Finally a Sunday with time to read, reflect, and remember that I signed up for the Salon…
This morning I tried picking up Martin Amis’s The Second Plane. I’m about half way through. Just past his infamously snarly remark about searching middle eastern-looking travelers instead of innocent stuffed animal hugging little six year old white girls. But ‘pick up’ is all I could do. I’m bored. Perhaps it’s because I followed the controversy fairly closely in The Guardian and elsewhere, and have reached a threshold. This is unusual. Of the five or six Amis books I’ve read, all were easily, and very pleasurably finished off, even Koba the Dread kept it going better than this thumb sucker. I’m also slightly irritated with the prose: a few too many clever quips for the subject matter…smells of the lamp…smells also faintly of exploitation and opportunism. Terrorism/Islamism is a topic where style should sit in the back seat and let content drive. This doesn’t always happen. It is certainly the right, if not the obligation, of a novelist to contribute to public discourse. I just question how much of this is controversy for the sake of controversy, how much is mere anger at being held up at an airport, how much is concern that Islam will strangle our values, how much is an experimental test of free speech, how much is racism, in short, how much of the book is play, how much the genuinely serious.
So I turned to a book that reads like a stoked freight train: devoured the last sixty pages of Ronan McDonald’s The Death of a Critic in about an hour. Similar scenario to The Second Plane in that I’ve been reading so much about the state of criticism lately that not much in the book is new to me at least. Nonetheless, it provides a very good concise history of the evolution of literary criticism, particularly over the past 100 years. The book’s main premise is that because aesthetic valuation, and the judging of artistic merit has largely fled academic practice thanks in large part to ‘Cultural Studies’, obtuse language and the democratization of opinion, the public has lost interest in what academia has to say. There is hope, however, of restoring the once prominent position pubic critics such as Leavis, Trilling and Frye once held. This, says McDonald, lies in Universities restoring the importance of impressionistic, subjective response, and introducing creative criticism courses. Students "should be encouraged to embark on the process of finding their individual critical voice, rather than always mastering received procedures and theories…eloquence of writing, accuracy of expression, and the owning of language, should be part of an education in English literature, because, as MacDonald puts it, "…rapport between artist and critic can create energized contexts for artistic innovation and creativity.
It’s pretty easy to agree with McDonald. His argument isn’t complicated or particularly new. What is impressive is the way he seamlessly summarizes key developments in litcrit dating back to the Greeks. The treatment is brief, and I felt he didn’t do justice to Northrup Frye. But these are points for a lengthier review which I will get going on in the coming days.
Finally, I pulled a volume off the shelves that I wasn’t even aware I owned. It’s a bit beaten up, but what do you expect of a book published ninety odd years ago. I read the first chapter. My bond with the author was sealed within pages. He loves book collecting, London, and Samuel Johnson. There are no finer non-carnal infatuations in life, as far as I’m concerned. His name is E. Alfred Newton. The book is entitled The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections.
In the introduction, Newton talks about how his friends encouraged him to send a copy of a paper he’d written, Book Collecting Abroad, to The Atlantic Monthly. Always The Atlantic. So, eventually he did, addressing a letter to the editor, cold, with no inside connections. Three weeks later one Ellery Sedgwick replied, praising the work’s contagious enthusiasm, and accepted it for publication. Several years later a collection of Newton’s essays, including this one, was published by the magazine. Apparently Amenities sold over 25,000 copies. I have a third impression, printed in August, 1920. The first came out exactly two years earlier. It’s filled with photographs of booksellers, facsimiles of signatures and hand written letters, and portraits of 18th and 19th Century authors. Essay titles include: Book-Collecting at Home; Old Catalogues and New Prices; Association Books and First Editions; What Might Have Been; James Boswell-His Book; A Light-Blue Stocking; Oscar Wilde; and A Word in Memory.
The first chapter details some of Alfred’s ‘finds’ and describes his favourite book shops and sellers. One, however, doesn’t make the list. "Buying from Quaritch," he says. "is rather too much like the German idea of hunting: namely sitting in an easy chair near a break in the wall through which game, big or little, is shooed within easy reach of your gun. No, my idea of collecting is "watchful waiting" in season and out, in places likely and unlikely, most of all in London.’ Newton famously quarreled with Quaritch, not over money but over Quaritch’s contention that his firm had been libeled in one of Newton’s essays – a contention strenuously denied by our protagonist.
I’m lovin’ this book.