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 Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton. Here are five books he nominated.

Marcel Proust, Against Sainte-Beuve
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity
T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia
R.P. Blackmur, Eleven Essays in the European Novel
F.W. Dupee, The King of the Cats and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing

All kinds of reasons for these choices. No one can READ like Empson, and when he’s going strong he’s a tonic for the mind and spirit as good as listening to Oscar Peterson. Proust’s essay on Balzac in “Contre Sainte-Beuve” is a masterpiece of what we might call concessive/creative criticism: he accepts every aspect of Balzac that makes his mother feel he’s not a great novelist, and then turns these very aspects into deeply imaginative reasons why he is. Proust also registered the death of the author and diagnosed the intentional fallacy in the same belatedly published book.  Adorno’s epigrams and mini-essays in Minima Moralia are models of tough critical thinking accompanied by a care for language that is itself incredible. This book is also where he says the problem with philosophers is that they want to be right, and being right is not so important. This insight is all the more impressive because Adorno himself pretty much always wanted to be right. Blackmur offers the perfect instance of quirky, original, always surprising criticism—you never know where the next swerve of thought will take him, although he’s always very close to the text. And finally, Dupee, the only one of these figures personally known to me, is my ideal reader. I mean this literally, in the sense that he is often in my mind when I write, because his nose for fakery and false elegance was so fine, and I regularly rewrite sentences because I can hear his cool and ironic groan in my head. But I also mean it in a broader sense: Dupee is the reader become writer—take a look at his essay on Lolita and you’ll see what I mean. None of the lecturing tone we find in Edmund Wilson, none of the grand defenses of culture we find in Lionel Trilling; just a reader, very close to the book, and trusting his readers to be readers like him. We wish.

Michael Wood is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge University Press).