Reviewing the Review: February 26 2006

The New York Times Book Review totally calls postmodern whiz-kid William Vollmann on his bluff today, assigning somebody who actually understands science to review his new impressionistic book about Copernicus and heliocentrism, Uncentering The Earth. The critic in the Times corner is Dava Sobel, who wrote a well-recieved book about the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, then followed it up with The Planets, a substantial but popular study of astronomy.

As much as I like Vollmann (which is, precisely, enough to buy his books and not enough to finish them), it is very pleasing to see somebody stand up to this awe-inspiring prodigy of knowledge, this legendarily long-suffering David Blaine of contemporary culture who goes by the name of William T. Vollmann. Because Vollmann’s books really are painful to read, and his sentences really could be a hell of a lot clearer, and it’s about time somebody with some intellectual heft stood up and got in his face. Sobel describes his new book as “an onslaught of taxing concepts expressed in an often wearying style.” Welcome to the world of William Vollmann.

And, for the same goddam bizarre reason that I keep seeing Oliver Stone movies and I keep eating at White Castle, I will probably end up reading this Vollmann book too. Starting it, anyway.

Book Review regular Liesl Schillinger is usually excellent, but her review of Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, leaves my head spinning. The book delves into the inflamed controversy between two major 17th Century European philosophers, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Liebniz. I’m not sure if it’s the book’s author or the critic who sees fit to reduce the issues between these two intellectuals to a trite Salieri-vs.-Mozart formulation, but it seems the culprit is Schillinger, who tells us a lot about Spinoza or Leibniz but very little about Stewart’s book. These are two heavyweight philosophers, yet Schillinger speaks of them breathlessly as if they were characters in The Da Vinci Code. When she solemnly explains Leibniz’s quirks by telling us “he was orphaned while still in his teens” it reads like a bad parody of psycho-biography.

It gets worse. This book’s author apparently funded his career as a philosopher and a writer by founding a successful management consulting firm, and Liesl Schillinger lets us know that she’s clueless about how the business world works when she equates the author’s good fortune with “winning the lottery” and creating “his own good luck”. I take it Schillinger has no idea what a management consultant does. But somebody at the Book Review should have an idea, and somebody should have fixed that before it went to print.

It’s rare that I criticize the usually excellent Schillinger, and in that same bizarro spirit I have nothing but praise for today’s endpaper about Betty Friedan by Rachel Donadio (whose previous pieces I’ve had nothing good to say about). Donadio makes some important connections, smartly crossing the gender line to compare Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique to William Whyte’s study of the conformist workplace of 1950’s America and it’s male archetype, The Organization Man. I also enjoy the way she places Friedan’s book in its own context, informing us that it was published “the same month as the paperback edition of The Centaur, John Updike’s myth-inflected novel of high-school life, and J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.”

Elsewhere in the Times, there’s an informative obituary of the fiction author Frederick Busch in the News section, as well as an essay (of the heartwarming variety) about a mother whose daughter has become a latter-day Beatles freak, written by novelist Ann Hood, author of Three Legged Horse.

7 Responses

  1. Sobel’s right on the moneyand
    Sobel’s right on the money

    and I know I’d prefer to read anything by her over Vollmann any day. Actually, I think I’d rather eat a 9-volt battery than read Vollmann. I would rather eat at White Castle than eat a 9-volt though … I do have my limits.

  2. that’ll do, trigWho knew
    that’ll do, trig

    Who knew Copernicus looked like actor James Cromwell? (You know, the farmer in Babe).

    Reading this review has put me in the mood to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time because I hear he can write clearly for a smart guy. Vollmann telling us he doesn’t completely understand what he’s writing about is rather discouraging. At least now I will stop confusing William Vollmann with Bob Holman, because Holman will never tell us that.

    On another note, I don’t think Liesl Schillinger was belittling management consultants, either accidentally or on purpose, by saying that Matthew Stewart “contrived to create his own good luck.” I took the statement as a compliment to Mr. Stewart for taking control of his own destiny instead of relying on luck.

  3. Bill, I don’t usually jump to
    Bill, I don’t usually jump to the defense of management consultants myself, and I don’t think Schillinger meant to belittle them, but I do feel I must belittle Schillinger for this dumb comparison.

    Regardless of what anyone thinks of management consulting, it’s a hard, hard grind. Would anyone describe a law student who passes the bar exam, or a doctor who builds a successful practice as “winning the lottery”? It’s just an incredibly inept choice of metaphor, and I still say so …

  4. Levi, I’ll put it like this.
    Levi, I’ll put it like this. It was probably a mistake for Schillinger to use the lottery reference in the intro to this piece, but not for the reason you state. It’s almost like Schillinger had an interesting observation that could have been developed in a separate article; that idea being that we’ve never heard of even one person winning the lottery and then pursuing the serious contemplation of philosophy. But to use the metaphor as an intro to the Matthew Stewart review was, well, it was like using a negative to illustrate a positive. It would be like me saying,
    . . .
    oh, hell, I can’t think of a good example. Maybe you are right.

  5. That’s what I like to hear!
    That’s what I like to hear! (the “you are right” part). But, Bill, I do see your point. I guess I took it personally because I work as a technology consultant and I’ve worked closely with management consultants. Sometimes they’re assholes, sometimes they’re brilliant, but either way success is always hard-won (if it’s won at all). This kind of work *never* feels like winning the lottery — never.

  6. Also to Sobel’s
    Also to Sobel’s credit…

    Longitude, which I now see is available as an illustrated version. It’s amazing how formidable and significant the problem of accurate timekeeping was in the 18th century. For ships at sea, this was a critical component of their global positioning system. I’ve been meaning to re-read this, and annotated photos of the machinery leading up to the world’s first accurate (and sea worthy!) chronometer would be fascinating.

  7. Vollmann is painful to listen
    Vollmann is painful to listen to

    No offense to the author, but I heard him read at the National Book Awards reading and he is very painful to listen to in person. He seems to realize it, though — he prefaced his reading with, “I have a very slow voice, so this reading is going to seem interminable, even though it’s only two and a half pages.”

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