Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Katherine Powers!

Allow me to add my quick and completely enthusiastic 'Hear, hear!' to the interview my fellow book-blogger Eric Forbes just conducted with the mighty Katherine Powers (it's located here, and if you don't already have Eric's blog bookmarked, by all means do that while you're there).

Powers writes a bi-weekly book column called "A Reading Life" for the dear old Boston Globe, and in that column readers will always find three things: her formidable intelligence, her deep reading experience, and best of all, her utterly unpredictable eclecticism. She can open a column with a review of a new collection of Sumerian mythology and end up recommending her four favorite books on natural history, and the chain of causation will enchantingly sensible, link by link (the first of you who can parse the chain linking my examples will win ... wait for it ... a free book!). That eclecticism is the key to both the charm of her column and its longevity, and oddly enough, roamers who come to her words from the wilds of the Internet will find them very familiar. By using her own readerly sensibilities as her pole-star, she allows the focus of "A Reading Life" to wander all over her aesthetic landscape. In this sense, she's been book-blogging longer than any of us.

Let's take this last Sunday's column as a quick example, shall we? Her large subject is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and just as I am myself, she's getting her share of galley copies of new and upcoming books commemorating that event. It's certainly a fruitful subject - it's certainly possible to argue that the King James has had a deeper and more pervasive impact on Western culture than any other book with the possible exception of On the Origin of Species, and on Western literature there is no rival that's even close. So you'd think quite a few of the books written specifically to celebrate the event would rise to the occasion.

Not so the two unfortunate new volumes she uses to open her discussion. "The entire book is written in this bland, annual-report flavored style, made all the more ludicrous by the majesty and grace of its purloined subject," she writes about one of them, and the other she characterizes as "an obeisance to the strange god of calculation." Hee.

In most other book columns appearing in great metropolitan newspapers, these condemnations (this is one of the most cheering aspects of Powers' column for me, and it's an aspect of book-writing I sometimes fear our non-Irish practitioners too often forget: book critics don't only praise - they also smite the wicked. Powers is a first-rate smiter when the mood strikes her)(like most veteran readers, she intensely dislikes having her time wasted, I suspect) would be followed by a longer notice of a new book she actually liked.

But not so a book-blog, which is what Powers has secretly been writing all these years! On the best book-blogs, the readers are blissfully in the hands of the blogger's reading acumen, not slaves to the New Release lists. Powers no sooner finishes politely stomping on the two new books before her than she pulls a quintessential blogging move by saying "but here's something on the subject that you really should read" - and then doing the written equivalent of jumping up and finding that one perfect book on her jam-packed shelves and proceeding to sing its praises even though it's not new and isn't the basis for a Robert Pattinson movie.

The book she picks this time is Adam Nicolson's entirely worthy God's Secretaries, about the diverse collection of men who were commissioned by King James I to do the epochal translation that James knew perfectly well was the main thing for which he'd be remembered. And in just the span of four paragraphs, she not only does the book justice but serves up a mighty effective recommendation in the process.

Which is exactly what we want from our best book-bloggers!


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