Monday, June 22, 2009

Speaking of Books - and Life!

Our book today is one of J. Donald Adams' collections of the "Speaking of Books" columns he wrote for The New York Times over the course of many decades; this one called Speaking of Books - and Life, and it amply demonstrates a truth I've been known to champion myself: well-done book criticism is a boon to the soul.

It's that 'well-done' part that catches you, since book criticism badly-done is hay maker to the literary and rhetorical crotch. Lazy authors of other kind of prose are not only expected but almost forgivable - a 300 page novel? Whose attention wouldn't wander a bit in the writing of such a thing? A 600 page history of the Ostrogoths? A little nodding comes with such a thankless task. But writing lazily or sloppily about books? Somehow, that feels so much more sacrilegious, probably because reading is so inherently personal. Which 'serious' reader hasn't had at least some long, passionate conversations with other readers about these mysterious silent things that speak so loudly to our lives? Which serious reader wouldn't rank some of those conversations among the best they've ever had?

On some level, we all know that well-done book criticism is that kind of conversation. The critic's job isn't merely to point out the strengths and weaknesses of whichever specific book happens to be on his dissecting table at the moment (although there should always be a part of that - the critic must advocate and also warn, but that happens in those epic conversations too); he must also digress, irritate, flatter, outrage, distract ... and above all stimulate. Reading well-done book criticism should be like engaging in one of those great book-conversations, even though the two participants aren't actually talking to each other, even though the critic might very well be dead and gone (arguing with Hazlitt is no less fun now than it was when he was alive, and don't even get me started about Erasmus ... ). The critic's job extends far beyond merely summarizing the particular book he's reviewing - he has to contextualize, he has to set the scene, and he sometimes has to teach.

And we the readers return the favor! We read some Olympian pronouncement from the likes of Stpehen Leacock or Alexander Cockburn or Edmund Wilson or Henry James or Mary McCarthy or W. H. Auden, and if we agree with it, the sun seems a little brighter, the birds a little more melodious - and if we disagree, we set immediately to a mental scrambling to justify ourselves, a process that's sweetly anger-fueled no matter whether the recipient is still alive to get our irate rebuttal. Hardly a day goes by when I don't phrase both sides of the debate this way about some new-published thing, between me and some long-gone book-friend who'd surely have loved or hated it in direct proportion to me.

That's what well-done book criticism should be - and so seldom is! Book critics are only human, after all (well ... most of them), and they're just as prone to becoming jaded, cynical, or hidebound as any other kind of critic. The average review in the world's most influential review organ, Adams' old stomping ground The New York Times, is an utterly lifeless thing, often compelled to be so by its enforced brevity (and by ham-fisted editors who know nothing of their craft). Not that brevity is lethal to wit - but most good book critics improve if they can expand a bit, which isn't possible if you're limited to twenty inches above the fold in a newspaper.

Adams could do it, did it every week for what seems like an endless number of weeks. And he was almost always all the above-mentioned things: digressive, flattering, irritating, often stubborn but never actually closed. His book column became something of an institution, and at the height of his popularity his least printed assertion would prompt an avalanche of mail. In any newsroom (and this applies online as well), there's a peculiar status accorded the writer who actually provokes written responses, and Adams certainly did.

And more than just getting letters, he also read them all - and thought about them. This particular volume of cullings from his collected works is all about those not infrequent times when reader response and careful thought caused him to change his mind (he was that rare formally gifted thinker who wasn't afraid of such a change at all, in fact welcomed it). Adams was fonder of learning than he was of preaching, and it often happened that correspondents of his would receive a dashed-off missive with a typically breakneck opening, "I've just received a letter about ..." The "Speaking of Books" column was always at its most fun when Adams brought this reader dialogue before his audience. An example:

This department, I fear, will have to keep its sackcloth and ashes in a more convenient place. In the course of some recent remarks on obscurity and the perverse use of words in contemporary poetry, I seem to have gone off the deep end by quoting in support of my protest a line which reads, "Green of nightfall, alive with the clicking bats." I confessed inability to establish a connection between "green" and "nightfall," and my failure to imagine any sense in which bats might be described as "clicking."

By a score of readers who express general sympathy with my reservations about the content and manner of much of contemporary poetry, I stand rebuked, gently and otherwise, for these particular objections. On the matter of the bats, especially, the weight of evidence is overwhelming. What makes my penitence harder to bear is the fact that I fancied myself here to be on definitely safe ground. For several seasons a bat made his home with me in a house I once had in the country; that is, he took up residence in his dormant daylight state behind a storm door on the upper front porch, where he became so much an accepted member of the household that he was known as Michael.

Though I never heard a clicking sound from Michael or any other bat of my limited acquaintance, I am assured by my correspondents that the adjective is apt. So many of them identify the sound that I must conclude it is simply one that I never chanced to hear.

And Adams was just as diverting when he stepped back not to assess his own stance on something but to take a long view of some literary fad that had come to his attention:

I speak of these matters because I have been wondering whether any significance attaches to the recent popularity among adults of certain books about animals. Is this mere chance, or may it be accounted for in other ways? The question must be pursued cautiously for what should be obvious reasons. Everybody knows that the taste for certain kinds of reading fluctuates from period to period; the Elizabethans were as fascinated by how-to books as we are, and produced them in similar profusion, but during intervening centuries the phenomenon was less marked. At the beginning of the present century the historical romance (as opposed to the more serious historical novel) enjoyed wider popularity than it does today. And so the pendulum swings.

That long view makes Adams particularly thrilling reading when he makes mention of recent or contemporary literary figures (as he often does, obviously) who've since gone on to be enshrined in the literary pantheon. When he writes about "the younger people," the names that follow - Eudora Welty, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Flannery O'Connor - won't strike many readers today as particularly youthful, and it's exciting in an almost illicit way to watch a heavyweight critic swing his arms around in their company, as when Adams comments, "On Michener and Mailer I reserve judgment; both have skill, but what will they do with it?"

The writers of his own age suffered also from the fact that Adams was an energetic reader of the classics of the Western canon. Such readers are notoriously hard to please, although not all of them are as adroit about it as Adams:

Besides this man [Samuel Johnson], who knew the depths of human misery, I get damned impatient with those avant-garde writers who seem suddenly to have discovered (I have Samuel Beckett particularly in mind) that human life is not a bed of roses, as if it ever were. But the first man capable of sensible and sensitive reflection knew it as well as they. I suppose every man must discover the fact for himself - and express it in the terms of his age. Nevertheless, I wish we had, among more writers, a little more of Sam Johnson's courage, a little more of his contempt for odds. He might rail, but he never cried in his soup.

If Adams were alive and still writing today ("Jonathan Safran Foer would long since have been frightened into a different profession" - no, no ... we'll make a different point), I might point out to him such writers as Tom McGuane or Pete Dexter and try to make the case that courage of the type he admires didn't entirely vanish from the world after the Great Cham. Alas, that isn't possible - but maybe someday somebody will reprint his book-columns, so the conversation can resume.

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