Friday, September 18, 2009

Mean Fun Is Still Fun

You like a good blistering review because, well, you're that kind of person. And good for you, I say. A review of a bad book is often better than a review of a good book. With a bad book, the reviewer has so much more that they can do with the language, with the various elements of badness, and with unleashing their inner demons. Withering reviews are fun to read.

If that is the case (admit it: it is) then some of the most fun I have had in a long, long time came when I read Leon Wieseltier's thumping of Normon Podhoretz's Why Are Jews Liberals? I am torn as to which section to excerpt, because really the whole thing is state of the art. I suppose you could start with this:

Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-­like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.

Or this, which is the next paragraph:
“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir. The first half of the book, which tells the story of “how the Jews became liberals,” is narrated in “the impersonal voice of a historian — an amateur, to be sure, but one who has relied on a variety of professional authorities for help and guidance.” These chapters are mainly anthologies of congenial quotations. There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition (“I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica”); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson. And there is a decidedly insular reliance upon the pages of Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years. His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon’s adage — maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia — that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.

Just read the whole thing.

Then there is the category of fine books about bad authors. Although not as pitch-perfect as Wieseltier's article (that is no insult -- I've never written anything as pitch-perfect as that glorious hit piece) Jonathan Chait uses a couple of unobjectionable books about Ayn Rand to skewer Rand and especially her followers who, in my experience, tend to be some of the dimmest folks on the planet. But then you'd have to be to think Rand produces readable literature.

1 comment:

Ronit said...

The last paragraph in particular is very powerful. And applies as much to Christian liberals as it does to Jewish liberals.