“To understand is not to condone.” – Terry Eagleton, Is Marxism A Theodicy?, York University, 2010
Since Laurence Miall already scooped me by writing the first post in this series on St. Ted, I’m going to write instead about the publication in my reading life that means the most to me: The New York Review of Books.
In case you’re wondering, the NYRB is not the one sporting a monocle and a top hat, promoting intellectual frauds like Malcolm Gladwell, and desperately proving with each issue that it really does deserve its “Harvard A“: that’s The New Yorker.
If you’ve never read the NYRB, you’ve never read anything like it. It is profoundly, purposefully earnest, rigorous with itself, and in the best sense of the term, naive. If you think writing about historical, cultural, political or social justice issues means putting your personal indignation on display, they might review your book, but they’ll never publish you. If you think you have a moral obligation to treat all writing primarily as propaganda, and that as a writer it is therefore your duty to treat all readers like wet marionettes, where the real war is not for their hearts and minds, but rather for the strings that manipulate their dance, then the NYRB represents a deliberate affront to your position.
If the NYRB had a motto, it would include the line from Marxist critic Terry Eagleton quoted at the beginning of this article, intended as a rebuke to many people who mistakenly fancy themselves to be his intellectual fellow-travellers: “To understand is not to condone.” To which I would also add: “To explain is not to endorse” and “To read is not to believe.” Or to put it another way: the NYRB repels both bullshit writing, and bullshit readers.
Which is not to say, of course, that no bullshit ever sticks. For example, they’re pretty weak on technology. Still, the best thing about the NYRB from a political and philosophical perspective is that they’re often being deliberately provocative in the best way, contributing directly to a genuine historical controversy as it happens. From good arguments and historical analysis regarding prison rape in the US, to direct engagement with aspects of twentieth-century history that are nearly impossible to discuss honestly in North America, to lighter fare, like the relationship between money and architecture represented by the latest additions to the NYC skyline, the NYRB treats every subject it touches like it matters.
The most important thing to understand about the NYRB is that each essay is not really a review at all: the book or books involved are instead an opportunity for the essay’s author to discuss an important topic in depth and at length. If you want “aesthetic” reviews (“Reading this scrumptious novel from celebrated literary darling So-and-So is like eating a warm piece of chocolate cake”), then the TLS and the LRB are your thing. The NYRB, in the best sense of the term, is a just a bit too American for that, when it comes to the subjects it takes seriously.
For me, reading the NYRB regularly is sort of like a textual substitute for living in a real university town or a major city (I don’t): if you are at all engaged, at any given event you will not only run into professors, but also spooks, geniuses, dreamers, assholes, puritans, con artists, and, of course, writers, painters, musicians, and drunks. I learned to love this kind of environment when I first moved to London from Anywhere, Canada, and discovered that crashing lectures across the city is easy to do, and in many cases invited. I found out how easy it was to just drop in if there was a visiting professor of interest giving a talk at the LSE (at the time I worked on the Aldwych, right amongst the LSE buildings), or haunt the meetings of the Aristotelian Society at Senate House. Later, as a grad student living in Oxford, I took full advantage of the opportunity to drop in (not crashing this time) on any interesting lecture or talk I could. If I was going to visit some friends in Ukraine, for example, I could get informed in advance by just going to a talk by a former ambassador to that country (I remember he said, “Never is a long time, and Ukraine will never be part of the EU”), or on any given day just cross the road from the residence where I lived to see, say, Margaret Drabble or Noam Chomsky, or head down the street to the Maison Française to see Timothy Garton Ash effortlessly skewer a poseur from the other side of the Channel, or across town to see Boris Berezovsky or Umberto Eco or Richard Rorty. Throughout all those years, I guess I felt kind of like a killer whale who had been raised in a tank, and had finally found a sea to swim in.
In any case, without the privileges that come from living in a place with a robust intellectual life, you are left with the substitutes, but what spectacular substitutes they are, these days: you can listen to Hubert Dreyfus give lectures on The Brothers Karamazov on iTunes, you can listen to heads of state speak on podcasts from the CSIS, you can range across the front and back channels of the internet to read anything you want, any time, from any where; and, of course, you can always read an article in the latest issue of the NYRB.
Len Epp wrote his DPhil on the reasons politicians so often invoke “clarity” or “transparency” as positive, democratic principles, and why the charge of “obscurity” can be so troubling in art, journalism, philosophy and literature, in addition to politics. He is on the team at Leanpub, a startup that helps authors and publishers publish in-progress books, including serial fiction. He is on Twitter at @lenepp.