David Kamp, considering Sarah Boxer’s Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, wisely zeroes in on the same problem I have with this book. Noting that Boxer says an editor gave her the idea for this book and that she originally considered it a dreadful idea, he finds the book “too preoccupied with being respectably booky rather than wildly bloggy” and discovers “a nose-holding quality to her introduction”. He asks:
Shouldn’t a person editing a blog anthology be gung-ho from the get-go? Shouldn’t this person be downright besotted with blogs and bloggers, ready to plunge in, get dirty and exult in the form in all its messiness and ephemerality — non-linkiness and timelessness be damned?
This hits home with me, since I and my then co-editor Christian Crumlish fit this description exactly when we published this book eleven — yes, eleven — years ago:
And we were gung-ho from the get-go up the wazoo, but the book sold about a thousand copies and then died a painful death (and, by the way, it got nice little reviews in Washington Post Book World and the Los Angeles Times but nothing in the New York Times Book Review). So: Kamp is right, but it’s not like we didn’t try.
(And, no, by the way, I’m not interested in trying again. Some things you do only once per life).
There’s much to praise in this issue of the Book Review. Colm Toibin takes Nicholson Baker’s controversial World War II history book Human Smoke on its own terms as an intensely curious book by an author who “wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one”. Toibin also helpfully emphasizes this book’s focus on the misguided popularity of aerial bombing of cities as a global problem-solver.
History, politics and ethics dominate today. Walter A. McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877 appears to be as iconoclastic as Human Smoke, according to Michael Kazin’s respectful review. But Anthony Pagden’s Worlds at War: The 2,500 Year Struggle Between East and West seems to be filled with paranoid nonsense about Islamic extremism and “the struggle against the ‘Infidel’ for the ultimate Muslim conquest of the entire world”. And, according to critic Amy Chua:
Pagden quotes Osama bin Laden at length for the view that the greatest crime of the United States — for which 9/11 was punishment — was that “you separate religion from your politics, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord your Creator”.
This is pure pablum, since anybody who doesn’t get their news solely from Bill O’Reilly must know by now that Al Qaeda attacked America to further its political objectives against the pro-American governments in nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that they really don’t care very much about America at all except as far as America affects the Middle East. The myth that Islamic extremists are starry-eyed religious dreamers obsessed with fighting America (when they are actually pragmatic political radicals wishing to overthrow the governments of the nations they were born in) is beyond stale. Amy Chua views Pagden’s book with some skepticism but nowhere near enough. It’s the New York Times job to state clearly when a book is filled with popular distortions of simple fact, and Chua does not state it clearly enough here.
Maybe we’ll have to look for fiction for ethical insight, and I’m intrigued by The Philosopher’s Apprentice, a novel about morality and philosophy by James Morrow in which a teacher and student construct a hypothetical “social justice project”. Critic Siddhartha Deb wants to like this book, and captures my attention with notions like “clones called immaculoids, created from aborted fetuses by a right-wing group and sent out to stalk their parents”. But she also hates the writer’s overwrought prose style, and the sample she presents here effectively makes her case that the author’s style renders his book unreadable.
Louisa Thomas praises The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, which I’m looking forward to checking out. Ron Powers, reviewing The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu, proves himself once again to be a terrible, terrible writer. Here’s his intro:
My first hallucinatory experience had nothing to do with drugs, unless you consider comic books to be a form of drug. On a spring morning in 1953, I strolled into Mrs. Shelburne’s sixth-grade classroom at the Mark Twain School and spotted a classmate covertly flipping through a Superman comic. Only it wasn’t quite Superman. Not the Man of Steel I idolized, but a grinning thug-imposter in red cape and blue tights, gut-punching a helpless geezer on crutches as his false teeth flew out and a mob of citizens cheered, and a babe far leggier and bustier than Lois Lane leered her approval. The monster’s name bulged in thick red letters atop the panel: Superduperman. My good-guy stomach rolled. Everything stretched and went slantwise; a parallel universe yawed open, like jaws, and threatened to suck me inside. Then Mrs. Shelburne waddled into class; the kid stowed the comic; the jaws evaporated. Too soon, I realized dizzily. Wait! I wanted in!
Right, so David Hajdu wrote a book about comic books in the 1950’s, but somehow it’s all about Ron Powers.
An unusual endpaper by Polly Morrice about the legacy of J. D. Salinger in literature about children since Nine Stories lands many good points, though it overreaches in a few parts (the Glass siblings are “possibly the first gifted-and-talented children in literature”? No.) A good piece nonetheless.
Finally, I don’t usually read the Times’ Travel section (why should I? As you’ve probably noticed, I never travel — I’m always here) and I almost missed a surprising and worthy cover article on Ken Kesey’s Mexico by Lawrence Downes.