Saturday, September 6, 2014
September 1, 2014 Issue
An intriguing form of book review is emerging at The New Yorker, one that uses personal history as a springboard for discussion of new books. This week’s issue contains two such pieces – Nathan Heller’s "Poison Ivy" and Adam Gopnik’s "Heaven's Gaits." In “Poison Ivy,” Heller talks about his college experiences as a lead-in to his consideration of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I read the opening line – “I went to college early in this century, when the drug of choice on campus was sleep deprivation” – and I was hooked. I don’t agree with everything Heller says in the piece (he scoffs at Deresiewicz’s humanist vision of university education, calling it “brochure balladry”), but I was charmed by his personal approach, particularly this line:
Once, I woke up at my desk—or, more precisely, on my desk, face down, arms splayed out, murder-in-the-study style—with a caffeine-induced cramp freezing my left leg and the imprint of a notebook spiral winding down my cheek.
Gopnik’s “Heaven’s Gaits” looks at two books, Matthew Algeo’s Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. Neither book appeals to me. But the final section of the review, a description of Gopnik’s own affinity for walking around New York City, is a beauty. Gopnik writes,
You could walk anywhere. Saturday all day, Sunday all day, I’d tramp through the lower-Manhattan neighborhoods. The differences, architectural and social, among Tribeca and SoHo and the East Village, to name only contiguous areas, were distinct and vivid and nameable then: cast-iron buildings shading off into old egg- and paper-carton factories sweetly interrupted by small triangular parks, and edging over, as you walked east, into poor-law tenements that were just being reclaimed by painters.
Autobiographical critical pieces, such as Heller’s “Poison Ivy,” his earlier, wonderful "Semi-Charmed Life" (The New Yorker, January 14, 2013), Gopnik’s “Heaven’s Gaits,” and James Wood’s brilliant "On Not Going Home" (London Review of Books, February 20, 2014), constitute an interesting new trend in book reviewing. I hope it continues.