Critical Mass

A Modest Proposal


Jon Swift is not, I believe, a member of our guild, but he writes some of the liveliest and most incisive reviews around, and it is time that we honor him.

An essential part of the Swiftian method is that the critic avoid reading very much. (All of his pieces open with the line “I haven’t actually read this book but….”) This helps him to be prolific, and he never gets distracted from the task of formulating a judgment.

Swift’s reviews all run at Amazon—or at least they do when Amazon doesn’t take them down:

Considering all the attention my reviews have brought to the money-losing Internet bookseller and all the inspiration they have given people by showing that you don’t necessarily have to read books to review them, you would think that Amazon would be more appreciative of my work…. Nevertheless, I stand by all of my reviews and so in the interest of posterity and the historical record I have decided to post them here on my modest blog where they will be safe from the clutches of Amazon censors.

One thing that makes Swift a good reviewer is that he engages in fact-checking, even when he shares the ideological worldview of an author. See his review of Thomas Friedman’s best-seller from a few years ago:

I have not actually read this book but I want to point out that there is one very big mistake right on the cover: The world is not flat; it is, in fact, round. Even though I am a conservative like Mr. Friedman and I appreciate his support of President Bush and the War in Iraq, I think conservatives like us have to be very careful about being perceived as unscientific because of our opposition to Evolution and I think a book like this which has a scientific error right on the cover is not very helpful.

He can be generous to an author who has fallen on hard times—namely James Frey with A Million Little Pieces:

I have not actually read this book but James Frey says that only 12 pages of his book are untrue and I think that’s a pretty good average. I think it’s a great and compelling book and recommend it highly. Only 12 words of this review are untrue. Can you guess which ones they are?

As shown in response to Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?, Swift is prepared to answer a rhetorical question:

I have not actually read this book but I want Ms. Dowd to know that men are very necessary. Without men, for example, I think we would be losing the War in Iraq. I used to like Ms. Dowd when she was attacking President Clinton for having sex but now she is attacking President Bush and there is no evidence whatsoever that he is having sex so I don’t understand what the problem is.

Swift makes illuminating connections between public policy and popular culture, as when discussing the book Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America:

I have not actually read this book but I love the movie with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. I thought it was very funny and very imaginative with all of the alien creatures. I don’t remember the movie saying anything about the Supreme Court but I know they often change books when they adapt them into movies. Even though I agree with everything Justice Scalia says he does sometimes seem like an alien from another planet, which I mean in a good way.

A certain theme returns when Swift looks at (and I mean that literally) a book by populist newscaster Lou Dobbs on the effects of globalization:

Apparently he believes that illegal aliens from other planets are taking American jobs. He is so obsessed with this idea that no matter what topic he is discussing he eventually ends up blaming aliens. Back when Walter Cronkite was an anchor if he had started obsessing about UFOs the network would have yanked him off the air immediately. I guess times have changed.

Swift is also interested in contemporary fiction—if not quite enough, of course, actually to read it. About Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay he writes:

I have not actually read this book but I did see the movie and I liked it very much. However, I don’t understand why people keep referring to it as the “gay cowboy movie.” Can’t two men be very good friends without everybody saying they’re gay?

If Dorothy Parker were alive today….she’d be really, really old. Even so, she would join me in calling for NBCC to honor Jon Swift with a medal for special valor in the pursuit of book criticism.