On Reading Dead Writers, and the Contemporary Book Review
In September of 2012, I stumbled upon a review of Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport. Published in 2009, Botton’s book is a quasi-critical investigation into the imaginative center of our civilization—the airport. Botton’s prose is highly lyrical, at times poetic; his perception is keen, and the insight of the book is meticulous enough to border visionary. Having at the time only recently begun reading book reviews, the tone of its commentary refreshed me; the review was eloquent, punctual, and contained an attractive rapidity that I found to be more or less subdued in much of the fiction I had been reading. Ultimately, the review not only made me fall in love with A Week at the Airport, but it allowed me to see the work within a new light entirely—all the more insightful, concise, and artful than I ever thought it was prior to reading the review.
Around the same time, I began an MFA program, and with that, my immersion into the literary world, the writing life, and the shoulds/should-nots of such an existence had begun to envelop me. I learned of a book review’s importance—being not only a way to gain new perspectives on literature, but as a writer, the book review is an important avenue for participation in the conversations within the writing world. At the time, I was teeming with the euphoria affixed to my life’s current transition, and beginning to feel an excitement regarding my future and emerging writerdom, coupled with the sudden desire to impart a book review of my own into the wide open and, what I thought at the time to be, open-armed writing world.
It seems to me now, that perhaps I was naive and overly-spirited then when I huddled into a corner with my laptop and began writing a review of A Week at the Airport, simply because I loved the book. It was only after a few of my peers had read the completed piece that I learned my review “did not apply” to the current conversations among literary entrails—I was three years late.
Perusing any literary journal’s reviews section, one will find reviews by the multitudes of books that have been published no earlier than the previous month of that year. This trend implies the narrow scope of current literary commentary, and further, the quiet dismissal of any public conversation surrounding older works; it seems that in order to be an active participant in the ongoing literary conversation, one ought to submit themselves tirelessly to the thrush of trends and Twitter feeds. Given these realities, I wonder what place the creatively conceived book review, the book’s date of publication notwithstanding, holds among the often cutthroat race the writing of contemporary book reviews has become, wherein half of the very act seems to reside within how quickly a writer can rove the chatter surrounding the newest works.
Keeping far distant any cultural commentary regarding an aversion to “the times,” I cannot help but find it unfortunate that new takes on old material are simply disregarded in the realm of contemporary book reviews; and further, that the act of book reviewing is one of the few ways a new writer can attempt to insert their voice into the writing world. The fact that fresh, critical standpoints on Proust’s obsessions, for example, or an unpacking of how Camus constructs a world that precedes words would be accepted only within a classroom setting is a hindrance to the development of modern literary thought, and to the very intellectual conversations it strives to maintain.
I like to read the work of dead writers. When I go to the bookstore, I cling to the classics section, purely for reasons of taste. I enjoy the lyricism of older English; I enjoy the subtle quietude of philosophical observations arisen from minds uncluttered by the technological muddle that subsumes us all. I think we all could learn a lot from these wise voices. Accordingly, I do not think it irrational to desire a writing world in which one may review a classic novel, out of passion versus pressure, and intend to contribute that material to the current conversations surrounding today’s literature.
With that said, I do not by any means want to discount the value of contemporary literature, nor of the contemporary book review; new work depends on the critical reading of a community of writers who are passionate about the cusp of creative production, and want to offer fresh takes on fresh work to keep the greater literary conversation well-oiled. This type of discourse is essential for art to maintain its resonance within a culture that is often far too keen on wallowing in the past.
However, there is also something to be said about assimilating the messages from storied writers into our current literary commentaries; there is something to be valued about resurfacing ideas from the past, and offering them re-examinations that can only strengthen the promise new work holds for examining lyrical, narrative, and theoretical possibilities. Perhaps, in time, a wider scope of what is coined the “book review” will be accepted within the sphere of current literary conversation, and given greater value. Until then, may we all explore the thoughts of writers long, long gone for any insight that might help us assimilate their back-shelved thoughts into our forefronted words.
KT’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Trop. She is an MFA candidate at The California Institute of the Arts and currently at work on her first novel. She lives in Los Angeles.