A book critic has so little time to devote to so many books that he can start to feel perpetually, hopelessly behind, like a college student staring despondently at a huge pile of required reading days before finals and knowing deep down inside that this semester is simply not going to end well. One always, always has to keep moving, with the result that the reason one got into the business in the first place—a love of books—can become a casualty, because the simple fact is that not many books—even good books—are masterpieces. And with so much to read, anything that isn’t a masterpiece can start to look dreary and obligatory.
But when they are!
Friends tell me that Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, is the most stolen galley of the year, that it disappears off of cubicles in newspapers and publishing houses throughout the land, that they are kept under lock and key at FSG—and boy can I see why. I read The Corrections years ago, when it came out, and I recalled the sensation of delight that that book gave me when reading this one. It’s so good that other novelists will find it in equal measure inspiring and intimidating. It’s so funny, so brilliant, and so good that the critic has to abandon his usual posture: there’s not even that much you can say about it—all you can do is gape in open-mouthed admiration.
So this summer, I’m going to go back and read Franzen’s first two novels, Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City. I know I’ll be just as sorry to put them down as I was when I turned the last page of The Corrections and Freedom—the kind of books that remind you what it was about books that made you decide against law school and embark on this uncertain profession of reading and writing.
Benjamin Moser was a finalist for the 2009 NBCC Award for Biography for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. He is the New Books columnist for Harper’s Magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. His work has appeared in many publications in the United States and abroad, including Condé Nast Traveler, Newsweek, and The American Scholar. He worked at Foreign Affairs magazine and Alfred A. Knopf in New York before becoming an editor at the Harvill Press in London. He was born in Houston and currently lives in the Netherlands. (Photograph: Tessa Posthuma de Boer)