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 critic Thomas DePietro, who nominated these five titles.

The impressive list of essential books compiled by previous contributors prevents me from citing many of my own favorites: from the three wise men at the birth of modernism, Wilson, Trilling, and Orwell, to the hipsters Farber, Kael, and Bangs. So my list fills in some gaps and also reflects my own literary re-education. I’m grateful that my undergraduate studies were dominated by the now much-maligned New Critics, who venerated above all close reading. But graduate school during the Age of Theory was depressing, especially in its denigration of judgment and taste. With that in mind, let me mention first of all:

E.D.Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation

Better known these days for his writing on cultural literacy, Hirsch was once a formidable literary critical thinker. This book bridges the New Criticism and what followed. Hirsch argues for the importance of careful reading, but he corrects some of the excesses of his mentors (the Wimsatt and Brooks crowd) by affirming the importance of genre and authorial intent. He also anticipates and debunks pretty much everything that came later in theory––the wild irrationalism of deconstruction most of all. OK, he was my favorite teacher, but I’ll never forget his notion that all critics need some theory in order to inoculate them from theory.

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets

The greatest critic who ever wrote in English. Is he still relevant? Hell, yes. His style may be inimitable, but his example is worth following. Many of the poets chronicled by Johnson are long forgotten, but it doesn’t matter. We witness a brilliant mind reading the canon of his day. His Life of Milton sets the agenda for every subsequent critic; his Life of Savage raises issues of biography and literature that are as fresh as ever. If you’re feeling flush, buy the recent Oxford edition.

Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader

The two series of essays in this series combine to remind us that Woolf was a great critic as well as a profound novelist. And her essay “The Common Reader” begins with a discussion of Johnson himself. She quotes Johnson’s Life of Gray: ” . . . I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Woolf, after Johnson, distinguishes the common reader from the critic and scholar, for she reads most of all for “pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” She allows, in short, for “affection, laughter, and argument,” which Woolf herself displays in masterly essays on Elizabethan drama, George Eliot, and many of her contemporaries.

Kingsley Amis, What Became of Jane Austen?.

So sue me: I’ve recently edited a book on Amis. But, really, his literary essays and reviews exactly fit the bill for Johnson and Woolf’s common reader. American critics, with the exception of Paul Fussell, are mostly unaware of Amis’s nonfiction, published haphazardly in the U.S. But he was a true man of letters, writing about anything that caught his fancy, or paid well. And most of all, he is funny, irreverent, and often wrong, which shouldn’t divert you from the impressive learning that Amis goes out of his way to disguise in his essays. Forget the cranky old man about whom you may have read some unflattering things. Amis, along with his buddy Philip Larkin, discern an alternate tradition in modern letters, of which
they are both exemplary. Plain-spoken, direct, and immune to cant, Amis redirects our understanding of the great tradition.

Daniel Mendelsohn, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken.

I was going to include a book by Clive James, but worried about seeming a hopeless Anglophile (even though James is an expat Aussie). After all, I think he’s the best critic writing today, many of his books have never been published here, and he is very much in the Amis mode––learning disguised by wit. Instead let me recommend a book I’m currently reading, though I’ve read most of the essays before in the New York Review of Books. Mendelsohn, like Amis and James, writes about all kinds of things, from Broadway plays to popular film, and of course literature.  One of the pieces I’d never seen before––on John Boswell’s last book about same-sex marriage––is an amazing critical dissent. Mendelsohn demonstrates how a knowledge of languages and a sense of scholarship can inform a mere book review. He wears his own scholarly credentials lightly throughout most of these reviews, and their thematic unity reveals itself in a way I never noticed on first reading them in the NYRB. A not-so-common reader perhaps.

Thomas DePietro is the author of Conversations with Don DeLillo (University Press of Mississippi); his criticism has appeared in The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, Commonweal, The Hudson Review, and numerous other publications.