...

  6. I also find metaphor strangely inimical (find myself strangely inimical to metaphor? find that metaphor is strangely inimical to me?). That is, I can appreciate metaphor, but it never comes naturally to me in writing, and I am always struck by its prevalence in certain writers, and wonder how it gets there. Glad you are enjoying swimming and blogging, and anything else you can enjoy.

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