I just read on Sarah Weinman's site that Ira Levin has died. Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two bestselling novels I enjoyed greatly when I was a kid in the 70's reading under the influence of my Grandma, my mom and my sister. These books were both made into excellent movies, of course (Roman Polanksi's chic spin on Rosemary's Baby was especially good) but the books were fun to read too. Ira Levin specialized in conspiracy theories: Rosemary's Baby presented a Satanic conspiracy and Stepford Wives a male chauvinist conspiracy. But Ira Levin wrote another conspiracy novel, This Perfect Day, which I also read as a teenager and liked perhaps even better than the other two.
Why did teenage me read this strange and even then little-known book, which depicts a rebel named Li RM35M4419 (nickname: Chip) who takes on a totalitarian government managed by a giant computer named UniComp? I guess I had a lot of time on my hands, but this often paid off, and This Perfect Day was a very exciting and rewarding read. I don't want to give away the core secret conspiracy that is revealed during the course of This Perfect Day, but perhaps I can suggest that some readers may want to honor this author's death not by rereading the familiar bestsellers but by finding copies of this one instead. You can read the Wikipedia page above if you don't mind a spoiler (no, UniComp is not gay) and I'll just say that the book does come up with a good payoff and stands up to 1984, Animal Farm, Slapstick, Brave New World and other totalitarian fables. Like these novels, it touches upon fascism, Stalinism and Maoism, but Ira Levin has more fun with these concepts than any of the others (except maybe Slapstick, since nobody ever had more fun with a concept than Kurt Vonnegut).
The book also offers a highly original message that has something to do with co-optation of the underground. Dana Spiotto's recent Eat The Document tells a similar story in a very different way.
I'll update this page with more links about Ira Levin as I find them. Farewell to a highly original author, Ira Levin of New York City, 78 years old.
Maybe it is, and maybe I've been oblivious since it's always been my stated purpose here to review the NYTBR on aesthetic grounds. I've always tried to apprehend each new issue, and each article in each new issue, with a blank memory. Rather than seeking out patterns, I've tried to seek out surprises, and I've never bothered to keep track of who's zooming who. So when Richard Brookhiser trashed Richard Kluger's Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea last August I praised his colorful insults ("I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown"), but I was then privately informed by somebody who knows the field better than I do that assigning Richard Brookhiser to review Richard Kluger amounted to a hit job, that Kluger's book could have never had a fair chance with this critic.
I'll have to pay closer attention to this in the future. The greatest political offense I can recall since I've begun reviewing the Review is the choice of Henry Kissinger to review a biography of Dean Acheson (which I have already complained about at length, and even managed to complain about on BookTV). But the big offense here is the fawning before celebrity, the bald desire to be associated with the "stature" of Henry Kissinger even at the cost of running an obviously compromised and self-serving article on the front page when the better choice would have been to send it back to the Kissinger office with a note saying "Try harder next time".
This was an offense against taste and against truth -- however, it was not primarily a political offense, although it is noteworthy that the Book Review editors believed Henry Kissinger to have any stature left to fawn over after he played a key role in encouraging the 2003 invasion of Iraq (forget Norman Mailer, here's your overrated buffoon).
I have also been disgusted by the wheezy, tired politics expressed in the NYTBR by critics like Stephen Metcalf and David Brooks. Yet here, again, the offense is more literary than political. And, I have at times (though not very often) been pleased to find some incisive and admirably idealistic political writing by the likes of Samantha Power in the Book Review. Conclusion: I will look harder for signs of political bias in these pages in the future, though I am not convinced I've spotted these signs yet. Consider my eyes officially opened.
All of which leaves very little time to comment on this week's publication, which contains a plethora of political articles that don't, as far as I can tell, either support or contradict Jim Sleeper's thesis. In fact, none of these articles got my heart racing at all, not even Matt Bai's appreciation of Richard Ben Cramer's 1988 election chronicle What it Takes, which Bai calls "the ultimate campaign book". Bai believes that a book this good can never be written again because candidates now "seal themselves off behind phalanxes of consultants and aides". I'm unconvinced; are we actually now feeling deeply nostalgic for the way Presidents were elected in 1988? I'm pretty sure there were phalanxes of consultants and aides back then too, and as for access, let's not forget what a lone guy with a videocamera and a YouTube account was able to do to Virginia Senator George "Macaca" Allen last year.
These political musings have already busted my length limit (yes, readers of LitKicks, I *do* have a length limit) so I'm going to move quickly through the rest of this week's Book Review. James Longenbach's review of the new Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation of Dante's Paradiso strikes me as way too solemn and self-satisfied:
Throughout the three-line stanzas, or tercets, of the "Commedia", the first and third lines rhyme not only with each other but with the second line of the previous tercet. As a result, the poem seems simultaneously to surge forward and eddy backward. The poem feels swift because its energy has been artfully stymied, the way well-placed rocks increase the vigor of a stream.
I'm pretty sure Lil' Wayne does the same thing, though, and the New York Times Book Review never writes about him. A cover article by Jed Perl on John Richardson's A Life of Picasso: the Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 is written with the vibrancy that Longenbach's piece lacks:
The paintings of Marie-Therese that emerged from the artist's own collection have a what-the-hell radiance, a crazy red-and-purple-hot lyricism that can make them feel like transcriptions of sex itself.
But I am surprised and dismayed that both Jed Perl and John Richardson seem to believe that Picasso did great work between 1917 and 1932. As far as I can see, even 1937's "Guernica" notwithstanding, Picasso spent the years after 1912 groping desperately for relevance, and Cubism remains his only great contribution to modern art. I will not be reading this 592-page biography, and I honestly feel sorry for anybody who seeks artistic revelation within. They may find intriguing moments of history and romantic gossip, but in artistic terms Picasso's post-Cubist career was a long indulgence, and a four-volume biography (yes, another volume is coming) of the artist's long life amounts to far more detail than any general reader needs.
Liesl Schillinger is skillfully brutal to Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl, which she considers so far below the standard set by Hoeg's previous Smilla's Sense of Snow that she blames the translator. Walter Kirn is also rather harsh towards The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, though he makes the first story in this collection -- a wealthy American couple who meet disaster in India -- sound quite appealing despite the fact that he's dismissing it as a predictable Paul Bowles retread.
Jay McInerney treats Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read respectfully, pointing out the serious purpose beyond the goofy title:
Bayard tells us, "culture is above all a matter of orientation". Being cultivated is a matter of not having ready any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.
I agree with this. In fact, I personally talk about books I haven't read every weekend when I review the New York Times Book Review, so I'm glad to be able to justify this egregious ongoing act in such lofty terms. See, I'm not just mouthing off here, I'm carefully laying out "the system".
Jess Row's cover article is on Brother, I'm Dying, Edwidge Danticat's memoir about her Haitian family. It's a respectful and informative review, but it leaves me with no desire to read the book. In what seems to be the book's key moment, a proud elderly man collapses and dies while attempting to apply for asylum in Miami. Row writes:
The story of Joseph Dantica could be, perhaps will be, told in many forms: as a popular ballad (performed, in my imagination, by Wyclef Jean); as Greek tragedy; as agitprop theater; as a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka.
I really can't see Wyclef Jean writing this song. And a simple death scene in a bureaucrat's office isn't worthy of Kafka unless, for instance, the bureaucrat lies down on the floor and pretends to die as well, after which the head of the immigration office wanders into the office and seduces the cleaning woman while Joseph Dantica and his immigration officer lie writhing on the floor. And even that's not worthy of Kafka, but the more important point is that New York Times readers are still trying to figure out why Times daily book critic Michiko Kakutani insists that Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao can only be described as "Mario Vargas Llosa meets 'Star Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West". Didn't someone once say that comparisons are odious?
I want to be more excited by today's somber Book Review, and it's probably just me, but I couldn't work up any passion for Liesl Schillinger's ambivalent explication of Ann Packer's Songs Without Words, though I like it when Schillinger accuses Packer of "re-gifting" her earlier novel, The Dive From Clausen's Pier. John Freeman describes Shauna Seliy's When We Get There as a worthy portrait of a dying rust-belt city, but despite Freeman's considerable praise for Seliy's skills I know I'll never read this book either.
Judy Budnitz reviews a strange novel called Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour, but I think she slips in not pointing out that this is a wretched title. And Walter Kirn has been off his game lately; the edgy critic attempts to massacre Jeffrey Lent's sexually excessive narrative A Peculiar Grace, but it's a lackluster performance and I can't get over Kirn's own off-putting phrasings, such as the use of "spasm" as a verb. I'm not even going to bother looking up whether or not the Oxford English Dictionary allows "spasm" as a verb; I don't care if it does or not, because I don't like it.
(Okay, I looked. It doesn't.)
And then we're back with the comparisons again. Kirn mocks Lent for dialogue that sounds like, hmm: "Ludwig Wittgenstein boozing it up backstage with Merle Haggard". Enough of this!
Political and historical articles are this week's NYTBR's saving grace. D. T. Max's makes Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper (about a surprising refuge for 300 Warsaw Jews during World War II) sound fascinating. Peter Beinart flicks Norman Podhoretz's World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism away for the reactionary speck it is, and he isn't much kinder to Michael Ledeen's hysterical The Iranian Time Bomb. Susan Rubin Sulieman is more sympathetic to Norman Davies' World War II history No Simple Victory, which attempts to think past our familiar but narrow understanding of European points of view.
Finally, there's a worthwhile endpaper essay for the first time in weeks. David Oshinsky's examines the surprising rejection letters found in the Alfred A. Knopf archives at the University of Texas, where he teaches history. The results are funny (we watch Anne Frank, Vladimir Nabokov, Pearl S. Buck and George Orwell get dumped by Knopf) but Oshinsky avoids slipping into the the Parade Magazine dumb jokiness that has become standard in this space, and that's a refreshing change.
2. Garth Risk Hallberg caught the new A Midsummer Night's Dream at New York City's great Shakespeare in the Park. I am upset that my late August schedule of mini-vacations, Mets games and U. S. Open tennis games leaves me no time to catch this production, which also got a nice review in today's New York Times. Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I already saw it at Shakespeare in the Park, many years ago, with William Hurt as Oberon. If you can catch this new (and free) production, though, what are you waiting for?
3. I'm not completely down with the selection of Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe's comic-apocalypse novel, as the Litblog Co-op's Summer 2007 pick, though I do admire this hilariously anarchic book. The author's skill is beyond question, and so is his intelligence (as is revealed in this perceptive post about Don Delillo). The book's best achievement, in my opinion, is the dizzy voice of the character called Pocahontas.
But the book reads like a string of one-liners to me. Brilliant one-liners, yes, but with no believable characters and a plot too far-fetched to be gripping, I could not enjoy sludging through all these 320 pages. Sharpe reminds me of certain comedians who specialize in twisted koans, like Steven Wright or Demetri Martin. For fifteen or twenty minutes, these performers are a revelation. But would you want to listen to a 15-hour Steven Wright or Demetri Martin show? That's what 320 pages of Jamestown felt like to me.
Maybe I also think the Litblog Co-op (a group I belong to, by the way, and of which I'm very fond) tends to favor postmodern marvels over readable works of fiction. Michael Martone and Skinny-Dipping in the Lake of the Dead were also impressive experiments, but I bemoan the lack of realistic characters and engaging plots.
4. Speaking of postmodern marvels who I admire but don't personally read, here's Ed Champion on John Barth. I don't have to agree with Ed to appreciate his enthusiasm for this writer.
5. With this post, Mark Sarvas singlehandedly persuades me to try The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. I haven't been in the habit of reading David Leavitt, but any novel with a cast of characters like this is worth a look.
6. This article follows Jonathan Franzen in dividing readers into two categories: "modeled-habit" readers learned to read from their parents, whereas "social-isolate" readers did not. As much as I love to think of myself as a "social-isolate" in every sense, I have to admit I fall into the first category, because my parents did enthusiastically teach me to love books. I guess it worked.
7. Some recent tributes to Grace Paley have made me realize I barely know her work, outside of an anthologized short story or two. I'm going to remedy that situation now.
Schillinger's got the cover piece, on The Master Bedroom and Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley:
In "The Master Bedroom," no relationship is as solid as it might seem, no course of action necessarily makes sense, and motivations are buried. Yet Hadley's favorite theme emerges clearly: the heart has no logic, the brain cannot always keep it in rein and nature controls human behavior -- not the other way around. The novel is a chess game of slow-burn erotic maneuvers that produce tantalizingly unpredictable outcomes.
That's a mixed metaphor, but she does better here:
Hadley never fails to surprise, but her surprises are understated -- not the "aha" fakery of some gimmicky short fiction but the small shift in expectations or results that's deeply felt but doesn't show, like the twitch of a rudder that sets a boat gliding on a new course.
I doubt I'll read either book, though I liked the review. However, I definitely will browse/read Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J. M. Coetzee, which Walter Kirn walks us through in a slightly too-short piece:
Coetzee compares "The Arcades Project" to "another great ruin of 20th-century literature, Ezra Pound's 'Cantos.' " With the tongue-and-groove precision of someone who machines his thoughts to the finest hair's-breadth tolerances, Coetzee shapes this comparison into a model for a type of literary lunacy that held a peculiar intellectual allure once, back in the heyday of the great isms.
Unfortunately for all of us, I think we're still living in the heyday of the great isms (conservatism, liberalism, fundamentalism, athiesm ...), but that's a minor point. I'm also not sure why Kirn talks more about W. G. Sebald than J. M. Coetzee throughout this review, and all in all this doesn't turn out to be one of Kirn's better pieces. But even on an off day, he delivers the goods.
This is a slightly dull (though fiction-filled) Book Review, perhaps due to the subdued selection of new books under consideration. Ligaya Mishan approves of Nicholas Christopher's The Bestiary, a postmodern fantasy about the search for a Borgesian book about all the animals lost because they didn't make it onto Noah's ark. I recently spent some time trying to read The Bestiary myself; I admire the author's inventiveness, but overall I'd rather catch Eddie Murphy in a remake of "Doctor Doolittle".
Terrence Rafferty calls George Hagen's Tom Bedlam "a terrific book", though strangely he doesn't persuade me to want to read the book, especially when he presents it as:
... the sort of novel that tends to be described, not always admiringly, as old-fashioned. But it's odder, and better, than that: a strange convergence of the English novel's estimable past and our own, rather less confident, present.
I can look at twenty brand new literary novels coming out next year and see the English novel's estimable past all over them, so this hardly strikes me as a selling point. Find me a novel that isn't old-fashioned, please.
Claire Messud does alert me to a book I will read, The Septembers of Shiraz, a first novel about a Jewish family in 1980's Iran by Dalia Sofer. I'm already reading (and enjoying) a soon-to-be published novel about a Jewish family in Iran, Caspian Rain by Gina Nahai. I guess this is the hot new trend.
This week's NYTBR is also heavy with political articles, none of them nearly as good as last week's cover piece. Stephen Metcalf's analysis of a new anthology called Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys by Mary Eberstadt had me skidding with disagreement from sentence to sentence:
As I grow older, I avail myself more and more of the ancient prerogatives of old men. I hitch my pants high, shake my head at the barbarous young and drive a stone-cold 55 on the highway. I'm risk-averse and dress as I please. (In my beginning is my end: I've evolved from slob to hipster slob to ironic slob back, finally, to slob.) I distrust change, labor unions and Al Sharpton and believe that at high enough rates income taxes become confiscatory. In short, I am white, privileged, middle-aged and boring. But one thing I am not, and never will be, is a conservative.
What an unenlightening way of looking at it.
Also on the political front, Michael Crowley reviews Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering The Presidency and concludes:
... it's hard to imagine who, besides fans of gratuitous literary references, will choose Hamilton's unjustifiably long retread of the first half of Clinton's presidency.
I was thinking the same thing. So why is the Book Review covering this book at all?
Power is discussing a number of books about the USA's current situation in Iraq, such as the U. S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which I am very glad to learn about. I had no idea that a trade version of this military manual existed, or that:
The leading architect of the manual was the David Patraeus, then a lieutenant general, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took responsibility for governing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, immediately thereafter. He is now the overall American commander in Iraq.
Which makes this a hell of a relevant book, much more relevant than the glut of journalistic or opinion-based books currently cluttering store shelves, and so I think the Book Review editors do a good thing by putting this unusual volume on the publication's cover. Patraeus and his collaborators on this manual seem much more enlightened than, say, the Bush/Cheney administration, according to Power:
The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents."
Amen, but if Patraeus understands this, how is he going to communicate with the White House? I'm going to hope for the best, and I'm going to read this book.
All of the books Powers reviews -- Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror by Ian Shapiro, On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad, The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation by Stephen Flynn -- seem to be groping for political and military sanity in our unhinged age, Shapiro by laying out the case that we must understand and respect foreign cultures to have a credible foreign policy (amen, again), Asad by "showing the hypocrisy of rules that permit murderous conduct by states but deny it to nonstate actors", and Flynn by focusing on keeping the home front ready to handle emergencies. A related article by Jonathan Mahler on Tara McKelvey's Monstering: Inside America's policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, largely a study of the Abu Ghraib exposure, presents another sane voice. We seem to have a lot of book writers who've figured out how to fix the world. The only problem is, I don't know if anybody is reading these books except Samantha Power.
I hope they are. And let's also read The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, ably reviewed by Julia Reed. I'm not sure about Aoibheann Sweeney's Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking, confusingly reviewed by Maria Flook, but I sure like looking at the author's first name.
David Orr's analysis of a recent volume of Zbigniew Herbert's collected poems translated by Alissa Valles with a similar earlier volume edited by John and Bogdana Carpenter offers worthwhile insights into the odd ways a translator's frame of reference or approach can change everything about a work.
Today's Book Review is capped off by a look at Austin Grossman's super-hero pastiche Soon I Will Be Invincible by Dave Itzkoff. When Itzkoff concludes "we come to dread the chapters that focus on the Champions and wish we were reading more about Doctor Impossible" I can only feel grateful that I don't have to read either. I have a feeling this book will turn out to be popular, but I haven't even seen it and I already don't like it.
Then, finally, there's a revolting display of name-dropping by the always shallow Rachel Donadio, who in twelve mediocre paragraphs manages to celebrity-spot Antonio Monda, Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Ethan Coen, Michael Cunningham, Colum McCann, Claire Messud, Chuck Palahniuk, Davide Azzolini, Nathan Englander, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Elie Wiesel, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Jane Fonda, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Bill Murray, G. K. Chesterton, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Bernando Bertolucci, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Riccardo Misasi, Susan Sontag, Isabel Fonseca, Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro. Did somebody lose Salman Rushdie's cell number? This article belongs in Vanity Fair at best.
Thus begins Lorraine Adams' New York Times Book Review cover piece on Shadow of the Silk Road, a book about the ancient mercantile route that once connected China to Afghanistan. I hate hearing a writer called "the dean" of anything too, but there aren't too many other trite moments in this generally engaging review that touches on the most significant points in this book (such as why the Silk Road "closed" in the mid-15th century). I will be reading this book.
Jennifer Senior gets the admittedly fun assignment of reviewing two new Hillary Clinton biographies, A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein and Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta. Senior spends a little too long (for my tastes) working a theory that Carl Bernstein was attracted to this project because Bill's troubles with Hillary reminded him of his own past with Nora Ephron. Considering that Hillary Clinton is a frontrunner for the next President of the United States, I don't think her love life is as relevant to readers' interests as many other topics covered by these books. But Senior's review is useful enough in summarizing how Carl Bernstein's generally pro-Clinton book seems to have a firmer foundation in established fact than Gerth and Van Natta's moderate diatribe.
I don't know what the talented playwright Arthur Miller ever did to deserve the mugging his new posthumous collection Presence: Stories gets from Jeremy McCarter. McCarter, a theater critic, tells us the classic dramatist is hopeless in the fiction genre. I say the author of Death of a Salesman deserves a critic who will dig deeper, because Miller was a careful and selective writer whose rare fiction outings (in the New Yorker and Harpers and elsewhere) are not likely to be worthless. I haven't checked this book out yet, and when I do I'll tell you what I find, but I would be very surprised to find it as bad as McCarter says.
Kathryn Harrison does a fine job with the appealingly titled Gone to the Crazies: A Memoir by Alison Weaver. I might check out this book. David Margolick's coverage of Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is incisive (he considers that the book is designed for a native Israeli sensibility, and that non-Israeli readers need a shorter and more global-minded history). Elissa Schappell and Curtis Sittenfeld provide fairly sharp and enjoyable considerations of, respectively, Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor and Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis.
Finally, there's another endpaper by Rachel Donadio, who I have criticized so often in these pages that it's not even fun anymore. At this point I just feel sad when I see an article of hers heading my way. Her endpaper about notable past reactions to the ongoing Salman Rushdie controversies is a perfect example of what the problem is, and I think this may be what Sarah Weinman is alluding to here. Rachel Donadio's articles have no point of view. I've read at least ten of her essays or interviews in this publication in the last two years, and I have never once felt I had the slightest indication what she thought about her subject. She is the only regular NYTBR writer who does not ever deign to share a point of view with the reader.
In theory, this type of dispassion could have some value -- perhaps some sort of Joan Didion-esque blank journalistic resonance -- but it would have to be handled more artistically to achieve this effect. When I read an article like today's Donadio piece on Salman Rushdie, I simply feel empty and unsatisfied. I expect a New York Times Book Review writer to communicate some type of point of view to me, or else I'm eating a bowl of flavor-free ice cream. Rachel Donadio, what do you think about Salman Rushdie?
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Last Monday afternoon I asked you to help me name the greatest American book of all time. There've been many replies, and the (serious) suggestions include, in order, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain, The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, Pragmatism by William James, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The World According to Garp by John Irving, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Madame Rosa by Romain Gary (which makes no sense since Romain Gary was French), To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Federalist Papers, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Baby and Child Care br Dr. Spock, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.
I'm surprised that nobody but me mentioned Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and I also thought there'd be more support for The Book of Mormon, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. But that's fine with me, because it happens that several people did mention the book I believe to be the greatest by a citizen or resident of the United States of America: Walden, or Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau and published by Ticknor and Fields in 1854.
We each have our own favorites, of course. But I'll stake a guess -- for whatever these guesses may be worth -- that future literary historians will consider this book to have the highest stature of any book published in my country so far. I can't tell you everything I want to say about Walden here today, but here are three things that I find exceptional about this book.
You may have to slow your body speed down a bit to catch Henry Thoreau's wavelength, but once you do there is no denying the pure delight found in these words. No other writer -- not even my beloved Henry James -- crafts sentences sharper than those you'll find in Walden.
Thoreau was a social reformer with a distinct philosophy, but nobody might have ever cared about his philosophy if he didn't crystallize it with such artistry and skill. A Harvard graduate and obsessive reader, he learned from the best of the brilliant "New England Transcendentalists" who were his older friends and neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, and he eventually developed a voice richer than any of theirs, richer even than that of his more famous friend and hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. High-toned, alive to all the human senses, Thoreau's prose presents an attitude that combines humorous warmth with merciless sarcasm. Sarcasm is certainly the top note in Walden, a book designed to attack the mores of polite New England society. Here he is, for instance, on the subject of clothing:
Kings and Queens who wear a suit but once, though made by some tailor or dress-maker to their majesties, cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits. They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on. Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves, receiving the impress of the wearer's character, until we hesitate to lay them aside, without such delay and medical appliances and some such solemnity even as our bodies. No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. But even if the rent is not mended, perhaps the worst vice betrayed is improvidence. I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this, -- who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman's legs, they can be mended, but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloon's, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow? Passing a cornfield the other day, close by a hat and coat on a stake, I recognized the owner of the farm. He was only a little more weather-beaten than when I saw him last.
Thoreau's writing style is too thick and fanciful for some, but I find he has no equal. Often his imagination carries him towards connections or metaphors no other writer could possibly find. In Walden every small human transaction, such as the borrowing of an axe, is examined for meaning:
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye, but I returned it sharper than I received it.
Other times Thoreau becomes downright poetic, or else he shouts "Simplicity! Simplicity!" His voice takes getting used to, but so does his moral message, and they are each a perfect match for each other. Not for nothing is the first chapter of Walden called "Economy".
The Audacity of the Experiment
There's a mistaken belief that Walden is a book about nature. It is incidentally so, but this does not describe the book's essential aim.
Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau's goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don't believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau's purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson's property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It's certainly to Emerson's credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).
Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live "like a savage" in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It's like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.
Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
This is one of the bleaker (though most well-known) passages in what is generally an optimistic book of philosophy and observation. Which brings us to the third exceptional characteristic of this book.
Like Emerson, Thoreau was fascinated with Buddhism and other eastern religions, and in fact his basic message -- "Simplicity! Simplicity!" -- is consistent with the deepest philosophies of the Buddhist religion. Thoreau believed that Americans consumed too much, worked too hard and enjoyed too little. His diatribes against the ingrained American culture of hard labor and grave responsibility make up some of the most memorable passages in this book:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattles and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. What made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?
When he was not occupying himself as a writer, a natural scientist and a critic of social mores, Henry Thoreau worked fervently for the Abolitionist cause (as, of course, most of the New England Transcendentalists did). Slavery was the hot issue of the day -- the American Civil War began seven years after Walden was published -- and Thoreau's other famous "publicity stunt" was to get thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes, on the grounds that he chose not to support an economic system that tolerated slavery. Many decades later and halfway across the world, the writings and life story of Henry David Thoreau would inspire Mohandas Gandhi to begin a massive public campaign for self-determination among colonized peoples that remains one of the most successful social protest movements of all time. Decades later again, the same thread of civil disobedience was picked up by Martin Luther King back in Thoreau's United States of America. Now, even more decades have passed but our nation and world remain highly confused. Perhaps we all need to pick up this thread once more.
Literary judgements are subjective, but it is perhaps only because I so badly want people to read Walden that I feel compelled to name it as the greatest American book. I should also mention that I don't particularly agree with those who find Thoreau a uniquely American writer. Some critics have said that his personal individualism and love of open space make him a representative of the American soul, but I think that most Americans -- and most people in the world -- could stand to appreciate the wisdom of Thoreau a lot more than they currently do.
But Walden is essentially an optimistic book -- the last line tells us:
The sun is but a morning star.
And there is plenty of hope that someday a large number of people may read and be inspired by this wonderful book.
In fact, I feel more ambivalence towards Salman Rushdie than almost any other writer alive today. For example, I hated the apathetic, uninspiring introductory speech he gave at a recent PEN festival, which captured none of the excitement many of the audience members felt. He then went on to close the show with the best performance of the night.
Likewise, I absolutely loved the first segment of The Satanic Verses, an instantaneous tour de force involving two men falling from an airplane that could easily be extracted from the novel and anthologized as a riveting stand-alone piece. I marveled at the opening to this novel ... and yet the postmodern denseness of the endless pages beyond oppressed me, and I found I did not continue. I'll always remember the beginning of Satanic Verses, and I may never read the end.
All in all, I have to admire this brave and hardworking man for his experimental writing as well as for his tireless stewardship of New York's best and most progressive literary festival. I say this even though his New Yorker article on The Wizard of Oz was cloyingly cute, and even though I don't understand any of his books, and even though he annoyingly shows up in a tuxedo at every damn literary event he goes to (raising the dress-code curve for the rest of us, and it doesn't even look good on him). I respect him, and I suppose I'm glad he's now a knight, even if it is silly.
As for various controversies regarding this selection, such as the Pakistani government's official protest that the gesture is offensive to Muslims, I'm sorry to hear that this argument seems to be reaching a high pitch very quickly, which serves no positive purpose for anybody. Authors Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan have been quoted as demeaning the Pakistani government's official notice of protest, and this is about the thousandth time this week I've been painfully disappointed by the lack of sympathetic dialogue between the different corners of our world. Why can't these British intellectuals simply listen to what certain Muslim governments, organizations and individuals have to say and respond with calm civility that their objections have some merit, but that the Queen is not going to change her mind? I expect a more intelligent level of discourse from the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan (and the fact that I raved about McEwan's great new novel just three days ago doesn't mean I can't criticize his rather limited political vision today).
Anyway, congrats to Sir Salman, and may he continue to be as brave as the greatest literary knight of them all, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
His recent book jacket photos show a skinny, grim old grouch, but he appeared younger, healthier and friendlier on Oprah's show. He has a warm smile and a natural laugh (who knew?) and when he talked about the night in a hotel room when he looked at his eight-year-old son and got the idea for The Road, I almost wanted to give the book another chance.
I don't dislike Cormac McCarthy. But I do deeply dislike the idea that his fatalistic, bitterly chiaroscuro vision of humanity should be considered a symbol for our times. Maybe I hate the book as a symbol more than I hate it as a book. Maybe I'm just sick of writers, thinkers and politicians who see the world through blinding visions of good against evil. Really sick of them, in fact.
Still, after seeing McCarthy smile, talk about how little money means to him, tell a neat story about toothpaste and glow with pride whenever Oprah mentions his son, I've got to like the human being who writes these books I can't stand. I just wish Oprah had asked him, "What the hell do you have against quotation marks?"
Well, Cormac "Genius" McCarthy's not the only one on TV this week! If you caught the coverage of the fiery Ethics In Book Reviewing panel discussion on Book TV this week, you caught me asking John Leonard, Francine Prose, Carlin Romano and David Ulin a question. Never one to fail to maximize an opportunity, I managed to insult both the New York Times Book Review and Henry Kissinger in a single question, which involved whether or not this kind of thing (please scroll halfway down the page) should be considered an offense against literary ethics. As I wrote:
Kissinger tells us that "Dean Acheson was perhaps the most vilified secretary of state in modern American history." I think a more objective look places him at number two, with Kissinger in the top spot (and Acheson only gets the second slot because Condoleeza Rice has never been powerful enough to be worth vilifying). But there's hope: "History has treated Acheson more kindly." Later: "His values were absolute, but he knew also that statesmen are judged by history beyond contemporary debates, and this requires a willingness to achieve great goals in stages, each of which is probably imperfect by absolute standards." I wonder why this is the only aspect of Acheson's long and complex career that Kissinger finds interesting. Kissinger never breaks his straight face as he lavishes praise on Acheson, but I know I'm not the only reader who finds this review a transparent display of self-flattery.
I want to make it clear, though, that I judge a book review editor on aesthetics as well as ethics, and I don't actually find it offensive on principle to allow a famous person to write a self-interested review of a book. In certain situations, as John Leonard says in his answer to my question during this panel, it can be okay. I would not object to, say, reading a Jimmy Carter review of a Martin Amis book -- everybody would understand that this is a face-off, and it might produce some sparks.
But a controversial meeting of the minds is one thing, and an orgy of self-flattery is another. What did Sam Tanenhaus expect when he invited the famous egotist and apologist Henry Kissinger to write this review, and why did he want to inflict this garbage on trusting readers?
It's an offense against taste, above all, and that's what I had in mind when I asked the question in the Book TV show, which is also described in Ed Champion's summaries above.