As a dilettante of the second order, I occasionally glance at The New York Review of Books just to see how the other half lives. Alright, just to see how the other .00000000025% live. Except for Presidents giving a State of the Union Address, no one reads any more. Instead they troll for satisfying videos of some do-gooder giving a homeless guy $100 or an abandoned kitten being breast fed by a honey badger. I know I do. And I get it. Reading takes time and application. It’s proactive, but it is ultimately more rewarding and nourishing than idly surfing some video screen seeking temporary fulfillment. Well that’s as preachy as I’ll get because Wimp.com just posted a video of a Dolphin making oatmeal. That Dolphin happened to be former Miami Dolphin fullback Larry Csonka.
The NY Review of Books is bone dry and devoid of juicy gossip. If it were any drier it would spontaneously combust. It’s a narrow publication appealing to people who sometimes equate intellectual heft with spiritual awareness. The NY Review of Books is replete with bravura verbal muscularity and apposite aphorisms, soft as church music. However as comprehensive as it may be, the following words or ideas seem to creep into about half the articles or reviews. For example I’ve detected these recurring themes or phrases throughout the NY Review of Books:
- Sylvia Plath’s suicide changed nothing. She was still unhappy.
- So that was it. Jane immersed herself in English romantic poets as a means of coping with her intractable psoriasis.
- Harold’s homosexuality was known only to his wife, Ralph.
- All we had were parsnips. Fortunately all we wanted were parsnips.
- the Zionist experience of Jewish Semites
- the Jewish experience of Semitic Zionists
- the Semitic experience of Zionist Jews
- the influence of chivalric modalities in 12th century Hohoenzollern
- Marcel Proust would often mispronounce his name as “Proust.” Knowing that if anyone were to write about the event, no one would be able to know how Proust pronounced “Proust” in the first place.
Now usually I write these little essays to express something funny or ironic that I’ve teased out of a premise. I don’t have to do that with the NY Review of Books, I just have to quote directly from its copy. Unintended humor is inherent in the copy. For example in the latest issue I perused 2 consecutive ads for new books (where else are publishers going to advertise? TMZ, The Huffington Post? It should be called the Huffington Cut and Post.). Anyway, as I was perusing, the following abstruse book titles appeared in a full page ad for Johns Hopkins Press. That is the publishing arm of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They publish their own. Johns Hopkins – A university so important they had to pluralize its first and last names. Again, I’m not making this stuff up. Here’s our first new underlined book entrant as lifted from the pages of The NY Review of Books with my commentary to follow:
1. Optical Impersonality: Science, Images and Literary Modernism by Christina Walter. I’m thinking the author, Christina Walter, is not employed by Wal*Mart. Rather she’s probably immersed in academia so deeply that, well, let’s just say she needs a glass eye in her navel to see anything. How do you get to a point in your life where Optical Impersonality arises as a topic, let alone a topic someone would pay you to write about?
So many book titles share similar formats. Usually they begin with the topic followed by a colon and a then long string of descriptors. As in Optical Impersonality: Science, Images and Literary Modernism. This was a greater problem in antiquity with rambling book titles such as this 1690 best-seller: Differentiation in Bi-Metallic Expansionism: An Inquiry as to the States of Matter with Respect to Thermodynamic Properties Whose Environments Vary with Particular Malice. That was a real page turner in 1690’s London – a besmirched era when the gloomy, sooty sky was referred to as daylight.
What is the title trying to convey? Optical Impersonality: Science, Images and Literary Modernism. It conjures up nothing in my mind except maybe that some author was a little over-educated. So what is it about? Is it about Bausch & Lomb? No. It’s about taking a barely delineated topic, whipping it into a frothy intellectual lather and letting readers stand in awe of its puffy erudition. It’s nothing more than literary theater. The one line review in the NY Review of Books was appended beneath a picture of the book jacket and is supposedly designed to illuminate and entice the reader. It actually reads: “Just when you thought you knew your way around the modernist poetics of impersonality, Walter comes to burn the maps.” I can unequivocally say, I never knew my way around modernist poetics of impersonality to begin with. And now I discover they’ve burned the maps. No maps? Damn! My GPS will never get me there now. Better move on. Next book.
2. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867 by Chris R. Vanden Bossche. Again, does the title convey any notion of what this 432 pg. book is about? Not to me, although I’m getting whiffs of a dismal Dickensian dystopia, but then again I had gruel for breakfast. Allow me to present the one line review appended beneath a picture of the book jacket that is supposedly designed to both illuminate and entice the reader. It actually reads: At once boldly revisionist and meticulously argued, Reform Acts re-orients our approach to class politics and ideological criticism.
Really it does all that, and all without any sooty aftertaste. As the review states, this book re-orients our approach. Of course that presupposes an original orientation on the matter to begin with and as far as I know, I’ve never had an orientation as to class politics and ideological criticism. Now I do have an orientation as far as baseball and steroids go. I believe Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should have their tainted records expunged from the MLB record books and heroic Hank Aaron should restored to his rightful place as the Home Run King. Now that’s an orientation. Could it be re-oriented? Probably not, but the possibility at least exists. Unlike having my non-existent class politics and ideological criticism re-oriented. I mean you can’t re-orient something that has no orientation to begin with. I can’t believe they (the pointy intellectuals on book-writing sabbaticals) assume I have a class politics and ideological criticism orientation locked and loaded. Next book.
3. Sphincterism and The Black Hole of Calcutta: Irreconcilably Tubular by Pretentious D. Salinger. Alright I made that last one up. But You must admit, it had you thinking.
It’s Never What You Think it is
And another thing. Even though this essay sounds like a rant, it isn’t. It’s just a (ahem) re-orientation of my literary compass. Some of the NY Review of Books author’s names reek of pretension (It’s fun to have something to push against. A prerequisite really). Case in point is the name of the previous author – Christopher R Vanden Bossche. I’m sure he was nothing but trouble growing up in the Vanden Bossche household. Often seen cavorting around the family compound at 7 am, brandishing his sword while shrieking in the King’s English, “I’m Christopher R Vanden Bossche and the R stands for Ruminative. No one challenges me. I stand alone amongst the intellectual rubble of my antecedents. Ma! Hey Ma! Do we have any more Froot Loops?”
Please enjoy a brief list of actual author’s names culled from just one issue of the NY Review of Books:
- Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet: The family name resulting from an act of sexual congress between a 13th century French Dauphin of Auvergne (Henri Toulet aka Hank Toilet) and an Italian courtesan (Angelina Cerquiglini).
- Yopie Prins: After a bitter disagreement with his publisher, he changed his name to the symbol Ӂ, and was forever referred to as: The author formerly known as Prins.
- Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima: I’m supposed to be tolerant of this name with 3 initials, one of which is separated by a “de”? I wouldn’t even know what to call him. Mr. Z do us all a favor, go to the courthouse and change your nom de plume (pen name) to Brandon Fisk. Boom done. ‘Nuff said.
- Qiu Miaojin: I know. In Chinese it means John Smith. Well then sir, call yourself John Smith.
- Slash Rensselaer: Alright I made this one up but you get the idea.
The NY Review of Books always serves up savory words that I‘ve either forgotten about or are outliers just beyond my stunted vocabularic reach. For example in one review, a critic throws down the choice phrase “strenuous placidity.” Beautiful. This is just a fancy way of saying intellectuals brandish their rapier-like wit when they’re at their pointiest. Wily authors use this technique repeatedly: Yoke together 2 diametrically opposed terms (strenuous and placid) to create a pleasantly dissonant ambience. Pleasantly dissonant – there’s another one. This always makes for delicious reading and the NY Review of Books is rife with them. Examples include:
- monolithic heterogeneity
- pleasantly dissonant. No wait. That’s my line. I can’t quote me.
- onomatopoeic silence
- Ayn’s knickers never touch the ground in this gorgeous mess of a novella
- His militant pacifism
- Brilliantly idiotic
Why come to a conclusion when you can come to the end?
As an apologia to anyone I’ve offended, let me state the obvious. When erudite people get nude with a loved one and perform the Heimlich maneuver, they sound just like everybody else. Except for maybe Marlee Matlin. She might sound different, but the larger point here is that our real collective interests trump our supposed differences. Intellectually I’m relieved to know that so much previously undefined mental space has been filled-in by liberal arts professors on sabbaticals writing books. These mindfully generative literati expand the intellectual universe (as opposed to the more real spiritual universe) and this allows us to take little vacations to the landscape they’ve created. They trail blaze and we get to occupy the space they’ve carved out. Far out. It is said that in the future, when then becomes now, lovers everywhere will still say, “Lower. Lower. Right there. Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
It’s all the same in any language.