Good book criticism has been virtually exiled from the popular press, and the New York Times Book Review — which still has its fair share of cultural cachet — might be the most egregious transgressor. Most reviews in the Times are little more than glorified book summaries with a thumbs up, a thumbs down, or even more frustrating, an ambiguous thumb, along the way. The New York Times Book Report may be a more appropriate title.
My philosophy of book criticism: Reviews do not need to give over the entire scope of a book (in fact, Times summaries are sometimes so detailed it’s a wonder anyone wants to read the books afterwards); rather, a good review should highlight one (or two or three) particularly notable aspects of a work and use that as a starting point for a conversation that engages something outside the book itself. Good criticism should use books as a segue into a larger cultural conversation.
I’m bringing this up because two weekends ago, the Times bucked its own trend and published a wonderful piece of literary criticism: Walter Kirn’s review of Bill Morgan’s The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1997.
Kirn’s analysis of the great Jewish poet (and the relevant new books) is poetic in its own right. The very first paragraph tugs us into the Ginsberg Galaxy and opens us up to the possibility of actually rethinking a man whose work we’ve already thought so much about:
Gay, in the lotus position, with a beard, wreathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke and renowned as the author of a “dirty” poem whose first public reading in a West Coast gallery was said to have turned the 1950s into the ’60s in a single night, Allen Ginsberg embodied, as a figure, some great cold war climax of human disinhibition. Ginsberg, the hang-loose anti-Ike. Ginsberg, the Organization Man unzipped. The vulnerable obverse of the Bomb. He had the belly of a Buddha, the facial hair of a Walt Whitman and — except for the ever-present black glasses that hinted at a conformist path not taken — he was easier to imagine naked than any Homo sapiens since Adam.
Perhaps the Times should do more of these multi-book reviews. Perhaps there’s something about this approach that frees the writer from focusing on the minutia of a given book and instead encourages big-picture thinking and larger cultural connections. In fact, publications that still feature good criticism often take this approach (see for example, Dale Peck’s strangely insightful review essay of several new books about American Idol and reality TV in The Atlantic.)
Whatever your thoughts about this, you should read Kirn’s review. It provides profound insights into the life and work of the most unlikely and unruly of modern Jewish prophets.