Commentary Magazine


Topic: Woody Allen

An Idea for Bibi: Never Mind

Jeffrey Goldberg has revised his position not only on Soros Street but also on settlements. On September 27, in “An Idea for Bibi,” he offered a “modest suggestion” for Benjamin Netanyahu:

Why not risk your governing coalition and impose a total freeze on settlement growth outside of the greater Jerusalem area? This way, you’ll show the world, and the Palestinians — who are governed, on the West Bank, at least, by a group of true moderates, who have done a great deal for your security over the past year – that you are serious about grappling with the challenges before you. …

It was not a very good suggestion: (1) Netanyahu’s center-right coalition is the only one with sufficient credibility to persuade a skeptical Israeli public to accept a peace agreement, assuming there is ever a peace agreement; (2) the prospects for such an agreement do not likely depend on Bibi showing he is “serious about grappling with the challenges” — not after he agreed to new negotiations without preconditions, publicly endorsed a two-state solution as demanded by Obama, implemented an unprecedented ten-month moratorium, and received nothing in return from Arab states or the PA; and (3) the “true moderates” have yet to make any concessions of their own, continually telling their public that they will make none about borders or the right of return.

Goldberg’s post resulted in dissent from Robert Satloff, who argued that while there might come a time for Bibi to break his coalition to approve a “real, lasting, and secure” peace agreement (whatever that means), it is “probably not wise to do it to satisfy a shortsighted fixation by the Obama administration to be the first in history to have made the pursuit of peace contingent on a settlement freeze”:

The Palestinians’ Woody Allen argument that they should be compensated just for showing up for negotiations that are designed, in the end, to provide them with major territorial concessions, the end of Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent state is, on the face of it, more than a bit odd.

In a post this afternoon, Goldberg effectively withdrew his modest suggestion:

On certain days of the week, and in certain moods, I used to think that the U.S. could pressure Israel out of the settlements. … But it doesn’t work. Israel wants the settlements to be a subject of negotiation with the Palestinians, along with everything else — and not the subject of a preemptive concession – and it seems that it is during negotiations (as President Clinton showed during Camp David) that the U.S. could best make the case against settlements, just as it is during negotiations that the U.S. could move the Palestinians away from their position on the so-called right-of-return.

In other words, what Netanyahu has been arguing every day of the week, in every mood, for a year and a half — that all issues need to be negotiated without preconditions, and without demanding concessions from only one side, particularly prior to negotiations — has been right.

Jeffrey Goldberg has revised his position not only on Soros Street but also on settlements. On September 27, in “An Idea for Bibi,” he offered a “modest suggestion” for Benjamin Netanyahu:

Why not risk your governing coalition and impose a total freeze on settlement growth outside of the greater Jerusalem area? This way, you’ll show the world, and the Palestinians — who are governed, on the West Bank, at least, by a group of true moderates, who have done a great deal for your security over the past year – that you are serious about grappling with the challenges before you. …

It was not a very good suggestion: (1) Netanyahu’s center-right coalition is the only one with sufficient credibility to persuade a skeptical Israeli public to accept a peace agreement, assuming there is ever a peace agreement; (2) the prospects for such an agreement do not likely depend on Bibi showing he is “serious about grappling with the challenges” — not after he agreed to new negotiations without preconditions, publicly endorsed a two-state solution as demanded by Obama, implemented an unprecedented ten-month moratorium, and received nothing in return from Arab states or the PA; and (3) the “true moderates” have yet to make any concessions of their own, continually telling their public that they will make none about borders or the right of return.

Goldberg’s post resulted in dissent from Robert Satloff, who argued that while there might come a time for Bibi to break his coalition to approve a “real, lasting, and secure” peace agreement (whatever that means), it is “probably not wise to do it to satisfy a shortsighted fixation by the Obama administration to be the first in history to have made the pursuit of peace contingent on a settlement freeze”:

The Palestinians’ Woody Allen argument that they should be compensated just for showing up for negotiations that are designed, in the end, to provide them with major territorial concessions, the end of Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent state is, on the face of it, more than a bit odd.

In a post this afternoon, Goldberg effectively withdrew his modest suggestion:

On certain days of the week, and in certain moods, I used to think that the U.S. could pressure Israel out of the settlements. … But it doesn’t work. Israel wants the settlements to be a subject of negotiation with the Palestinians, along with everything else — and not the subject of a preemptive concession – and it seems that it is during negotiations (as President Clinton showed during Camp David) that the U.S. could best make the case against settlements, just as it is during negotiations that the U.S. could move the Palestinians away from their position on the so-called right-of-return.

In other words, what Netanyahu has been arguing every day of the week, in every mood, for a year and a half — that all issues need to be negotiated without preconditions, and without demanding concessions from only one side, particularly prior to negotiations — has been right.

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The Mosque and the People Who Have Suddenly Discovered Property Rights

One of the hilarious ironies attendant on the mosque debate is the sudden discovery by the liberal elites of the vital importance of property rights — how Imam Feisal Rauf and his people have purchased a site on which they should be able to build “as of right,” and how those who are objecting to the mosque’s construction are committing an offense not only against the free exercise of religion but against commonly accepted principles involving real estate.

For the past 40 years, especially in New York City, property rights have taken a back seat in almost all discussions of the proper use of real estate. Following the lamentable razing of the great old Penn Station, the general proposition has been that any major project should have a distinctly positive public use. Landmark commissions, zoning boards and the like have imposed all sorts of restrictions and demands on property owners that interfere with their right to build as they would wish. Laws have been written after the fact (especially when Broadway theaters were jeopardized by real-estate development in the early 1980s) to restrict the right of property owners to do as they would wish with the land and buildings they own.

Thus, the outrage which greeted the suggestion that zoning boards and the like should and could be used to block the Cordoba Intitiative is bitterly comic. Such boards have been used for decades to block projects for reasons involving the “sensitivities” of a neighborhood, like the time Woody Allen and others fought the construction of a building at the corner of 91st and Madison on the grounds that it would harm the historic nature of the area — when in fact he and his neighbors were concerned about a shadow the building might cast on their communal backyard. Walter Cronkite went on a tear against a tall building being built by Donald Trump on the East Side near the UN because it was going to block his view.

Nor is the right of religious institutions or religious people absolute. You can’t put a religious school anywhere; Samuel Freedman’s book Jew vs. Jew details several cases in which more secular Jews have fought the installation of more religious Jewish institutions in their communities using zoning laws.

So by all means, let us pay tribute to the primacy of property rights. Or are they only to be invoked when convenient?

One of the hilarious ironies attendant on the mosque debate is the sudden discovery by the liberal elites of the vital importance of property rights — how Imam Feisal Rauf and his people have purchased a site on which they should be able to build “as of right,” and how those who are objecting to the mosque’s construction are committing an offense not only against the free exercise of religion but against commonly accepted principles involving real estate.

For the past 40 years, especially in New York City, property rights have taken a back seat in almost all discussions of the proper use of real estate. Following the lamentable razing of the great old Penn Station, the general proposition has been that any major project should have a distinctly positive public use. Landmark commissions, zoning boards and the like have imposed all sorts of restrictions and demands on property owners that interfere with their right to build as they would wish. Laws have been written after the fact (especially when Broadway theaters were jeopardized by real-estate development in the early 1980s) to restrict the right of property owners to do as they would wish with the land and buildings they own.

Thus, the outrage which greeted the suggestion that zoning boards and the like should and could be used to block the Cordoba Intitiative is bitterly comic. Such boards have been used for decades to block projects for reasons involving the “sensitivities” of a neighborhood, like the time Woody Allen and others fought the construction of a building at the corner of 91st and Madison on the grounds that it would harm the historic nature of the area — when in fact he and his neighbors were concerned about a shadow the building might cast on their communal backyard. Walter Cronkite went on a tear against a tall building being built by Donald Trump on the East Side near the UN because it was going to block his view.

Nor is the right of religious institutions or religious people absolute. You can’t put a religious school anywhere; Samuel Freedman’s book Jew vs. Jew details several cases in which more secular Jews have fought the installation of more religious Jewish institutions in their communities using zoning laws.

So by all means, let us pay tribute to the primacy of property rights. Or are they only to be invoked when convenient?

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Annals of Useful Idiocy, Circa 2010

As a service to future historians (if they can just find this post) seeking to understand how the moral outrage of the world focused in 2010 on Israel rather than Iran, I offer this excerpt from a Spiegel interview with the well-known Swedish author Henning Mankell, a passenger on one of the smaller boats in the Gaza flotilla:

SPIEGEL: This [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is complicated enough, but it probably doesn’t even constitute the biggest threat to peace in the region at the moment. That is posed by Iran, with its controversial nuclear program and its prediction that Israel will disappear from the map.

Mankell: I am very concerned, because I don’t trust this president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and the mullahs. They want to have any weapon that can be used to destroy Israel. Naturally we cannot accept that.

SPIEGEL: But what do you want to do? Campaigns like this one can be directed against a democratic country like Israel. The Iranian government wouldn’t even let things get that far.

Mankell: I had an invitation to a literature festival in Tehran, which I turned down.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Mankell: Because Iran puts writers and intellectuals in prison and makes some of them disappear. I can’t go to a country like that.

SPIEGEL: Why don’t you go there and make the repression public?

Mankell: I wouldn’t be able to do what I would like to do. They would misuse me for propaganda purposes.

SPIEGEL: And you didn’t have this concern with the Gaza campaign?

Mankell: I saw what I saw. I felt what I felt. I thought what I thought. I saw what happened to people, and that’s what I want to report on.

Earlier in the interview, Spiegel asked Mankell whether he had ever been to Gaza (“no”), whether he knows the IHH and the Free Gaza movement that organized the flotilla (“not well enough to be able to form an opinion”), whether Hamas was a source of hope for him (“I don’t know enough about the issue”), and why he ignored multiple Israeli warnings that the ship could not proceed to Gaza (“At least they should have let us continue for another two hours, until we were just off the coast”).

In other words, he declined the invitation to go to Iran and speak truth to power, but a safe boat trip to just-off-the-coast of Gaza, in the service of organizations he failed to investigate, to assist an Iranian proxy about whom he is agnostic, appealed to his moral sense. No one, of course, will ever surpass the concision of Woody Allen’s statement of moral idiocy on being asked to explain his affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter: “The heart wants what it wants.” But Henning Mankell’s “I felt what I felt, I thought what I thought” deserves the same place of honor in the literature of useful idiocy. Historians take note.

As a service to future historians (if they can just find this post) seeking to understand how the moral outrage of the world focused in 2010 on Israel rather than Iran, I offer this excerpt from a Spiegel interview with the well-known Swedish author Henning Mankell, a passenger on one of the smaller boats in the Gaza flotilla:

SPIEGEL: This [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is complicated enough, but it probably doesn’t even constitute the biggest threat to peace in the region at the moment. That is posed by Iran, with its controversial nuclear program and its prediction that Israel will disappear from the map.

Mankell: I am very concerned, because I don’t trust this president (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and the mullahs. They want to have any weapon that can be used to destroy Israel. Naturally we cannot accept that.

SPIEGEL: But what do you want to do? Campaigns like this one can be directed against a democratic country like Israel. The Iranian government wouldn’t even let things get that far.

Mankell: I had an invitation to a literature festival in Tehran, which I turned down.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Mankell: Because Iran puts writers and intellectuals in prison and makes some of them disappear. I can’t go to a country like that.

SPIEGEL: Why don’t you go there and make the repression public?

Mankell: I wouldn’t be able to do what I would like to do. They would misuse me for propaganda purposes.

SPIEGEL: And you didn’t have this concern with the Gaza campaign?

Mankell: I saw what I saw. I felt what I felt. I thought what I thought. I saw what happened to people, and that’s what I want to report on.

Earlier in the interview, Spiegel asked Mankell whether he had ever been to Gaza (“no”), whether he knows the IHH and the Free Gaza movement that organized the flotilla (“not well enough to be able to form an opinion”), whether Hamas was a source of hope for him (“I don’t know enough about the issue”), and why he ignored multiple Israeli warnings that the ship could not proceed to Gaza (“At least they should have let us continue for another two hours, until we were just off the coast”).

In other words, he declined the invitation to go to Iran and speak truth to power, but a safe boat trip to just-off-the-coast of Gaza, in the service of organizations he failed to investigate, to assist an Iranian proxy about whom he is agnostic, appealed to his moral sense. No one, of course, will ever surpass the concision of Woody Allen’s statement of moral idiocy on being asked to explain his affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter: “The heart wants what it wants.” But Henning Mankell’s “I felt what I felt, I thought what I thought” deserves the same place of honor in the literature of useful idiocy. Historians take note.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.’” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.’” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

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Strange Herring

Billboard with picture of Jimmy Carter asks “Miss Me Yet?” No.

Reagan Republican gets star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Facebook may cause syphilis, MySpace may cause meningitis, and Leon’s getting la-a-a-r-ger.

24 is officially 0. Jack Bauer to become evangelist.

Iran apparently building two nuclear facilities in order to “explode the sun and unleash a legion of semi-mythical half-beasts to rule the galaxy as an expression of our rage.” UN gives plan the “OK.”

Avatar fans learn Na’vi between therapy sessions. Klingon, Vulcan, and conversational Spanish apparently closed.

Starbucks turns 39. In celebration, the price of a Venti Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino® Blended Crème mocha-choca latte ya-ya, with extra ya-ya, is dropping a dime, to $64.89.

Lady GaGa breaks world record by accumulating one billion hits to her Web video. In other entertainment news, Snooki explores Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical as it relates to big hair on this week’s Jersey Shore.

Painters freer than ever to follow their muse. Sad clowns still dominant subject matter, followed by dogs playing poker and Elvis on velvet.

Twenty-five-year-old Frenchman arrested for hacking into Barack Obama’s Twitter account. So no, the president did not Tweet the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” last Thursday.

Silvio Berlusconi calls rival in Italian election ugly, cites Cicero, Machiavelli, and “the tall one” from Laverne and Shirley.

Man sentenced to prison for trying to break into prison after being released from prison. Wreaks havoc with recidivism rates. (“If they put me in general population, I’ll break into solitary confinement,” he warns.)

Steak and deep-fried food prove to be good for you, just as Woody Allen predicted.

British press mocks American animal-rights advocate.

That cutthroat get-ahead-at-any-cost colleague may just be a run-of-the-mill psychopath. Which explains the success of the iPhone.

Sinead O’Connor demands “full criminal investigation of the pope.” Vatican demands full criminal investigation of Throw Down Your Arms.

And finally, Doris Day is America’s No. 1 Favorite Actress. (Oh, so sue me…)

Billboard with picture of Jimmy Carter asks “Miss Me Yet?” No.

Reagan Republican gets star on Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Facebook may cause syphilis, MySpace may cause meningitis, and Leon’s getting la-a-a-r-ger.

24 is officially 0. Jack Bauer to become evangelist.

Iran apparently building two nuclear facilities in order to “explode the sun and unleash a legion of semi-mythical half-beasts to rule the galaxy as an expression of our rage.” UN gives plan the “OK.”

Avatar fans learn Na’vi between therapy sessions. Klingon, Vulcan, and conversational Spanish apparently closed.

Starbucks turns 39. In celebration, the price of a Venti Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino® Blended Crème mocha-choca latte ya-ya, with extra ya-ya, is dropping a dime, to $64.89.

Lady GaGa breaks world record by accumulating one billion hits to her Web video. In other entertainment news, Snooki explores Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical as it relates to big hair on this week’s Jersey Shore.

Painters freer than ever to follow their muse. Sad clowns still dominant subject matter, followed by dogs playing poker and Elvis on velvet.

Twenty-five-year-old Frenchman arrested for hacking into Barack Obama’s Twitter account. So no, the president did not Tweet the lyrics to “When Doves Cry” last Thursday.

Silvio Berlusconi calls rival in Italian election ugly, cites Cicero, Machiavelli, and “the tall one” from Laverne and Shirley.

Man sentenced to prison for trying to break into prison after being released from prison. Wreaks havoc with recidivism rates. (“If they put me in general population, I’ll break into solitary confinement,” he warns.)

Steak and deep-fried food prove to be good for you, just as Woody Allen predicted.

British press mocks American animal-rights advocate.

That cutthroat get-ahead-at-any-cost colleague may just be a run-of-the-mill psychopath. Which explains the success of the iPhone.

Sinead O’Connor demands “full criminal investigation of the pope.” Vatican demands full criminal investigation of Throw Down Your Arms.

And finally, Doris Day is America’s No. 1 Favorite Actress. (Oh, so sue me…)

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Weekend Reading

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

American movies show, with a contrast and vividness perhaps unmatched in any other medium, the depths and the heights of our collective culture. This goes some distance toward explaining why movies exert such an enduring fascination on the American mind. COMMENTARY has, for more than fifty years, published some of the most incisive and provocative writing on American films. We offer some of the best of that writing for this weekend’s reading.

The Movie Camera and the American
Robert Warshow – March 1952

The Strangely Polite “Dr. Strangelove”
Midge Decter – May 1964

The Man Who Refused to Watch the Academy Awards
David Evanier – April 1977

Woody Allen on the American Character
Richard Grenier — November 1983

A Dissent on “Schindler’s List”
Philip Gourevitch – February 1994

Journalism, Hollywood-Style
Terry Teachout – December 2005

Spielberg’s “Munich”
Gabriel Schoenfeld – February 2006

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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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