Unpacking Books

No, I am not talking about taking books out of boxes, etc. I am talking about attempts to dig a little deeper; to try and understand what is really going on in a book. Below reviews that do just that. One fiction, one non:

– J. A. Gray had an interesting review of Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson in the March issue First Things. Gray discusses Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping and compares and contrasts that work with Gilead. Gray found most reviews lacking and sees something deeper at work in the story:

Reviews of Gilead have been numerous—ranging from rapturous to respectful—but uniformly superficial. Ames is taken to be a reliable old fellow who imparts his nuggets of gospel-tinged wisdom and his small-town epiphanies with Robinson’s unequivocal approval. Robinson is commended for daring to employ so unpromising a mouthpiece and is praised for the artistry with which she (mostly) keeps the loquacious minister from being a bore.
[ . . .]
Robinson is far too fine an artist to offer us the sort of univocal and easily mastered fiction that some have taken this book to be. She is both persistent and brave. In her superb first novel she gave voice to the griefs and losses of the mother-daughter relationship, placing them in a near-mythic world of flux and darkness. Here she attempts a harder thing, imagining her way into the conflicts and joys of the father-son relationship and staging them more terrestrially, on the familiar American prairie, in the prosaic Midwestern light, along the arc of some of the most impassioned episodes in American history.

– Here is another review that seeks to understand what exactly a book is getting at, although the subject and format are completely different than Gilead. Roger Kimball takes on a work whose title the Wall Street Journal would just as soon not print:

Consider the latest bestseller from Princeton University Press by a philosopher named Harry Frankfurt. It’s called “On Bull—-“–well, many American newspapers, including this one, forbear to print the word, but you know what it is. Even the New York Times, whose lifestyle sections celebrate all manner of “transgressive” habits in detail, can’t bring itself to spell out the book’s title on its bestseller list.

Kimball goes on to wrestle with both the books serious points and its cultural symbolism:

The serious part of his essay teases out some distinctions between truth, falsity and that spongy middle ground where his subject thrives. Both the liar and the honest man are concerned with the truth: one to conceal or subvert, the other to proclaim it. But the practitioner of Mr. Frankfurt’s subject is a more slippery character. Being indifferent to the truth, he is a kind of moral performance artist, concerned more with the impression he makes than the truths he tells (or conceals).
[. . .]
A few years ago, the social commentator Rochelle Gurstein wrote a book called “The Repeal of Reticence.” It might be the motto of our age: an age in which “transgressive” is a term of commendation and the only taboo is the thought that something might be taboo. In Princeton’s hands, Mr. Frankfurt’s essay, although innocuous enough when it subsisted in academic obscurity, trades on taboo for its own notoriety. Its rebirth as this week’s intellectual fashion strikes an ominous note.

I happen to have purchased and read this slim volume myself and will try to give you my take on it soon. If anyone else has read it I would love to hear what they thought.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).