The Degraded Enterprise

23 Jun

One frequently bemoans the difficulty of reaching back into one’s treasury of read books— as much when struck by the realization that we are fated to barely reduce the piles or lists or intentions of “To Be Reads” as by occasional reminders that some book or other from the past, might yield some new and or surprising pleasure.

Jonathan Yardley, well regarded book commentator for the Washington Post for a number of years produced a column entitled Second Reading which as its title suggests reconsidered books Yardley had read previously. He ended this wonderful public service earlier this year (or was it last?) but I can happily report that the publication of a well-produced book, Second Reading. Notable and Neglected Books Revisited (Europa Editions). This pleasing anthology contains 60 of the published columns(leaving out 37), Yardley’s reviews include fiction by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, John Cheever, and Henry Fielding; the autobiography of Louis Armstrong; essays by Nora Ephron; and Margaret Leach’s history of Washington during the Civil War. He explains:

In the seven years of writing Second Reading the terrific word “idiosyncratic”never once popped into my head, but I did want each piece to come as a bit of a surprise to my readers and thus placed a good deal of importance on unpredictability and variety in making my selections. For the same reason I have chosen to present these sixty pieces in the order of publication.

Inevitably, in a collection of pieces such as these, there is a bit of repetition. In a few pieces I cite a book’s protagonist as one of the great characters in American fiction and in so many pieces I lament the neglect into which the writer and /or his book have fallen. I considered eliminating these occurrences, but decided that to do so would take something important away from the pieces.

It should (and will) not go unsaid that I believe book reviewing /criticism is a degraded enterprise today and there a small handful of dependable commentators— Yardley,James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Carol Kellog,Gail Caldwell (apparently retired)David Ulinn (and occasionally an author who offers a graceful and sure-fingered touch of a book.Here’s an example.This is of course arguable thus I expect to return to what may be seen as unorthodoxy again.

And again.

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4 Responses to “The Degraded Enterprise”

  1. Rev. Joseph Fagan June 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Huh?

  2. Edward Champion June 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    I can’t quite trust Yardley. Sure, he’s done his bit to try and revive interest in Marquand (whose reputation, sadly, nobody can manage to resuscitate). But I suspect Lionel Shriver is right to call him humorless, especially when he can’t find a shred of joy or connection within ULYSSES. Also, Yardley can’t quite confront the fact that Booth Tarkington was as much a despicable racist as he was an author of gripping pageturners. As for criticism on the whole, it’s a degraded art because nobody is permitted to take any chances, including many of the names you trot out as apotheosic exemplars.

    • robertbirnbaum June 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

      My criterion for trust is that book critics have something useful to say.Eddie you are unquestionably entitled to your own benchmarks (though I am hard put to understand what taking chances means in this context.

      And while I am at it, it is shaky terrain to tread when you attribute motives, for example, to Yardley on his affection for Booth Tarkington

      • Edward Champion June 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

        Then let me clarify. From Yardley’s introduction to PENROD:

        “How does today’s reader, whatever his or her race, deal with the depiction of blacks in books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? In this instance the past was indeed another country, and people really do things differently there. People of breeding and innate decency — Twain, Tarkington, Ring Lardner, and too many others to enumerate — referred to blacks in offensive terms that few Americans now employ or tolerate, so it is not surprising that these terms also crop up in the literature of the period.”

        As far as I’m concerned, that’s a woefully deficient effort to confront Tarkington’s racism, which was far more frequent than Yardley suggested (see my piece on Tarkington from January, which offers numerous examples), in relation to what Tarkington seemed to know so well about the way political and social systems were set up. And this is indicative of what I’m talking about, Robert. A critic who takes chances is going to confront this uncomfortable issue and thus have something useful to say about how it’s possible to have an appreciation for a problematic novelist. But to skirt around this reality, as Yardley has with this flimsy excuse (“Well that was the time! Moving along.”), surely represents degraded and gutless criticism. So it’s hardly shaky terrain. Have you read Tarkington, Robert? Pretty unpleasant stereotypes. And yet one cannot deny that his books purr along.

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