Well, isn’t this awkward. This weekend’s New York Times Book Review cover features Maureen Dowd’s review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and I already read this article online and wrote a blog post about it six days ago. I didn’t even know if was a Book Review article, and since it appeared over a week early I don’t understand why it is.
Is it a smart editorial strategy for the Book Review to unhinge itself from its Sunday roots, to dissipate its articles amorphously and asynchronously into the “cloud” so that a Book Review article is just another distinct blip, another node? If the Book Review loses its lazy weekend aura and its collective identity, what of it will be left? I’m not sure. I hope the Times knows what it’s doing here.
With that said: Maureen Dowd’s review of The Lost Symbol is a disappointment. She mocks Dan Brown for writing about a subject as silly as the Masons, which means she is apprehending this book on the most superficial possible level: embarrassment. She won’t even enter its world, won’t even suspend disbelief, because there might be men with funny hats in this book. Her wisecracks about the Masons are weak and predictable, as when she refers to a famous painting of George Washingon “wearing full Masonic regalia, including a darling little fringed satin apron”. Right, and in India they wear towels on their heads. As silly as it may seem today, the Masonic movement has a serious intellectual past, and it’s a shame that Maureen Dowd’s article refuses to rise above the level of smirking condescension at the very idea of the topic:
In interviews, Brown has said he was tempted to join the Masons, calling their philosophy a “beautiful blueprint for human spirituality.” In the next opus, Langdon will probably be wearing a red Shriner’s fez with his Burberry turtleneck and Harris tweed.
Maureen Dowd risks nothing in this review, but Nicholas Wade dares to challenge the blustery popular athiest Richard Dawkins in his review of The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution. The book claims that Darwinian evolution should no longer be called a theory, since it has been proven to be fact. Wade corrects him: evolution can never be anything but a scientific theory — a very good one, but still a theory — though historians can rightfully consider evolution a historical fact. Wade parses a difficult argument skillfully here.
There’s a riveting piece by Joshua Hammer on Francine Prose’s new study Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, which finds in Anne Frank’s diary not a random case of “found art” but rather a carefully constructed memoir by a very young “genius” who understood that she was doomed and wanted to leave a testament behind. Elizabeth Samet comes up with an arresting thesis in her review of William Styron’s Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps: Styron’s military career never brought him into combat, and he therefore suffered from a literary equivalent of survivor’s guilt.
A. S. Byatt’s latest novel The Children’s Book sounds like a real corker, as described by Jennifer Schuessler, as does A Bomb In Every Issue, Peter Richardson’s history of Ramparts magazine, reviewed by Jack Shafer. Bruce Handy hits at least one nail on the head in his satisfying endpaper about the upcoming Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers film version of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are: there is not much in this book to hang a movie on to, and a lot of kids never liked the book to begin with. Handy’s article helps me understand my own lack of interest in seeing this movie, even though I’m happy to look at the dreamy film stills and previews. But Handy also writes:
Having now cheerfully dumped on a bunch of classics, I feel better.
Hmm. Was that really the best choice of words?
Elsewhere in today’s New York Times, Oxford University Press linguist Ben Zimmer offers a nice tribute to William Safire in the Magazine, on the page where Safire’s column used to be found.