Posted in Writing

The Art of the Take-Down: Hostile Book Reviews, Pt. 2

Recently I did a post on the art of the take-down — 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 more favorite examples of the genre.

World Is Flat

First up is a particularly vicious attack by Matt Taibi in 2005 on Thomas Freedman’s bestselling book, The World Is Flat.  The assault begins with a loud bang:

Start with the title.

The book’s genesis is a conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani casually mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase–the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.” What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

You’ve gotta love this one.  When a writer like Taibbi can effectively trash the premise of an entire book in a couple paragraphs, it’s a real tour-de-force.  He shows vividly that Freedman’s entire analysis is based on a botched metaphor.  What Freedman wants to say is that the world is smaller and more interconnected than ever before, which is not exactly a stunning observation.  But instead of calling it The World Is Small, which wouldn’t get any notice, he decides to go for an a title that is so counterintuitive as to be totally attention grabbing:  The World Is Flat.  Unfortunately this runs directly counter to his own anodyne point, since it describes the bad old world before the internet.  


The second case in point is the 2016 review by Clive James of an academic book edited by three French scholars (Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, and Georges Vigarello) called A History of Virility, which weighs in at 752 pages.  James uses his review as way to ridicule the pretentiousness of academic writing, especially in the French social science tradition.  Only scholars could make sex boring.  His opening sentence is a killer:

This book is a lead mine of information. There could have been gold in it, but perhaps yellow lustre was thought to be less impressive than grey heft. Only one of a series of volumes published under the general title of “European Perspectives“, the book bulks large as a collection of specially commissioned articles with virility for a subject. Virile itself in its heaps of strenuously acquired science-sounding vocabulary, it shows what can be done with three sufficiently influential European editors marshal the expertise of a phalanx of sufficiently dedicated European sociologists in order to invest a sufficiently important theme with an extra gravitas id doesn’t really need. The result is like the European Union: one searches for the benefits while keeping an eye on the exits.

Most of the Europeans involved are French, and one of the reasons for the book’s ponderous collective ton could be that the already glutinous academic version of the French language has not been very excitingly translated into English: a term such as “structured, normative alterity” might have sounded more sprightly in the original. The exclusive blame can scarcely be place on the subject itself, which is, by the nature of things, quite sexy. By the time the European experts have worked out their perspectives, however, the kind of urge that once got Peter Abelard into immortal trouble is drained of poetic nuance, not to say truth.  

Later in the review, he digs into the substance of the book’s take on virility:

All too early in the book, on the point of whether masculinity is acquired or intrinsic, Simone de Beauvoir is quoted. The quotation is familiar, but stands out among the circumambient solemnity with a startling freshness, which is a bad sign, because in any context where Beauvoir sets the standard for vivid utterance, it is being set low. “A man,” says Beauvoir “is not born a man, he becomes a man.” She sounds more scientific than the social scientist who quotes her, although Abelard, could be speak, might point out to both of them that the ideal that masculinity is not an a priori condition attached to physiology starts looking shaky when the knives come out. (“The pursuit of truth hides castration,” said Lacan, to which Abelard might have replied “if only.”) But the book, could it speak in a single voice — most of the time, alas, it does, if only in the sense that so many modern academics in the soft sciences sound the same — might reply that sexuality is not merely a matter of gender, or that gender is not merely a matter of anatomy, and that these things are modalities, with virility yet another modality.  As always in such a book of any size, if you hear the word “modality” you can count on hearing it again soon.

There’s so much to like here.  First the language: “strenuously acquired science-sounding vocabulary;” the repetition of the world “sufficiently;” pointing out how the authors use terms “structured, normative alterity” and repeatedly refer to “modality.”  And then there are the gratuitous digs at Beauvoir and the EU.  I’d kill to have crafted one of his sentences.


David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses on the historical sociology of American schooling, including topics such as the evolution of high schools, the growth of consumerism, the origins and nature of education schools, and the role of schools in promoting access and advantage more than subject-matter learning. He was president of the History of Education Society and member of the executive board of the American Educational Research Association. His books include: The Making of an American High School (Yale, 1988); How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (Yale, 1997); The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale University Press, 2004); Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (Harvard, 2010); and A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (Chicago, 2017).

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