Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joseph Epstein

Best Baseball Books

After reading my last post, John Podhoretz wrote privately to insist that the two best baseball books are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and The Kid from Tomkinsville. He’s got an argument for John R. Tunis’s novel, even though it is a boy’s book. Joseph Epstein has made the best case possible for Tunis in a lovely essay for COMMENTARY nearly a quarter century ago. The book was also the subject of a superb passage of literary criticism, one of the best pieces of criticism ever written, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After summarizing the book’s plot (and demonstrating that plot summary can itself be high art), Nathan Zuckerman explains that he read Tunis’s book at ten and “had never read anything like it.” Many years older, he says it could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. He settles upon calling it “the boys’ Book of Job.”

Tunis’s moral concerns may not appeal to sophisticated 21st-century readers, although I am reading aloud Highpockets, a later Tunis about a cocky outfielder who accidentally strikes a child with the car he was awarded for winning Rookie of the Year, and my eight-year-old twins are eating it up.

About Lardner’s novel I am less sure. His son John Lardner, a marvelous writer in his own right, claimed that he had never read another piece of baseball fiction, besides his father’s, “in which there was no technical mistake.” Maybe so, but there is not a lot of technical knowledge on display either. Jack Keefe is a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He tells of one time that he faced the great Ty Cobb:

Cobb came pranceing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in [Hal] Chase’s hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I says Yes you will.

Lardner was more interested in baseball language, I think, than in the technical aspects of the game. He knew the technical aspects, though, and their shadowy presence beneath the plot, like the proverbial three-fourths of an iceberg below the surface, give the novel its unquestionable substance. The lack of baseball knowledge is what makes The Natural such a terrible baseball book.

Despite John’s prodding, I’ll stick with Mark Harris’s Southpaw as the best baseball novel of all time, although maybe it would be better to call it one of the five best.

After reading my last post, John Podhoretz wrote privately to insist that the two best baseball books are Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al and The Kid from Tomkinsville. He’s got an argument for John R. Tunis’s novel, even though it is a boy’s book. Joseph Epstein has made the best case possible for Tunis in a lovely essay for COMMENTARY nearly a quarter century ago. The book was also the subject of a superb passage of literary criticism, one of the best pieces of criticism ever written, in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. After summarizing the book’s plot (and demonstrating that plot summary can itself be high art), Nathan Zuckerman explains that he read Tunis’s book at ten and “had never read anything like it.” Many years older, he says it could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. He settles upon calling it “the boys’ Book of Job.”

Tunis’s moral concerns may not appeal to sophisticated 21st-century readers, although I am reading aloud Highpockets, a later Tunis about a cocky outfielder who accidentally strikes a child with the car he was awarded for winning Rookie of the Year, and my eight-year-old twins are eating it up.

About Lardner’s novel I am less sure. His son John Lardner, a marvelous writer in his own right, claimed that he had never read another piece of baseball fiction, besides his father’s, “in which there was no technical mistake.” Maybe so, but there is not a lot of technical knowledge on display either. Jack Keefe is a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He tells of one time that he faced the great Ty Cobb:

Cobb came pranceing up like he always does and yells Give me that slow one Boy. So I says All right. But I fooled him. Instead of giveing him a slow one like I said I was going I handed him a spitter. He hit it all right but it was a line drive right in [Hal] Chase’s hands. He says Pretty lucky Boy but I will get you next time. I says Yes you will.

Lardner was more interested in baseball language, I think, than in the technical aspects of the game. He knew the technical aspects, though, and their shadowy presence beneath the plot, like the proverbial three-fourths of an iceberg below the surface, give the novel its unquestionable substance. The lack of baseball knowledge is what makes The Natural such a terrible baseball book.

Despite John’s prodding, I’ll stick with Mark Harris’s Southpaw as the best baseball novel of all time, although maybe it would be better to call it one of the five best.

Read Less

The Voice Is Jacob’s Voice

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

The main feature at Jewish Ideas Daily this morning is a collection of my short essays on Retrieving American Jewish Fiction. Starting with Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal (1892), the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, I trace a line of descent through better known names and lesser, ending with Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep in 1934. (One title that was not included on the roll call is Elias Tobenkin’s Witte Arrives, the first radical novel by a Jew in America.) A short bibliography of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1972 can be found here.

My favorite of the bunch, though, remains Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (pictured at right). It may be, as I said elsewhere, the first Yiddish novel ever written in English. Yezierska’s novel is the best evidence for the proposition that American Jewish fiction is differentiated, not by having been written by Jews, not by being about Jews, but primarily by its language — Judeo-English, if I’ve got to call it something.

In his slashing account last week of how English departments have almost done in American literature, Joseph Epstein characterized “Jewish novels” as one of the currently favored “sub-forms” of the American novel. He lumped them together with “science fiction, eco-fiction, crime and mystery novels . . . Asian-American novels, African-American novels, war novels, postmodern novels, feminist novels, suburban novels, children’s novels, non-fiction novels, graphic novels and novels of disability.” That is, any talk about American Jewish fiction is likely to be little more than the way in which some literary critics practice the identity politics that now dominates English departments.

Some, maybe. Not all. In her sharp-minded critical study Call It English, Hana Wirth-Nesher of Tel Aviv University differentiates Jewish fiction by its multilingualism. She is not the first. The Yiddish critic Israel Elyashev (1873–1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Baal-Makhshoves, famously quipped: “One literature, two languages.” At least two! The critic Sh. Niger, whose real name was Shmuel Tsharny (1883–1955), wrote an entire book on Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature. It was published, significantly enough, in Detroit in 1941. “[O]ne language has never been enough for the Jewish people,” he wryly noted. The Jewish literary practice, very nearly as a condition of exile, has been to write in two languages at once. “[T]his did not bespeak a switch from an alien language to a language that was one’s own,” Niger explains. “No, here it was a case of a desire to add a second language of one’s own to a first.”

American Jews are little different, even when they are monolingual in English. Thirty years ago the linguist Deborah Tannen, who earned a reputation by arguing that women talk in a fundamentally different way from men, said much the same thing about New York Jews. In her essay “New York Jewish Conversational Style,” Tannen claimed that Jewish speech is different from other styles of speech in four ways:

1. Topic (a) prefer personal topics, (b) shift topics abruptly, (c) introduce topics without hesitance, (d) persistence (if a new topic is not immediately picked up, reintroduce it, repeatedly if necessary).
2. Genre (a) tell more stories, (b) tell stories in rounds, (c) internal evaluation . . . over external (i.e., the point of a story is dramatized rather than lexicalized), (d) preferred point of a story is teller’s emotional experience.
3. Pacing (a) faster rate of speech, (b) inter-turn pauses avoided (silence is evidence of lack of rapport), (c) faster turntaking, (d) cooperative overlap and participatory listenership.
4. Expressive paralinguistics (a) expressive phonology, (b) pitch and amplitude shifts, (c) marked voice quality, (d) strategic within-turn pauses.

Nearly all the features of Jewish speech that Tannen describes can also be found, louder and more insistent, in American Jewish fiction. Her paragraph on the pacing of Jewish conversation is an excellent short introduction to Saul Bellow’s prose style.

Starting in the 1960’s, American literature enjoyed a “concentrated burst of enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish,” as the non-Jewish writer Edward Hoagland said with some annoyance in COMMENTARY. In an interview with Playboy the same year, Truman Capote blamed “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications — publications like COMMENTARY, for instance.

As proud as I am to serve as an enforcer for the Jewish literary mafia, I think the real explanation for the sudden and prolonged prominence of American Jewish novelists is much simpler. They sound different from other American novelists. And the sounds they make, “the jumpy beat of American English,” as Philip Roth once described it, are hard to resist. Other novelists sound laconic, if not sleepy, by comparison. American Jewish fiction is the fiction that is written in a distinctive voice — Jacob’s voice.

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Pops and Pale

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

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Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

Read Less

Bookshelf: The Best of 2007

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

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Bookshelf

• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

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• I envy Joseph Epstein, who writes exactly the pieces I wish I’d written in exactly the way I wish I’d written them. From time to time he collects his latest efforts into a book, and I’d say that In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) was one of the best of these collections were it not for the fact that all of its predecessors have been so consistently high in quality. This one, however, is by design more wide-ranging than many of the volumes that came before it. In the past Epstein segregated his familiar and literary essays into separate books, but In a Cardboard Belt! is an omnium gatherum whose subtitle, “Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage,” accurately describes its contents. Unless you prefer jargon-clotted academic prose to lucidly conversational writing, it contains something for everybody. The titles tell the tale: “Memoirs of a Cheap and Finicky Glutton,” “Vin Audenaire,” “Forgetting Edmund Wilson,” “The Torture of Writer’s Block,” “Why Are Academics So Unhappy?” (A good question, that.) Who wouldn’t want to read a bookful of such pieces?

These days Epstein is more than usually conscious of time’s winged chariot—he just turned seventy—and the introduction to In a Cardboard Belt! offers a wry perspective on his inexorable progress toward the inevitable encounter with what Henry James called “the distinguished thing”:

“Bodily decreptitude,” says Yeats, “is wisdom.” I seem to have accrued more of the former than the latter. Of wisdom generally, I haven’t all that much to declare. I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. . . . You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my face, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.

About wisdom Epstein is, for once, all wet. In a Cardboard Belt! contains no shortage of glinting nuggets of truth, many of them packed into single-sentence parcels: “Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed.” “Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition, interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation.” Epstein the critic is similiarly capable of saying the maximum about a writer in the minimum number of words: “Was there ever a genius more stupid than Tolstoy?” “I find the domestic Auden, if not the better poet, certainly the more impressive human being.” “I liked Lillian Hellman and thought her very smart, except when the initials CIA or FBI appeared in her sentences.”

As those last two observations make clear, autobiography is never very far away in Epstein’s work. No small part of the kick of his criticism comes from the fact that, like his familiar essays, it is so unabashedly personal—and that he so well exemplifies his own preferred virtues:

I have a weakness for minor artists. But they must be genuinely minor, by which I mean that they mustn’t lapse into minority through overreaching, want of energy, crudity, or any other kind of ineptitude. They must not be failed major artists merely. The true minor artist eschews the noble and the solemn. He fears tedium for his audience, but even more for himself. He sets out to be, and is perfectly content to remain, less than great. The minor artist knows his limits and lives comfortably within them. To delight, to charm, to entertain, such are the goals the minor artist sets himself, and, when brought off with style and verve and elegant lucidity, they are—more than sufficient—wholly admirable.

This is the first paragraph of an appreciation of Lord Berners, a writer (and sometime composer) whom Epstein places alongside Max Beerbohm in his personal pantheon of admirable artists. It has the smack of a credo, one to which Epstein himself lives up with the utmost completeness, though I find it no less interesting that he can write about the truly great without the slightest touch of deprecating envy. W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, I.B. Singer: all these heavy hitters are summed up in the pages of In a Cardboard Belt! with the same appreciation extended to the lesser likes of Berners and Beerbohm.

If I had to choose a favorite piece in this collection, it would be “Books Won’t Furnish a Room,” in which the author tells what it felt like to get rid of the greater part of his personal library in the hope of simplifying his life: “Behind my selling all these books was a longing to streamline my life a bit, make it feel less cluttered, encumbered, book-bound. In doing so, I feel as if I had gathered my desert-island books about me without actually having to sail off for the island.” For me this essay passes the ultimate test of literary effectiveness: not long after I read it, I did as Epstein had done, and have never once regretted my decision. Talk about practical criticism!

Oh, yes, the title: it comes from The Producers. For further information, buy the book.

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Relative Intelligence

A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

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A study published last Friday in the journal Science reopens the heated debate over environmental (as opposed to genetic) effects on intelligence. An enormous survey of sibling IQ scores in Norway found that firstborn sons had IQ scores about three points higher than second-born sons, and four points higher than the third-born (the study looked only at men, because it was based on IQ tests given to newly-drafted Norwegian soldiers in the 1960’s and 70’s.)

At first glance, this birth order effect would seem to suggest a biological cause—having to do perhaps with the higher levels of immune antibodies in the womb after a first pregnancy. But the study also looked at second-born siblings whose older brothers died in infancy, and found that in terms of IQ scores and relation to younger siblings, they belonged with the firstborns, not the second-borns. In other words, the cause seems more likely to have to do with how parents (or others) treat the oldest brother. (For Joseph Epstein’s meditations on birth-order theory, read his 1997 article O, Brother.)

But as large-scale as this study is (it examined almost a quarter million men), it still acts to highlight just how little we understand about intelligence and its relation to genetics and environment, and how prone we are to over-read and misread statistical data on intelligence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coverage of the study was rampant with speculation. The New York Times imagined all manner of possible reasons for the IQ difference—none of them supported by the newly published research. The story’s most developed conjecture ran as follows:

Firstborns have their parents’ undivided attention as infants, and even if that attention is later divided evenly with a sibling or more, it means that over time they will have more cumulative adult attention, in theory enriching their vocabulary and reasoning abilities.

But there’s a small problem. This explanation is flatly contradicted by an extensive literature (actually acknowledged in the same Times story) showing that before about the age of twelve, younger siblings actually score higher on IQ tests than older. This latest study strongly suggests that disparity is reversed by the time the siblings reach early adulthood, though it offers little sense of how or why.

Inconsistencies like these tell us less about the state of intelligence research than they do about our social sensitivity regarding this subject. Our egalitarian culture is implicitly committed to a blank-slate notion of intelligence, by which we are all born with the same capacities, and what matters is the chance we are given to hone them. Research that tends to support this view, as the Norwegian study does, is held to prove it utterly (the Times quotes one of the study’s authors as saying “This is quite firm evidence that the biological explanation is not true”), while every study suggesting otherwise is cut down by a thousand counter-explanations.

From all this speculation, though, there does emerge something like a general conclusion: much of the research on intelligence in recent decades has shown that genetics sets a general range above (and below) which particular individuals will not go. But that range is reasonably broad, and where an individual falls within it is affected by parenting, by culture and community, and by nutrition and health—factors, it seems, which tend to gang up against us younger siblings. (Don’t tell my brother.)

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Bookshelf

• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

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• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.

Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.

The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press, 1067 pp., $50) is the first all-new reference book of its kind to come along in years, and the first ever to make systematic use of what Fred Shapiro, the editor-in-chief, describes as “state-of-the-art research methods,” meaning the searchable online databases that are revolutionizing scholarly research. It has a strongly American bias (Ambrose Bierce has 144 entries, Karl Kraus two) and an equally strong pop-culture slant (Woody Allen has 43 entries, Emily Dickinson 29). It also has an introduction by Joseph Epstein, who approves of the fresh tack taken by Shapiro and his collaborators: “Although I am normally conservative in matters of culture, I think Mr. Shapiro is correct to make these changes in emphasis . . . Even though, as Henry James well said, ‘It takes a great deal of history to produce even a little literature,’ cultural leadership usually follows political power, and for the past fifty or so years it has become apparent that the United States has been playing with far and away the largest stacks of chips before it.”

Far be it from me to disagree with Epstein, so I won’t—much. Having read The Yale Book of Quotations from cover to cover, I found a number of suspicious-looking attributions, one or two outright errors, and many glaring instances of the variegated forms of bias one expects to find in any book produced by a team of academic scholars (somehow I doubt that George W. Bush’s slips of the tongue really deserve as much space as Shapiro gives them). As for the countless snippets lifted by the editors from pop-song lyrics of the past couple of decades, I doubt that many of them will be long remembered (indeed, a goodly number of them are already forgotten). I should also note that Raymond Chandler, Noël Coward, Johnny Mercer, and P.G. Wodehouse are all severely underrepresented, though G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, and Satchel Paige receive their due. All these quibbles notwithstanding, The Yale Book of Quotations is useful, diverting, and full of surprises, and while I don’t plan to throw away my well-thumbed copy of H.L. Mencken’s invaluable New Dictionary of Quotations, I’m making space next to it for this satisfying piece of work.

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