Today marks the 103rd birthday of William Maxwell, novelist (They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf) and fiction editor of the New Yorker for forty years, along with the 91st birthday of the American poet Charles Bukowski (“as the poems go into the thousands/ you realize that you’ve created very/ little”).
Today also marks the debut of Literary Commentary, the magazine’s new book blog. The coincidence may be fitting, since this blog — its interests and loyalties, its voice and point of view — will probably be found somewhere between Maxwell’s graceful kindly wisdom and Bukowski’s rough self-pitying intimacy.
To those who are already familiar with it, my nearly three-years-old Commonplace Blog is relocating here, with a new focus on the current literary scene to go along with its new venue and affiliation. To those who will be reading it for the first time, I should explain that, while this blog will be a source for book reviews and reconsiderations, Literary Commentary is intended to be something more. It represents the literary side of what John Podhoretz, its fourth editor, defined as COMMENTARY’s mission.
Literary Commentary too is an “act of faith — faith in the power of ideas, in tradition and the value of defending tradition, and faith in America and the West.” It too is an “expression of faith in the act of reading itself, in its unparalleled capacity to enlarge the perspective and knowledge of those for whom reading is an activity as central to their lives as the drawing of breath.” In particular, it places faith in the reading of literature and the power of literature, not merely to kill the time softly, but to instruct and move, to frighten and uplift, to change forever the way men and women think.
At the risk of ingratitude, in fact, I’d say that John’s faith in reading is misplaced if reading is not critical, feisty, dubious, prepared to take issue and answer back. “I think of reading as the ‘gateway drug’ to learning,” Bethanne Patrick tweeted last week, defending the Twitter event known as #FridayReads, when thousands of twitterers eagerly cough up the book they will be sitting down with that weekend. But reading is not that—not necessarily. Reading can be an undiscriminating waste of time, an enthusiastic hobby like model railroading or royal commemorative collecting that leads only to more and more of itself, unless it is accompanied by reasons and argument.
In an age of the reader review, when critical judgment is measured by a rating of stars (one to five), Literary Commentary aims to return to an older conception of reading, one that is founded upon the unfashionable belief that (as Hugh Kenner once put it) there are some books that “every civilized American should be familiar with.” But along with this belief goes the confidence that some of those books are being written even today; or at least they were written five or six minutes ago. To quote John again, COMMENTARY exists “to take inventory in and increase the storehouse of the best that has been thought and said.” Starting today, Literary Commentary joins in the magazine’s work.