This collects introductions to new editions of literary works, musings on books and ideas, and a variety of book reviews, some brief, some-- as with that of Susan Neiman's philosophical study of evil, extended. The high style Gass favors, and which the Washington Post's Michael Dirnda pours/pores over, does demand concentration. It will reward effort, but the amounts of inspiration that I gained proved inconsistent. It's like chewing through a slice of dense fruit cake. Most hate it, some tolerate it, and only a few long for it. But all can admire, if often from a safe distance, the craft with which the cherries are glazed and the citron positioned. Embedded in the middle, one may find a tasty bit suddenly within a lot of compacted mass. The opening essay, to move to Gass' own analogy, is addressed to a young person encountering the classic works, typifies Gass' approach: you will not become a better chess player unless you pit yourself against your betters, and unless you learn from your subsequent losses.
His essays tend to repeat key points in the actual novels he introduces, and this tendency can be either instructive in serving as a reminder of your own past readings of the work under scrutiny, or dull, if you have little interest in the work Gass is analyzing. Many of these entries are wrenched out of their original contexts, and the assortment of short pieces probably will reveal to you what I found: a lot of them you skim, fewer you pause over, and once in a while you stop and dive in deep, the prose washing over you. It's hard to stay afloat for long: you either rush out of this book and never look back, or you wear yourself out as you attempt to keep up with Gass' marathon mental stamina. I suppose it's a sign of my own limitations, compared to Gass' erudite appetite, that I was not moved sufficiently to read, or re-read, any of the works he studies or reviews. His own treatments exhaust the casually curious potential reader; Gass, consumed in his own process of analysis, shares so much with us that we feel satiated just by peering over his shoulder at what he directs our gaze to within the text once, now twice, removed.
Gass criticizes the Net ("interbunk" he sneers) for lacking what a library possesses: the construct of a collection of minds, vetted for print, and all at the tip of your hand for perusal, within a collated and orderly fashion. But, since I am reviewing this book on the Net where you are perusing my post, perhaps Gass' critique of the non-printed page dissemination of information that we gather so as to search within for wisdom itself lacks full insight. I suppose, professional or professorial media critics notwithstanding, that decades will pass before the ramifications of our shift show as a massive dumbing down of billions of us, a play for corporate and state demogoguery, a savvy manipulation of our desires for consumerism and celebrity, or an inspired new medium that liberates the minds throughout the world and beyond limits of geography, educational access, regime, or privilege.
Gass, well in his eighties now, does impressively draw upon a half-century of teaching and even longer reading done very very assiduously. He puts any of us in the younger generations, in lives tempted by flashier media, to shame. I suppose those of us decades behind Gass in vast amounts of rarified reading, breadth of knowledge, and hard-won philosophical rigor will never catch up, as we pass our time learning from sources likely as not beyond the page. Many of us admittedly do less learning and more wallowing in the information the media sloshes over our willing selves, submerged in a demotic tide that Gass measures as polluted and corrosive. This is why the library represents disciplined effort for Gass, as opposed to the way you and I are sharing my opinions about this book right now. Is the active-passive reader-writer dichotomy, however, merely by its precedence the better way? Gass evokes in an essay on secondhand books powerfully the seductive appeal of reading pages others have passed over before you. Yet, as with the libraries he praised, these essays often carry a bit of musty air about them. This may enrich their appeal, but it may also shorten their shelf life.
Gass, then, represents the Ivy League (Cornell, class of '50) aura of gentlemanly scholarship that transcends the grubbing for tenure or the backstabbing of colleagues. It is as welcome in this age of publish-or-perish as it is in that of point-and-click. Fewer younger literary critics follow this mandate to address not a few on a tenure committee or within a drastically minimal readership of similarly indoctrinated cohorts. From this book, if not by all of its contents, I do take heart at its goal of setting us in front of a chess master-- himself-- who's far better than we can ever be at the game of interpretation. Still, we must play on.
Nonetheless, the mandarin tendencies indulged in with full savor by Gass do make this book reminiscent of recondite authors he praises such as Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, or Ben Jonson. And, like Rabelais, Gass loves to list and to keep on describing, in the way that he approves in Alexander Theroux (who does deserve much more acclaim I admit), "more is more." If your tastes run towards the ornate, this book will rouse your instincts for the texts-- mostly from the past more than contemporaries, although of course his near namesake William Gaddis appears, as well as peers such as Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin.
Gass cites, in his essay about evil, Elkin's line from "The Living End," that God includes mess and madness in his universe since it "makes for a better story." This is the type of insight Gass favors: epigrammatic, wry, and existentially honest. He is not afraid to praise as well as chide. He does not pander, although he does for my tastes lavish pages of prose without respite upon books, in which he finds the true alchemy. Rather than lead into gold, writers seek transformation of the world into words. Now, a bookish sort myself, I too am entertained by this legerdemain, but I do pause given Gass' implications. Even most biblio-idolators recognize, if only in our saner moments, that the world is where words should point us, to expand the telescope into the stratosphere of ideas rather than peer through its diminished reversal at a shrunken rectangular shape that distorts the universe back into the page.