The article that should have been on the cover of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, Roger Lowenstein’s review of James K. Galbraith’s The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, is an attempted takedown of the son of famed liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Apparently written just before the latest Wall Street and Main Street financial horrors were revealed (the NYTBR is always printed over a week in advance, and articles are submitted by writers much earlier), Lowenstein exposes himself as an apologist for a collapsing facade. Criticizing the younger Galbraith’s concerns about the health of our economy, Lowenstein writes:
He writes so well, you have to pinch yourself to remember that, yes, the free market has produced robust growth and central planning has usually failed.
Yeah, robust enough to cost taxpayers $700 billion to fix. Lowenstein, writing a few weeks ago, even hovers on the edge of understanding:
… In other words, if it works, it’s the residue of Franklin Roosevelt and Galbraith’s dad; if it fails, it’s the market’s fault. That seemed preposterous when I first read it; but in the wake of the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when all of Wall Street could be headed for a bailout, one wonders.
Yes, one wonders. But another remark is a true howler in context with another article that appears in the Styles section of today’s Times. The other article is is called “The Significant Other” and is about how corporations evaluate the spouses of job candidates for important positions:
Imagine the plight of the modern corporate director: you want to find the perfect chief executive to lead your organization, someone with top credentials and impeccable character. You know there is a heavy social component to the job — dinners, fund-raisers, travel — and so there is just one last thing you want to know.
What is the candidate’s spouse like?
Now, here’s Roger Lowenstein on James K. Galbraith’s book:
When he observes of C.E.O.’s, citing Veblen, that their “wives and servants are therefore fed and decorated to reflect the stature of their masters”, he is dialing back to the 1950s, or maybe to the ’20s.
Oh, we’re dialing back to the ’20s all right, Lowenstein. October 29, 1929.
The article that is on the front cover of today’s Book Review, though it shouldn’t be, is Jill Abramson’s sensible and fair appraisal of Bob Woodward’s The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. This is the fourth book (and, one must expect, final) in Woodward’s “George W. Bush” series, and Abramson is smart to evaluate all four books as a set:
Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma’am style, if one can call it that. It is the old-fashioned newspaperman’s credo of show, don’t tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone to judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. He has only one angle, the close-up.
As a Watergate buff, I’m naturally fond of Bob Woodward, yet I have mainly found his “Bush series” books frustrating because they are so obviously published only to feed the media elite at the top of the pyramid. The War Within is priced at $32.00, which puts it out of the likely buying range of most interested Americans who would probably like to read it. Thus, it’s the fourth worthy book in a row that we will never read, because by the time a reasonably priced paperback edition comes out the book is old news, thoroughly digested and chewed to boring bits by the newspapers and TV commentators and blogs. Elitist book pricing is always offensive, but it’s most offensive with newsy or timely books, because it ensures that normal readers will only encounter the book secondhand. This is the other reason, besides the greater relevance of the Lowenstein/Galbraith exchange, why I don’t think this book deserves to be on the cover of the NYTBR.
An excellent David Orr piece on the surprising poetry of Clive James, a beguiling Liesl Schillinger introduction to The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin and a competent Rachel Donadio review of Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg’s memoir of a daughter’s emotional illness, nicely fill out today’s Book Review. A shallow, polite and predictably dismissive John Leland review of Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now: On The Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance brings down the curve. The Book Review really should have given this assignment to somebody who sincerely appreciated and understood Robert Pirsig, not just the nearest guy they could find who liked Kerouac.
Finally, Francine Prose makes a good point after comparing Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes to the works of Tolstoy:
Obviously, it’s unfair to measure Fuentes against Tolstoy. But if you’re worried about your next novel being compared with Melville, think twice before calling it “Moby Dick”.