I am finally able to resume blogging. Since photographer Eric Mencher and I headed upstate to do some reporting, my time has had to be budgeted carefully. Eric and I put in two 15-hour days on the road. And when you’re reporting on the road, the only time you really aren’t working is when you finally get to sleep.
When we got back I had to do everything that was left undone while I was away — move reviews to the copy desk, pitch in to do some of the things vacationing colleagues would have done, go through stacks of books that had arrived, check email and snail mail, as well as start figuring out how to write up what Eric and I had been reporting on.
It is my view that punditry has lately assumed a greater importance in journalism than it deserves. I prefer reporting, which is a lot harder to do than people think. In a wonderful book called The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Albert Jay Nock tells of a college president who had devised an interesting test for his incoming freshman: He would give them a paragraph of standard English prose. He would ask them to read it to themselves, then read it aloud, and finally study it carefully for a few moments. Then he would ask them to write down in their own words what it said. Nine out of 10 would fail. They would write what they thought it meant, or what it reminded them of, or whatever. But they would not or could not simply repeat the gist of it in their own words. In Nock’s view this meant that they were literate, but could not read.
I mention this because, when I was in college and thought that one of the things I would like to do after I graduated was literary journalism, I often pondered how one could do that creatively — because, like probably every young person, I wanted to be creative, to place my distinctive stamp on whatever it was I did. I have since come to realize that one of the most difficult things to do when it comes to reviewing a book is to accurately report what the book is about.
I had, for all practical purposes, a double major in college. I went to a Jesuit school, which at the time was still adhering to the educational guidelines established in 1599 by Claudio Aquaviva, the fifth general of the order. This meant two years of scholastic philosophy — logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and rational psychology. I was interested in philosophy and took extra courses: the history of philosophy, a course in existentialism and another in aesthetics. One of my teachers, Edward Gannon, S.J., had got his Ph.D. at the University of Louvain in Belgium, back when everything there was done in Latin (for all I know, it still is). Father Gannon was a brilliant teacher, the most important teacher in my life. He taught the courses in logic, epistemology and metaphysics (he also taught the existentialism and aesthetics courses). His textbook for the epistemology course was William Luipen’s Existential Phenomenology. And that is what I ended up being schooled in: a Thomistically grounded existential phenomenology.
Among other things, I learned a most important lesson: If one accurately and precisely describes what one experiences, how one feels about that experience will become perfectly clear. You don’t have to go on and on making evaluative pronouncements, raising or lowering one’s critical thumbs for all to see.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Michael Rozansky and I were chatting about book reviews. Michael said that he was often led to read a book even if a review of it wasn’t entirely positive. I pointed out that a good reviewer always provides sufficient information for the reader of the review to place the reviewer’s opinion in context. Another colleague of mine, Karen Heller, wrote a rave review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that absolutely convinced me I would never want to read it. I’m sure the book has many merits. I just don’t think it’s a book for me.
Smart reviewers are above all informative. Smart readers of reviews focus on the information, not the evaluation.