All complaints aside, the New York Times really is pretty good to books. Philip Roth leans on a fence post on the cover of the Arts And Leisure section (the article is about his increasing canonization, as evidenced by the Library of America’s new publication of his collected works). Novelists Richard Ford and Anne Rice deliver long, heartfelt and pained articles about New Orleans in the Op-Ed pages (more about that here).
And then there’s the Book Review. I’ll start with the good parts: a truly interesting article about Edmund Wilson; notices of Naphtalene, an epic novel of Baghdad by Alia Mamdouh, and Q & A, a picaresque yarn by Vikas Swarup that begins with an Indian game show called “Who Will Win A Billion?”. I’m also interested in Jenefer Shute’s suspense novel about identity theft, User I. D., and I plan to check out Glyn Maxwell’s The Sugar Mile, a book-length narrative poem about two modern cities in troubled times, even though critic Christian Wiman gives it a lukewarm review.
But I want to complain, and I will. It was just last week that poetry critic David Orr, who can usually be counted on to write something smart, blathered dumbly about his concept that the internet is killing the art of literary letter writing. This idea cannot stand up to any type of inspection at all, and yet the Book Review is playing the same harp strings this week with a two-page spread by Rachel Donadio, titled “Literary Letters, Lost In Cyberspace”.
Folks: nothing is getting lost. Donadio interviews several publishing executives about their archival policies for literary emails, and the execs all appear about as bewildered as George Bush in New Orleans. Well, it’s not the publishing company’s job to archive emails. That responsibility falls on two people: the recipient and the sender. But even so, all Donadio needed to do was an interview a techie who works for one of these publishing companies to find out how emails are handled. Just about every major American corporation manages its email with a piece of software called Microsoft Exchange (the server component that works with the desktop program Outlook). All emails are saved, backed up, archived. It’d be a lot harder to lose an important old email than to find one.
But, again, it would seem strange if the future editors of, say, John Updike’s correspondence had to go to the techie floor and dodge dangerous frisbees and skateboarders just to unearth Updike’s collected emails. If John Updike ever sends me an email (and he hasn’t sent one yet), I am sure as hell going to save it in my personal archives, just as I would if it were a letter on fine stationary. Due to the magic of Microsoft Outlook, Updike would also have a copy of his outbound email to me, which he would hopefully save as well. Finally, because Updike and I are both lazy, we’re going to keep responding back to the same email, and every time we do the text of the original email is going to appear in full at the bottom. Maybe I’ll also forward one of these emails to some friends (“Yo, check it out, John Updike just emailed me”) and they’ll write me back as well (again, including the original text with their replies). Just try, just try to lose a John Updike email in the age of the internet. It ain’t gonna happen.
I now have to conclude, after a few recent bouts with her ideas (especially a terrible interview with V. S. Naipaul), that Rachel Donadio is the worst writer on the staff of the New York Times Book Review, frequently managing to be hysterical and breathy while saying nothing of value at all. As a self-appointed critic of the Book Review I must keep an open mind, and I will try hard to give this essayist a fair chance when I read her in the future. She’s sure batting zero at this point with me, though.