You know what annoys me? Lines like this, from David Orr’s cover article about poet Elizabeth Bishop in today’s New York Times Book Review:
“… nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop.”
No artist in any medium? Maybe on Poetry Planet, but not here on earth, where 99 out of 100 people have never heard of Elizabeth Bishop. Hey David, how about Stanley Kubrick, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, John Coltrane, Miguel Pinero, Jack Kerouac, Marlon Brando, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen, Charles M. Schulz, Dr. Dre? In fact, none of these would win the prize either, because the artist with the greatest impact would probably be one who helped to invent a completely original medium, which means the future will eventually award the trophy to Chuck Berry or Lucille Ball. But I’ve got news for David Orr: Elizabeth Bishop is a wonderful poet, but she’s not on the 20th Century’s shortlist.
In fact, even among the poets Allen Ginsberg has had a greater impact on modern culture (how many punk bands have ever invited Elizabeth Bishop onstage to do a verse?). Orr justifies his weird pronouncement with this explanation:
“What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.”
That’s fine, but she’s no Lucille Ball. Other than this glaring occlusion of logic, though, Orr’s review of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box: Collected Poems, Drafts and Fragments by Elizabeth Bishop is a respectable piece of work, and when he’s not engaging in hyperbole his enthusiasm for the poet is refreshing. I hope the prominently-placed rave helps call attention to this worthy new book with it’s excellent (and Ginsberg-ian) title.
There’s more off-putting pomposity at work, though, in Corey Powell’s review of Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos by Seth Lloyd. Lloyd is proposing a new model of the universe as an information transformation engine, sort of, and the purpose of this book is to free our minds from limiting metaphors of existence so we can adopt a better one, in which the cosmos, the universe and everything are compared to a giant computer.
Nice start, and I am even nodding my head in eager anticipation until the critic drops the news that the model of a computer they are basing this on is a so-called “quantum computer” which in fact does not exist anywhere in the real world (although some theoretical prototypes have been built at research laboratories) and bears little resemblance to the actual devices we know as computers. I work as a technology consultant, and I can spot a bait-and-switch when I see one. It seems like a bunch of double-talk to me. Maybe Seth Lloyd’s book has something valid to say, but little of it survives Corey Powell’s airy and insubstantial attempt at explanation.
I had a better time with David Gates’ review of Apex Hides The Hurt, a new satire by Colson Whitehead about a naming consultant (“Apex” is a name this character came up with for a new band-aid). Gates lays out the underlying racial messages that inform this book’s Coupland-esque spin on ultra-modern society, and it all sounds intriguing enough for my to-read list.
Finally, April 1 has brought big news for the many Sam Tanenhaus watchers of the blogosphere, who have long found fault with this Book Review editor’s generally questionable performance record: apparently changes are in store.