Reviewing the Review: November 16 2008

There are two ways to talk about the new “Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $45), edited by Christopher Reid. The first is to approach Hughes’s correspondence as an illuminating aesthetic record, the clearest insight we’re likely to get into the mind of a poet viewed by some critics as one of the major writers of the 20th Century. The second way is to discuss, well, “It”.

Here’s a third way: what the fuck is up with a $45 price tag on a book about poets? Who does Farrar, Straus and Giroux think will buy this book? Have they not heard the news that we are in a terrible retail climate, that even Starbucks is in a crisis because customers are flocking for cheaper coffee to McDonalds? FSG can’t possibly be oblivious to our economic problems, and so the outlines of the pricing conspiracy become clear: far from believing that general readers will spend $45 on this book, they have concluded that general readers won’t even spend $27.50 (a more reasonable price) for it, and therefore they’ll jack up the price to cash in on library sales, their only captive market. Nice scam, but as a taxpayer I object to severely budget-crunched public libraries falling for it.

If publishers aren’t publishing books for people to buy, then why should the New York Times review these books? And why, I wonder, should I keep paying attention to the New York Times Book Review if they aren’t reviewing books designed for people to buy?

Yeah, I really do wonder. Anyway, David Orr provides a tolerable review of the Hughes letters, focusing (of course) on the above-mentioned “It”, that “It” being Hughes’s marriage to Sylvia Plath. This biography-heavy NYTBR includes a condescending Sarah Boxer article on Jackie Wullschlager’s Chagall ($40), which includes the surprising remark that Wullschlager “doesn’t seem to like Chagall much”. Boxer doesn’t either. I understand her problems with the Russian-Jewish artist’s late-career “blur of commissions, exhibitions, murals and stained-glass windows”. Then again, Chagall’s peer Pablo Picasso became just as banal — no, worse — in his celebrity years, and the New York Times Book Review put his late-career biography on the front cover. Whichever way the wind blows …

I can’t get caught up in Graydon Carter’s excitement over Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.’s George Being George. Unlike Carter and much of the NYTBR’s senior staff, I never got invited to one of George Plimpton’s parties, so I feel left out. James Campbell’s summary of A Great Idea at the Time, Alex Beam’s study of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books” program, is worth reading, as is Ethan Bronner’s consideration of A. B. Yehoshua’s novel Friendly Fire: A Duet. Joe Queenan’s endpaper essay on book reviews that over-praise shows this humorist’s style to be improving.

The most enjoyable article in this weekend’s Book Review is Jack Shafer on Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. We don’t see a lot of books with semi-colons in their subtitles these days, and based on Shafer’s appreciative highlights I very much want to read this one. We explore why rhyming nonsense words so often start with the letter ‘h’ (“hillbilly”, “hippy-dippy”, “hanky-panky”, “hurdy-gurdy”) and why terms of disapproval employ the letter ‘t’ (“tut-tut”, “tacky”, “tatty”, “twit”). I think many readers will find this stuff as appealing as I do, and the fact that the book is priced to sell at $25 indicates that the publisher actually has hopes for it (think: Eats, Shoots and Leaves) that aren’t captured by the phrase “take the money and run”. A book designed to be bought and enjoyed — how refreshing!

20 Responses

  1. Thanks for the advisory on
    Thanks for the advisory on Roy Blount’s “Alphabet Juice”. I’m going to rush over to my library and reserve my copy (obviously, I’m not involved in that whole book “price tag” issue). I loved “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and look forward to thoroughly enjoying Blount’s book.

  2. Argumentum ad Hominem

    Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins’ pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy

  3. Levi:

    Thanks for speaking up

    Thanks for speaking up for libraries (and taxpayers) on this. Yes, indeed, that’s who the target market is and they can pretty much figure their print run based on the number of probable libraries for whom this is a must buy. Working for a major metropolitan library, I had to buy this one. All I can think is that the 10 or so people who want to read it immediately (as opposed to those who will consult it for research purposes in the coming years) will at least save some dough for food, public transport, or even a more reasonably priced book.

    Did you see Ken Follett’s recent trade paperback is going for $22 and it’s on the best seller list?


  4. The new Vollmann book,
    The new Vollmann book, released in April, will come with a $55 price tag. Recession who?

  5. My father bought a set of the
    My father bought a set of the Great Books from a book salesman back in the 50s. I don’t remember the actual sales technique – whether the salesman had to wrestle my dad to the floor or whether he bought them willingly – but I do remember that one day this big pile of books arrived at our house.

    They were duly arranged on the bookshelf, and they were quite impressive. Each type of knowledge was represented by a different color. For example, Science was a greenish color, Philosophy a nice brown. Each book was numbered and embossed with gold leaf.

    I wasn’t very old when the Great Books appeared on the scene, but I was already interested in books. I immediately started dipping into them. Some of the stuff was beyond me – Newton, for example. Other stuff was interesting but difficult go get into at my age – Plato and Aristotle come to mind. My dad had a similar experience. Once in a while I would see him pouring over one of the volumes, but for the most part the books stayed on the shelf. They looked down upon us reproachfully, as if to say why aren’t you reading us instead of frittering away your time reading modern novels.

    Then, years later I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It was about a guy that studied at the University of Chicago – the birthplace of the Great Books – and who actually read Plato. I decided to give the Great Books another try. In fact, I resolved to read all of them.

    As of this writing, I have finished a total of perhaps twenty of the books from start to finish, and I have dipped into perhaps twenty more. There are 54 in total. The job of reading these books is not an easy one. First of all, many of them can only be enjoyed in small doses. You read a little Montaigne, then you go read something else, then you come back later on. This is not necessarily cover to cover reading, although in the case of Melville (“Moby Dick”) or Dostoevsky (“The Brothers Karamazov”) it is. There is no new stuff in this collection. The last, and thus most recent, volume is Freud. This one I actually read cover to cover. It is challenging reading, but very interesting. Still, how many people would do more than leaf through this?

    I suppose most people just bought these books because they looked impressive on their bookshelf, kind of like the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, if you believe in the idea of having a personal library that contains not only novels and current books, but knowledge from the past, then the Great Books are a good fit. Of course it is called The Great Books of the Western World, so it is pretty much the wisdom of dead European and American white men. So you need to fill out the library with Ghandi, Woolf, Eastern religions, living authors, etc., etc.

    The Great Books are an interesting chapter of American history. In a time when America believed it could do anything given the proper education, the editors were able to sell classic literature and philosophy to a public that is generally suspicious of both of these. Volume 50, for example contains the works of Karl Marx.

  6. Jesus. Anyone who’s willing
    Jesus. Anyone who’s willing to pay $55 for a WH Vollmann book clearly inhabits a different world than I do.

  7. Lets see…
    TWO women that

    Lets see…
    TWO women that lived with Ted Hughes killed themselves, his mistress murdering their 4 year old daughter first.
    I can omly imagine what kind of man he was, and I will always believe that poetry is so much more important than poets

  8. There have been some
    There have been some excellent comments today — good to see so much response on a Sunday!

    Max Weismann, it’s nice to meet you. I will check out your organization.

    Mike, yes, I also thought about Robert Pirsig and “Zen and the Art of …” when I read this article.

    Don, it’s nice to hear validation from a librarian. It certainly is frustrating, especially when one thinks (as I personally do) that there are far more interesting books that could be acquired by libraries than (yawn) Ted Hughes’s letters.

    Finally, a note to Plump Comfort: well, it could also tell us something about what type of tragic women Ted Hughes was attracted to …

  9. Appreciate your comments on
    Appreciate your comments on pricing.

    At this point, I read (skim) the review out of habit and hate myself for doing so.

    The last two weeks are exhibits A and A1 of its irrelevance and uselessness.

    Does anyone care even a second about George Plimpton anymore? And is the review not able to find one person with even a college survey course knowledge of Latin American literature and history to take on Bolano? (of course, Lethem seems brilliant compared to Janet Maslin)

  10. Levi,sir, is “Tragic” a
    Levi,sir, is “Tragic” a female type? I think not, but
    I’ll look into that and get back to you. I believe the suicide /murder/ suicide of these women say a lot about the man they left behind, a man called the “blood and guts” poet. Suicide is an act of violence as much as murder is.
    Poetry is more important than poets. I’m sure I don’t want to know anything else about Ted Hughes , the man, yet I will probably read his letters.

    Bet I’ll be the first to put a hold on the book at the San Jose library. a wonderful library really, part of SJSU and open to the public as well.

  11. I certainly did not “tragic”
    I certainly did not “tragic” as a female characteristic! There are many men with “tragic” personalities … Kurt Cobain, Charles Baudelaire … the point I’m trying to make is that Hughes may have been attracted to women with the types of sensibilities that makes them prone to suicide. I’m no fan of Ted Hughes — but I do think this theory must be considered. I don’t know much about the actual facts here, though, I must admit.

    Anyway, no sexism intended.

  12. I think any of us are capable
    I think any of us are capable of committing violence; suicide or homicide or road rage for that matter.
    I don’t think there is a personality type, male or female, where this is hard wired and inevitable.I just can’t buy that.

    I think Hughes was ice cold. I think these women were trying to evoke a reaction from him, I think they were successful, and I think these actions they choose were/are contemptuous

    We could do postmortems on a lot of writers’ suicides and find common threads. These two particular women( Plath being a writer and the other, a painter) have Ted Hughes in common.

  13. Happy Birthday.

    Happy Birthday.

    There’s really not that much to do in Nice; jeez, the beach is all like little smooth rocks instead of sand. But I happened to be in the youth hostel playing cards with, among others, a beautiful girl who winked at me. So anyway, I ended up going to the Chagall museum on top the highest hill in Nice, up past the cemetery. Very steep, but worth the trek, ’cause I like Chagall. He’s unique, distinct, different. Kinda like the poster art of the blacklight 70’s hippie, dope…well, you know.

    So down the road a piece, there’s a Picasso museum. Never made it there but once saw an exhibition of some paintings which he’d given to friends as gifts. Can you imagine the kinda crap junk that Pablo’d give away fer free. Man…

  14. Don, as far as I’m concerned,
    Don, as far as I’m concerned, a library is one of the coolest places on earth and I’m happy to see a librarian’s comments here. I sometimes wish I had studied library sciences and wonder if it’s not too late.

    Michael, I totally relate to your comments. When I was a young child, my parents bought a set called The Book of Knowledge. They had a bit of everything: science, literature, history, etc. I loved those books growing up. Does anyone else remember the Book of Knowledge?

  15. Plump Comfort, I respectfully
    Plump Comfort, I respectfully see it very differently. First, whether or not anyone is “hard-wired” with a personality is beside the point. Whether the personality arrives through genetic predisposition or not, the point is that Ted Hughes, like everybody else, was obviously attracted to certain personality traits. The fact that one of his wives was a poet and one an artist suggests this.

    Bill, I also grew up with the “Book of Knowledge” series in my home! This is probably worth a blog post someday …

  16. Indeed, Levi, great idea!
    Indeed, Levi, great idea! Remember the dust jacket artwork? Almost surreal.

    My favorite volume was the one with the skeleton and the clear overlay pages of organs, circulatory system, nervous system, and skin. Ah, how that fucker grinned . . .

  17. levi, the hughes letters are
    levi, the hughes letters are 29 bucks on amazon; 22 used. your blood pressure meds are on the way.

  18. I wonder if the $45 price tag
    I wonder if the $45 price tag has to do with the Hughes estate and the imbalance of British Sterling. That and his reputation is much higher in Britain, I think.

    I can just imagine the FSG conversation: “But who’ll buy it at this price Ernst?!” “Why, well-off white people, Reginald, the same as buy all our other titles.” No, kidding. It is expensive though.

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