Critical Mass

Critical Library: Steven G. Kellman

By Eric Banks

In this series, the National Book Critics Circle will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries. We recently heard from former Balakian winner and NBCC board member Steven G. Kellman. Here is what he pointed out as worth keeping in your library at all times.

To face the task, the Compleat Critick is equipped with: comprehensive dictionaries, encyclopedias, and thesauri in at least four modern languages and one ancient one; an eidetic recall of the literary tradition from Gilgamesh to the latest posthumous effusions of Roberto Bolaño; and a bowl of ripe durians (the feculent Asian fruit), to ward off overzealous publicists and irate authors. In addition, I would recommend:

1. Plato, The Republic. Alfred North Whitehead’s claim that the history of philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” is hyperbolic, but it is at the feet of Socrates and his interlocutors that we begin to pose fundamental questions about Truth and Beauty, representation, and the responsibilities and limitations of the rhapsode/critic. With his systematic answers, Aristotle is explanatory, but the Platonic dialogues are interrogatory, and, according to Milan Kundera, “it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. “

2. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” There are many estimable guides to style, but Orwell’s trenchant essay remains an inspiring reminder of just what is at stake in writing clearly and cogently.

3. Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique.” Shklovsky identified ostranenie as the defining characteristic of the aesthetic experience; defamiliarization is the artist’s—and critic’s—strategy for coping with the banality of anaesthetized existence. Though one impulse of criticism is to domesticate the feral text, it is at least as important to make strange, to cultivate the wonder of it all.

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire. Not only a virtuosic novel, in the guise of a poem surrounded by critical apparatus, but a radiant exploration of the jumble of passion, wisdom, and lunacy involved in responding to a text.

5. Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis.” On October 20, 1913, Kafka wrote in his diary: “I am now reading ‘The Metamorphosis’ at home and find it bad.” Kafka’s unsettling novella is a consummate embodiment of ostranenie, and his reaction to it is a humbling reminder of the fallibility of critical judgment.