Reviewing the Review: January 13 2008

It’s pretty much a sure thing, when a critic opens a book review by generously praising the author’s past reputation, that the critic is setting up for a swing. And so begins legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen’s cover article on Anthony Lewis’s Freedom For the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendement in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Apparently Rosen still gets a lump in his throat every time he reads Lewis’s Gideon’s Trumpet from 1989, but that’s all the praise Rosen thinks Lewis needs, since he devotes much of today’s review dismissing Lewis’s ideas about free speech so that he can present his own thoughts on the subject.

The hijacked book review is an all-too-frequent fate when peer scholars evaluate each other’s non-fiction work. Anthony Lewis earned the NYTBR’s cover today by writing a book, and it seems to me that Jeffrey Rosen’s job is to present Lewis’s ideas for our appraisal, to elucidate them, to bring them to us on their own terms so that we can give them due consideration. But here instead Rosen quickly summarizes Lewis’s view — a “heroic” view of the American judiciary’s role in championing the First Amendment right to free speech — and then directs us towards a competing view in which the judiciary plays a more passive role and takes direction from, rather than gives direction to, popular opinion. It’s clear that Rosen favors the second view, since he develops it with enthusiasm here. But the reader still wishes to see Anthony Lewis’s ideas fleshed out in full, not shunted aside for a replacement. It’s critical bait-and-switch.

Jeffrey Rosen also irritates with weary observations like this:

“… now that everyone with a modem is a potential journalist, we may see more cases in which individual bloggers or small publishers attack one another over what are essentially differences of factual nuance.”

Everyone with a modem? Somebody’s still living in the age of Seinfeld and Compuserve here. It’s not that modems aren’t still in use, but, like color television and power steering and iceboxes, we really don’t get excited about them anymore.

Timothy Noah does better with his review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (which is of particular interest since NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus’s alleged neoconservative persuasions have been a topic of recent discussion here and elsewhere). I give Noah points for expressing the right amount of outrage (if there can ever be enough outrage) about the mess neoconservativism helped get us into since Bush and Cheney rode into town, but I wish his article had more philosophical depth and less detail about what this or that nattering nabob said about this or that one in the National Review, or the National Interest, or the Nation, or the New Republic, or … ultimately, who cares? For the record, I see nothing in this article that betrays a neoconservative agenda on Sam Tanenhaus’s part, which is good since Sam Tanenhaus did not write the article.

(Speaking of Sam Tanenhaus, who is now some sort of ephemeral uber-Editor of the Book Review and the Week in Review op-ed section, today’s Week in Review features a kickass Lorrie Moore article on Hillary Clinton and a rumination by Times public editor Clark Hoyt on the hiring of conservative former Dan Quayle acolyte William Kristol for the op-ed pages. It also features a dull article about art museum directors and rich people by NYTBR regular Rachel Donadio, which is good because maybe if she writes more there she’ll write less here.)

Back at Book Review Shack, Charles Taylor seems to be skating on thin ice in his review of Sway, a novel by Zachary Lazar that takes place in the 1960s and features the Rolling Stones at Altamont and Bobby Beausoleil of the Charlie Manson family. Strangely, Taylor tells us repeatedly that this book’s author does not trade in old cliches of the hippie era:

What he evokes is unlikely to please either those who condemn the decade as a body blow to decency and authority, or those who celebrate it as a trippy carnival of raised consciousness and experimentation. Lazar’s is a book that has no time for preconceived ideas, that tells the reader exactly the things likely to disturb any cozy notions.

But this hardly rings true once Taylor explains that the entire novel revolves around the fateful Rolling Stones concert at Altamont (in which an audience member was stabbed to death, captured in the film Gimme Shelter) and a member of the Manson family, since I can’t think of two more cliched and over-used symbols of the 1960s than Altamont and the Manson family. We may as well bring in JFK’s assassination and the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Charles Taylor tells me this book is highly original, but he sure doesn’t explain how.

Today’s issue bounces back (which is more than the Indianapolis Colts just did) with a satisfying Leah Hager Cohen review of a new biography of Joseph Cornell by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, as well as a captivating summary of Bill Hayes’ The Anatomist, which describes the creation of the classic text Gray’s Anatomy, by D. T. Max (this is a book I’d like to read).

Jim Holt does a fine job taking care of John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, but I have to say I’m getting really sick of all these books that trade in spongy, outdated philosophical “proofs” or “unproofs” or “anti-proofs”. It’s as if British Empiricism never happened (much less Existentialism or American Pragmatism). No competent philosopher tries to either prove or disprove the existence of God; it simply can’t be done either way, and David Hume and Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich and Martin Buber and William James and many, many other philosophers have long ago shown us better ways to approach philosophical questions about religion and God. You don’t solve the question of the existence of God the way you solve a Rubik’s cube, but you wouldn’t know if from all of these books that are getting churned out.

I enjoyed Alexandra Jacobs summary of Marie Phillips’ mythological send-up Gods Behaving Badly, as well as Sophie Gee’s thoughtful endpaper that asks whether cheesy pop adaptations like the recent film version of Beowulf do more good than harm. We think they might.

Finally, I hate to be flippant about a tragedy, but my bullshit detector went off when I read this line in Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” piece on Windows on the World Complete Wine Course author Kevin Zraly, who was master of the wine cellar at the doomed restaurant:

He would have been in 1 World Trade Center on the day it fell, he said, had he not stayed home because of his oldest son’s birthday.

Why would the master of the wine cellar be at his restaurant between 9 and 10 am on a Tuesday?

3 Responses

  1. Today’s “Reviewing the
    Today’s “Reviewing the Review” fires lucidly on all cylinders beginning to end. Levi must have refreshed his brain after that Action Poetry coding marathon.

  2. Thanks, Bill — I do also
    Thanks, Bill — I do also feel a bit of a sense that “I’m back”. Intensive coding and literary commentary don’t necessarily go together well.

    The LitKicks transition is unfortunately still not over (I’ve got lots and lots of bugs to fix and features to add) but I am glad to have a bare-bones Action Poetry up again.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!