• “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.