Reviewing the Review: October 11 2009

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.

15 Responses

  1. Many years ago as a sort of
    Many years ago as a sort of rite of passage I read Dawkins either in my last year of undergrad or in first year of grad school — Blind Watchmaker in this case.

    Dawkins has become a weird religious zealot who wants to fight with the other religious zealots. What he has to do with science or biology is a mystery. I think his popular writings were actually always along these lines but with success and fame comes a bigger ego and he’s not shy about spewing forth his evangelism.

    The evolution vs creation debate is such a big waste of time where sophomoric buffoons argue about whose god is biggest and bestest. Dawkins is on a crusade and it has nothing to do with the advancement of science understanding to the general public. In fact I think he damages that cause a lot more than helps it.

  2. Agreed about the review of
    Agreed about the review of Dawkins’ book. He was parsing an important point. I’ve read the book and it was my impression that Dawkins’ beef with word “theory” is that people don’t really understand the meaning of the word, which is, according to Oxford’s, “a scheme of system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experience, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts…” There is a second meaning which applies to mere speculation. Dawkins’ point is that evolution falls under Definition 1 and not Definition 2.

    But overall an even-handed, smart review…unlike Bill O’Reilly who called Dawkins a fascist this week. Dawkins was dumbstruck, as was I.

  3. I think we all see this the
    I think we all see this the same way (so far). I do not believe we need a heavy-handed defeat of the “intelligent design” movement. In fact, faith and science can co-exist peacefully, and I believe we should all be moderate and open-minded in terms of educating our children according to our own beliefs.

    Dawkins is just thinking up new ways to churn out more books on atheism, as far as I can see. A cottage industry — well, religion is also big industry. I think there’s room for believers and non-believers together in this world.

  4. There wasn’t a mention of
    There wasn’t a mention of atheism in this book. It was completely about evolution. He felt the need to write it because so many Americans believe in creationism (40% by some polls) and that the earth is only 10,000 years old. That is sad and, yes, arguably dangerous. Especially when so many of them are working the halls of Washington.

    It is funny how people complain about Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, how they “spew” and how it hurts their cause. I’ve seen dozens of interviews and videos of them and they all speak in calm, measured albeit forceful tones (until verbally attacked). The accusation of them being on “crusades” or being “zealots” is completely ridiculous.

    But, as they say (with a Northeastern accent), “Takes all types.”

  5. Hi Kevin.

    Review what I
    Hi Kevin.

    Review what I wrote:

    “Dawkins is on a crusade and it has nothing to do with the advancement of science understanding to the general public. In fact I think he damages that cause a lot more than helps it.”

    and what you wrote:

    “It is funny how people complain about Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, how they “spew” and how it hurts their cause.”

    What cause are you talking about?

  6. Maureen Dowd has never risked
    Maureen Dowd has never risked anything in her writing, ever, and smirking condescension is her only comfortable stance. That’s what makes her so distasteful to read. I wasn’t sure it was possible to make a Dan Brown pan come across as gratuitous and shallow, but she somehow manages it here.

    That Byatt book sounds great though.

  7. Though I tend to have
    Though I tend to have agreement with Dowd as political leanings something about her comes across as “my ideas are above what this other person writes or thinks about.” It could just be me. Also this its either evolution or religon always on going arguement gets boring. The ideas can be connected at many points or viewed as themselves only very easily without it always having haveing to be a life or death argument.

  8. Kevin, it sounds like you
    Kevin, it sounds like you favor Dawkins’ side of the argument, and I know many smart people do. Personally, I’ve never criticized the way he expresses himself — I don’t think he spews and hurts his cause — but like the NYTBR reviewer above I do think he’s on a strange mission to conquer all religious belief with logic, and I don’t know why he bothers. Many before him have tried, but the logic doesn’t hold up. Philosophers like Descartes, Pascal and Kierkegaard have proven this — Dawkins’ mission is in vain. So, regardless of how he conducts himself or whether he’s specifically arguing against religion or against some of the less tenable pillars of religion like creation theory, I tend to always find him unpersuasive. But, yeah, like you say, it takes all types! I know many readers do find Dawkins’ work valuable.

  9. You’re right, it is vain to
    You’re right, it is vain to try conquer all religious belief and I really don’t think Dawkins, et al, are truly aiming for that. After all, even they admit they can’t TOTALLY prove there is no god. No one can. But all evidence at this point leads one to think the opposite, etc, etc…and so the argument goes.

    I think the logic holds up. It’s just that, ultimately, religion hinges on faith and faith can’t necessarily be reconciled/ changed by logic, imho. It involves a level of credulity I personally can’t muster.

    When I say, “It takes all types,” imagine I’m wearing suspenders and am hooking my thumbs in them as I’m saying it, with an accent like an old Delaware farmer.

  10. Some people, myself included,
    Some people, myself included, grew up terribly guilt-ridden and conflicted due to religious teachings. Dawkins helps us explode religion’s boney grip. Sometimes we enjoy spewing.

  11. That makes sense, Bill. I,
    That makes sense, Bill. I, on the other hand, was raised in a rather “modern” family — we observed Jewish traditions but never in an overbearing way. I became fascinated with various religions as a teenager, and continue to find religious wisdom (gathered freely from many faiths) extremely valuable in my life — this is why I often find the Richard Dawkins approach to the topic very limited and unsatisfying. It’s probably a fact, though, that if I’d been forced to follow a strict religious discipline as a kid, I would have never opened my mind to it on my own. We are all still responding, I think, to the things we first learned as children.

  12. Thanks, Levi.
    And keep in

    Thanks, Levi.
    And keep in mind, I don’t have to believe everything Dawkins says to experience catharsis from his pronouncements. I don’t discount the possibility of God at all, but I understand why some doubters can feel so vehement about it.

  13. “I don’t think he spews and
    “I don’t think he spews and hurts his cause”

    What is the “cause” you are referring to?

    What his “cause” is seems to be conflated so often in discussions.

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