Book reviews are a terrific resource, which allow you to keep up on what’s happening in a wide variety of fields without actually having to read the book. And occasionally they point out a book you really should read. Writing these reviews used to be an art that employed a large number of talented writers, but that’s been changing. Formal book reviews in newspapers and magazines, which used to be the staple of the business, are declining in number. Now we’re increasingly dependent on online sources and the unpolished and unhelpful amateur reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.
But you can still find good book reviews, ones that are pleasure to read even if you’re not terribly interested in the book’s topic. My favorites are the take-downs — when a skillful writer demolishes a book with wit and literary precision. Sometimes the target is the subject of the review. More often, the target is the book’s author, in which the review becomes a lesson for the reader on what the book in question could have been if the author had been as adept as the reviewer. Here are two of my favorite examples.
In 2011, historian Jackson Lear wrote a review of Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris that is a classic of the first time. He turns it into a viciously effective essay about Teddy Roosevelt’s failings as a person and a president. As with a lot of the best take-downs, he lets you know in the opening sentence what kind of story this is going to be: “The reputation of Theodore Roosevelt has become as bloated as the man himself.” In particular he focuses on
the cult-like status that Roosevelt enjoys outside the academy, especially in Washington. In political discourse, his name evokes bipartisan affection, bordering on reverence; few presidents are safer for politicians of either party to cite as an inspiration…. Not bad for a man who, despite his undeniable bravery and public spirit, spent much of his life behaving like a bully, drunk on his own self-regard. How does one account for the contemporary adulation of this man?
Here’s how Lear sums up his assessment of TR at the end of the essay:
In The Nation, Stuart Sherman characterized Roosevelt’s life as the drama of a man done in by his own obsessions, descending from defense of the public good into mere “fighting for fighting’s sake.” Sherman ended on a wistful note: “‘How much more glorious [Roosevelt’s life would have been] if in his great personality there had been planted a spark of magnanimity.’”
The problem was that magnanimity required a kind of manhood that Roosevelt the boy did not possess. A part of his character remained attached to older traditions of masculine honor, to a paternalist sense of noblesse oblige: this was the part that lay behind his challenges to irresponsible capital, his elevation of public good over private gain. But there was another, deeper part that relished physical struggle—and above all violence—for its own sake. This was what kept him from being more than “a great big boy,” and often little more than a schoolyard bully. It was also what kept him, in the end, from becoming a truly tragic figure. Tragedy is for grown-ups.
Ouch. Now that’s an epitaph no one wants.
The second example is a 1963 review by Gore Vidal of John Hersey’s book, Here to Stay. His critique focuses is on the way Hersey writes. Here’s the opening paragraph, which sets up the question the reviewer wants to answer:
John Hersey has brought together a number of his journalistic pieces in a volume called Here to Stay and a baffling collection it is. To give Mr. Hersey his due — and who is so hard as not to give it him? — he is good-hearted, right-minded and, as they used to say of newspaper reporters, “tireless.” He is also, as Mr. Orville Prescott would say, “dull, dull, dull.” Mr. Hersey’s dullness is not easily accounted for. His pieces deal with interesting subjects: Connecticut floods, concentration camp survivors, returning veterans, battle fatigue cases, and his famous Hiroshima study. He is fascinated by death, holocaust and man’s monotonous inhumanity to man. He can describe a disaster chastely and attentively. He has an eye for minutiae (here begins his failure for he has not much gift for selection). He is willing to take on great themes (Hiroshima), but despite his efforts, something always goes wrong. Why?
Vidal sees the problem in Hersey’s insistence on piling up mountains of meticulously documented details about a disaster without giving us any sense of what they mean and why they matter. He puts it this way:
To what end does Mr. Hersey in his level, fact-choked style insist that we attend these various disasters human and natural? So deliberately is he a camera that it is often hard to determine what he means us to feel by what is shown. The simple declarative sentences are excellent at conveying action; they are less good at suggesting atmosphere; they are hopeless at expressing a moral point of view, even by indirection.
Here is his conclusion:
Of course Mr. Hersey is to be praised for avoiding emotional journalism and overt editorializing (though a week of reading Emil Zola might do him good); yet despite his properly nervous preface, he does not seem to realize that the only point to writing serious journalism is to awaken in the reader not only the sense of how something was, but the apprehension of why it was, and to what moral end the recorder is leading us, protesting or not. Mr. Hersey is content to give us mere facts. A good man, he finds war hell and human suffering terrible, but that is nowhere near enough. At no point in the deadpan monotonous chronicle of Hiroshima is there any sense of what the Bomb meant and means. He does not even touch on the public debate as to whether or not there was any need to use such weapon when Japan was already making overtures of surrender. To Mr. Hersey it just fell, that’s all, and it was terrible, and he would like to tell us about it. If he has any attitude about the moral position of the United States before and after this extraordinary human happening, he keeps it safely hidden beneath the little sentences and the small facts.
To use Mr. Hersey’s own unhappy image, in reading him one does not drink the bitter elixir of adrenalin, one merely sips a familiar cup of something anodyne, something not stimulant but barbiturate, and the moral sense sleeps on.