Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Good Reads 3 [The Long Tail]: Scott McLemee’s Picks


NBCC board member Scott McLemee, winner of the NBCC Nona Balakian award for his critical work, offers these two books as his picks for the NBCC Good Reads Spring 2008 list of recommendations by NBCC members, award winners and finalists:

In fiction:  Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (New York Review of Books Classics)

The final and most wrenching novel by one of the great witnesses to the triumph and the degeneration of the Bolshevik Revolution. A few years ago, NYRB Classics brought back into print Serge’s “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”—arguably a much richer treatment of the nightmare of the Stalinist purge trials than Koestler’s better known “Darkness at Noon.” It was good to see that novel available again in paperback, but I think the press has really outdone itself by issuing “Unforgiving Years,” which is only now appearing in English. (Serge died in 1947; the book came out in France in the early 1970s.)

Set in the 1940s, amidst the cosmopolitan yet claustrophobic world of disillusioned ex-functionaries of the Communist International, “Unforgiving Years” is the most psychologically sensitive of the author’s books. It zeroes in on the nuances of secrecy, exile, and shattered idealism; and the shifts of narrative voice and the novel’s overall structure make it far more intricate than the expression “political novel” usually suggests. Reprinting “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” was a pretty safe bet; it has a solid if modest reputation. But bringing out a challenging and largely unknown novel like “Unforgiving Years” is the sign of a press that is so committed to the seriousness and quality of what it publishes that it is willing to take some risks.

Nonfiction:  Richard Sennett, “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press)

I shelve my books alphabetically by author in part because of books like this one, which would tend to fall through the cracks of the usual disciplinary distinctions. (Come to think of it, that is true of most of Sennett’s work.) “The Craftsman” is part history, part philosophy, with a bit of sociology and psychology in there, too, along with some memoir. It is an inquiry into what special qualities are involved in learning and practicing a craft—whether it be brickmaking, architecture, computer programming, or playing a musical instrument.

The slow tempo of developing the necessary skills; the emergence of communities of practitioners; the experiences and meanings involved in learning to use your tools and raw materials, and to respect the demands they place on you….Sennett doesn’t so much meditate upon these things as build up a structure of ideas and historical references that honors a particular way of being in the world.—Scott McLemee