Critical Mass



The National Book Critics Circle regularly posts a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries. We recently heard from writer and critic Marc Weingarten. Here is what he pointed out as worth keeping in your library at all times.

Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1988)

Bangs was the first critic that I actively read as a young burn-out vinyl junkie. His writing was alive, passionate, occasionally sloppy––everything that turned me on about the rock music he was covering. This was criticism with blood coursing through it. It’s a shame Bangs didn’t have the discipline to write a full-length book, but some of the best criticism ever written can be found in 700-word record reviews.

John Updike, Hugging the Shore
Ever since the release of his first critical anthology Assorted Prose in 1965, Updike has published a new book of reviews, essays and prefaces every eight years or so. Every book is unusually thick. This makes me very angry. How does a man who publishes a novel every fortnight have the time and the brain-juice to write to much damn criticism? Not just criticism––brilliant, penetrating stuff, the best body of work since Edmund Wilson. I collate my collected work and realize it’s a little shorter than a thin pamphlet. I wince, and read on, and marvel.

Edmund Wilson, Literary Essays and Reviews, 2 Vols (2007)

Why am I even mentioning these books in a blog devoted to book criticism? Surely everyone reading this already owns the Library of America’s essential collection of work from the greatest critic of the 20th century. If you don’t, you should log off this site in shame and sit in the corner for 45 minutes.

Pauline Kael: 5001 Nights At The Movies
I remember, as a kid, seeing Pauline Kael on some critic’s round table on TV.  She was lambasting Apocalypse Now as a rotten film (she might have used the word “meretricious,” I don’t know). This made me vow never to read another one of her reviews ever again. But it’s funny: When you stop reading Kael, it’s as if a long, intellectually stimulating argument has abruptly come to an end. It was more than I could stand.  So I didn’t stop reading Kael. She restores my faith in the power of criticism to illuminate and inform art.  Even if it’s meretricious.