I’ve often wondered (naively, perhaps) if New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’s personal political views are expressed in the publication’s selection of reviewers for books about history and current events. According to this well-reasoned article by Jim Sleeper from Talking Points Memo Cafe there is a clear neo-conservative slant, specifically a slant towards political critics who believe that “hate America” liberals are to blame for our nation’s current problems. Is this true?
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”.