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Sometimes A Book is A Book

Leon Wieseltier's review of Checkpoint is just one example of an increasingly widespread and, I think, rather distressing phenomenon: Reviews of politics-related texts that manage not to actually review the text in question. Fahrenheit 9-11 is, first and foremost, a film. The question an audience needs to know the answer to from a reviewer is: Should I see this film? I didn't think much of its diagnosis of the contemporary political situation, but I enjoyed watching it, and I think any opponent of Bushism would do the same. So is Checkpoint sound politics? I'll take Wieseltier's word for it that it is not. Is the bitter polarization it reflects a disturbing thing? Yes. Are too many liberals eager to stoop to the tactics of the opposition that they once rightly deplored? That sounds right to me. Is this a book I should consider reading? The review doesn't tell me. It doesn't even try to tell me. And yet, at the end of the day, it's a book and deserves to be considered as such.

UPDATE: I should also say that the general form of criticism going "work X expresses social phenomenon Y, I do not approve of Y, therefore I do not approve of X" is a wildly invalid form of reasoning. If social phenomenon Y is real and important, then there is space for well-executed works which reflect it, whether or not Y is something to be condoned.

August 8, 2004 | Permalink


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Even some bad books should be read, and bad films seen, because of the importance of their topics, or because of their impact on large groups of people. The Bible is a good example.

Posted by: Matt Davis | Aug 8, 2004 6:16:34 PM

Leon Wieseltier subordinates literature to politics as bad as any Marxist ever did.

Posted by: son volt | Aug 8, 2004 6:32:55 PM

Ever read the New Yorker?

Posted by: praktike | Aug 8, 2004 6:35:16 PM

Is this a book I should consider reading? The review doesn't tell me.

The first four words of the review:

This scummy little book ...

I think I can tell whether he's recommending it or not.

I see what you're saying, but I think he's made his position on the usefulness of the book known.

Kind of makes me want to read it though.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Aug 8, 2004 6:39:24 PM

"Are too many liberals eager to stoop to the tactics of the opposition that they once rightly deplored?"

I guess this is a side issue, but still you brought it up. We owe it to humanity to do something effective. It would be better to find something that's unquestionably ethical that works, and do that. Tell the truth and get away with it.

But if your experience is that this does not work, then your next possibility is to try to outplay them at their own game. This is hard to do and the rewards are limited.

If you accept one excuse to lie -- national security, gallantry toward a lady, whatever -- they can find a way to push you up against your lie and make you look like a liar or a fool. You are lying out of principle, while they lie to win. So they win.

To play their game you'd have to lie to make a perfect story, ideally in ways that fits all the documentation, and be ready to forge new documentation to fit your story, and preferably have people who will file forged documents for you that you can pull out to confound your enemies, who didn't know those documents existed. Any shred of integrity
might lose for you.

Clearly better to tell the truth, if you can get away with it. But find *something* that works.

Posted by: J Thomas | Aug 8, 2004 7:23:33 PM

btw, Timothy Noah reviewed the book a few days ago. It takes much the same POV as Wieseltier, yet gave me a much clearer impression of how the book goes.

Haven't read it myself, but I suspect that Wieseltier and Noah are misreading the book somewhat; the excerpted passages suggest that the wannabe-assassin's Bush-hatred is more to be dissected than sympathized with, even though (or more likely, because) the author shares those emotions.

Posted by: son volt | Aug 8, 2004 8:12:19 PM

I almost agree with Wieseltier for once. I believe that casually inflammatory talk should be discouraged. This is **because** I'm a paranoid; once the idea is widespread that the Left is plotting evil, a Reichstag fire become much more likely, on eway or the other.

Posted by: Zizka | Aug 8, 2004 8:17:40 PM

David Gates provides a long discussion of Baker in the last Newsweek. Can't tell on a quick reading whether or not Gates has read the book, but appears the author is deliberately and shallowly provocative in all his books.

The literary novel is as dead as the the string quartet. There is nothing to say, that has not yet been said, that also requires great art to express. To be deliberately and profoundly provocative.

Read a classic instead.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 8, 2004 8:26:10 PM

Matthew, what reviewer does say, "You should see this movie?" A review of an action movie in a local newspaper will be similarly vague. That's just how reviews are.

Posted by: c. | Aug 8, 2004 8:31:22 PM

I thought the most amusing passage in Wieseltier's review was his description of the homicidal protagonist:

His wife has left him, his girlfriend has left him, he has lost his job as a high-school teacher, he works as a day laborer and has declared personal bankruptcy, he spends his days reading blogs. (About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point.)

Stop reading this blog! You might get criminal, crazy ideas!!

Posted by: Bill | Aug 8, 2004 9:21:31 PM

Evidently, Daily Kos and TPM are specified by name in the book. I really can't imagine a crazed assassin-wannabe getting a whole lot of enjoyment from reading Josh Marshall.

Posted by: JP | Aug 8, 2004 10:13:53 PM

Matt, I think there are two issues at play here: 1) Are there different rules for different types of works? Baker is clearly not trying to put together a "normal" novel in that he is using the literary form to make a political point. When an "artist" decides to put his talent in service for an explicit political agenda, has he essentially changed the rules by how his work should be judged? Is he inviting a "political" review, instead of an "artistic" one?

2)Flowing from the first: Does the Times feel obligated to give the book to a reviewer with a particular political axe to grind as well?

The newspaper chose to have a reviewer who is known primarily for being the arts critic for a pro-war magazine. Thus, the "review" is more defense of Bush's policy rather than analysis of Baker's craft.

Posted by: RobertG | Aug 8, 2004 10:22:27 PM

Matt: You are dangerously close to drinking the Kool-Aid. Put that cup down.

If you think disreputable tactics by the Democrats would be something new, you didn't read Lyndon Johnson's biography.

Politics is heck.

Posted by: epistemology | Aug 8, 2004 11:14:00 PM

As for the text in question:

The meaning really is different to each of us. Only reciting the text is accurate; not spin. And even then, not, because each new reading is colored by its own context, and thus different.

Still, some readings are contradictory. And some are dishonest.

Posted by: epistemology | Aug 8, 2004 11:27:00 PM

Matt, good to see you use the word "Bushist." I would like to see that word, and of course "Bushism," used a bit more often.

Posted by: grytpype | Aug 8, 2004 11:36:32 PM

Oh, pish posh, Matthew. I have enough of thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviewing in my life. That's actually been the NYT Book Review's weakness--that it has focused largely on such a silly question, rather than engaging the ideas at work in the works in question. It's gratifying that the new editor there is moving it away from its former, stale approach. That's the whole reason the NY Review of Books came into being. We don't need more consumer guides to culture--we need more intelligent considerations, and writers who are not afraid to work from a broader perspective. It's not easy to produce good writing like that, and whether Wieseltier liked the book or not doesn't really matter. I might have really liked Triumph of the Will, but that's not really the most interesting thing I could say about it.

Posted by: thunk | Aug 8, 2004 11:47:12 PM

"And yet, at the end of the day, it's a book and deserves to be considered as such."

Normally, I would agree with (some version of) this, and I didn't think much of that review either, but, in addition to being a book, this book is clearly also (very much) part stunt and part phenomenon, and it is obtuse to brush that stuff away as just not part of the reviewer's concern. As for the vacuous "Is this a book I should consider reading?" question, if what you want to know is how many stars it gets, I'm sure you can find that somewhere too.

Posted by: spacetoast | Aug 9, 2004 12:25:52 AM

I read the review, and it sounds to me like the kind of insanity I face in my own skull every day, an insanity which frustrates me because I am far too well educated historically to pretend that something like what is discussed in the book would be effective.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Aug 9, 2004 12:26:19 AM

Hm, and: This book gets four and a half stars on amazon, so you should definitely consider reading it!

Posted by: spacetoast | Aug 9, 2004 12:34:33 AM

That was an awful review. He calls the book "scummy" in the first sentence, and then neglects to mention anything else about the actual craft or quality of the book, but rather goes on a by-now-incredibly-tired rant about liberal "unhinging," never for a second considering whether the book is a bald-faced endorsement of that unhinging (not bloody likely) or a critique of it. He had a wild hair up his ass before he even read the thing, and the actual content wasn't going to effect his review.

Posted by: Matt_C | Aug 9, 2004 1:37:12 AM

Yes. Are too many liberals eager to stoop to the tactics of the opposition that they once rightly deplored?<< Matt Y
Yes, and Too many liberals are eager to give Republicans a pass for the sort of thing they'd howl at democrat's for. Both the Author of the post and the author of that review seem the type.
God forbid they actually be in a position to help people. That would infringe on Matt's own privelaged life.

Posted by: Soul | Aug 9, 2004 2:21:21 AM

One small correction:

The reviewer in question is the Literary Editor for TNR, and doesn't do the actual scutwork of writing reviews himself for the magazine. He usually does the back of the magazine "Diary" feature once in a while, but he's then writing about anything he wants to, limited only to the geographical spot he's writing about, which isn't much of a limitation.

Posted by: The Dark Avenger | Aug 9, 2004 3:48:05 AM

I agree that Limbaugh-style liberal hate-mongering and demagoguery would be a terrible thing. But I also think that the current administration is so terrible that it's not so easy to find the line between healthy, justifiable outrage and hate-mongering/demagoguery. This is a big problem. We need to elect Kerry and then it'll get back to normal.

Anybody but Bush - And then Let's Get Back to Work. With Kerry at the Helm, the Left might Focus on the Real Issues Again by Naomi Klein

Posted by: abb1 | Aug 9, 2004 6:03:10 AM

"That's the whole reason the NY Review of Books came into being."

It is? It didn't come into being to flog the books from favored publishers?

Posted by: J Thomas | Aug 9, 2004 8:20:42 AM

The mezzanine still ranks as one of my favorite books. Some of his later books are unreadable to me (Room temperature, Box of matches). But when a review starts "This scummy little book", well, that's better than any ad or blurb.I agree with Matt. That was a crappy & shameful review. Check out the reviews of D.B. & The impartial recorder in the same section. They discuss, you know, the book. The reviewers have their preferences, but don't impose them. It can be done. Weiseltier just couldn't get past his outrage to do it. This can happen when, for example, you pick up the book an hour before the review is due.

Posted by: Garrigus Obasanjo | Aug 9, 2004 11:20:52 AM

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