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Book Review 312: Books of the Century
March 20, 2014 - Harry Eagar
BOOKS OF THE CENTURY: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas and Literature, edited by Charles McGrath. 647 pages, illustrated. Times, $30.
Writing a review of a volume of reviews is like a dog not only chasing but catching his tail; here goes anyway.
I could not have guessed which writer would get the most space in a volume that has only about five pages per year to sample the output of the New York Times since it started its separate book section in 1897. I would have guessed Henry James, but he is only second to Milan Kundera.
Kundera gets more than 1% of the whole book.
Since this is just a sampling and not a compendium, any reader can easily play, How could they have left (X) out?
One obvious answer is that the editors have no interest in style. A couple of writers greatly admired (though not by me) for their style get plenty of attention, like James and E.B. White. But there are no reviews of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Coover, James Thurber or John O’Hara. At least all these writers are mentioned in reviews of other writers, although a carping critic might wonder whether the single mention of “Waugh” refers to Evelyn, Alec or Auberon.
But T.H. White, Michael Frayn, Julian Rathbone and Amos Tutuola are entirely absent.
The editors note, in marginalia, some of the lapses of the Review over the years. For example, they find the time to note that it took 362 days for the Times to review Robert James Waller’s “Bridges of Madison County.” But no mention of Tutuola, who was both one of the handful of master stylists of written English during the Review’s first century and the first African to publish a novel in English.
I cannot determine whether the Times ever reviewed any of Tutuola’s books, but it did note his death in 1997, though it got his age wrong by 30 years.
It is not surprising that Tutuola would be overlooked or ignored (if the editors ever heard of him), but it is hard to understand the absence of O’Hara.
By far the biggest Oops, though, (although not so labeled) was Lorine Pruette's 1943 notice of "The Fountainhead," which calls Ayn Rand "a writer of great power . . .subtle and ingenious . . . (with) the capacity of writing brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly." The Review apparently came partially to its senses by 1958, when Granville Hicks's notice of "Atlas Shrugged" (not reprinted here) elicited a testy note from Rand's fanboy, the then unknown Alan Greenspan, scoring Hicks for raising an eyebrow at Rand's interminable "celebration" of "unrelenting justice." Justice never did give either Rand nor Greenspan their just rewards, making this a very funny walk down memory lane. Since "Books" was published in 1998, when Greenspan had not exposed himself (in "The Age of Turbulence") as perhaps the most pernicious American fool of the late 20th century, we cannot, regrettably, suspect editor McGrath of supercilious mischief. Not a single review is memorable as a piece of writing, but there was a noticeable change after World War II. Up until then, Times reviewers were highly likely to get the vapors when presented with bad language but they did usually attempt to give the reader some indication of what the book was about and even how well it was done.
Starting about 1945, a lot of the reviews were taken by the writers as opportunities to examine their own navels for lint or whatever else might be found there. If reviewers have any justification for existing (and I think they do), it should be to suggest which books out of the 100,000 or so issued each year are worth their money and time. Besides reviews (including dozens of condensed “Editors’ Picks” for the quarter century ending in ’97), there are interviews of writers and essays by them.
Not all of these do their subjects any favors.
Willa Cather is one of the highly regarded American novelists whose books have been in my “to-read” pile; but after reading the 1924 interview she gave to Rose Field, I wouldn’t touch her books with a bargepole.
And after reading Saul Bellow’s long, whining essay about the low quality of American intellectuals, I now have a better understanding of why I abandoned my one attempt to read Bellow (“Henderson the Rain King”) after 50 pages.
On a positive note, this book tipped me to a number of books I had not heard of, and I have ordered volumes by, among others, Walter Isaacson, Kenneth S. Davis and Diane Johnson.
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