Decades ago, the book review section of the NY Times used to be one of my favorite portions of the paper to read of a Sunday, back when I read it in the paper version. Implicit in my mind—without my even thinking about it consciously at the time—was the idea that these reviews were written by people who were not only erudite but even wise, writing their impressions of books that had been written by people who (for the most part) were also not only erudite but even wise.
That hasn’t seemed to be true for a long, long time.
Yesterday I was in New York visiting family, and I picked up the dead tree version of ye olde Times book review section, something I hadn’t done for ages. I saw that a certain obsession/compulsion seems to have crept into the prose of the reviews. Every single one that I read—and I got to around to about fie or six of them before I stopped reading—made some reference, oblique or direct, to these harsh Trumpian times in which we live. This was true whatever the subject matter of the book might have been.
And these weren’t just references to the discord of the American people about the Trump presidency, either. Each reference seemed to come with a set of assumptions that implied agreement among the Times’ readers on the following:
(1) we all detest Trump
(2) Trump is a totalitarian about to take our rights away any moment
(3) these things don’t need much demonstration at this point; they are a given and we all understand what we’re referring to
I’m very familiar with reading authors or periodicals that assume liberal agreement among their readers. But this seemed different: more constant, more gratuitous in terms of having anything to do with the subject matter of the books being reviewed, and more extreme in the nature of the presumably shared and obviously-true assumptions.
I didn’t read every review, of course. But I read enough to safely say that I don’t remember seeing anything quite like it before, even in the Times. The entire thing ended on the last page with these essays debating whether we’ve now been catapulted into a future that has more resemblance to Brave New World or to Nineteen Eighty Four (both essays appear to have first been published in the book review in early February, but were now being repeated).
One of the essays (by Charles McGrath, former editor of the Times book review) contained passages such as this:
Two months ago I would have said that not only is “Brave New World” a livelier, more entertaining book than “1984,” it’s also a more prescient one. … [Huxley’s] novel much more accurately evokes the country we live in now, especially in its depiction of a culture preoccupied with sex and mindless pop entertainment, than does Orwell’s more ominous book, which seems to be imagining someplace like North Korea.
Or it did until Donald Trump was inaugurated. All of a sudden, as many commentators have pointed out, there were almost daily echoes of Orwell in the news, and “1984” began shooting up the Amazon best-seller list. The most obvious connection to Orwell was the new president’s repeated insistence that even his most pointless and transparent lies were in fact true, and then his adviser Kellyanne Conway’s explanation that these statements were not really falsehoods but, rather, “alternative facts.” As any reader of “1984” knows, this is exactly Big Brother’s standard of truth: The facts are whatever the leader says they are.
My, my, my. I suppose those assertions of McGrath sound petty convincing (and scary) to those who never noticed the constant and multiple lies of President Obama, and Obama’s “repeated insistence that even his most transparent lies were in fact true” (I left out “pointless” because I don’t think any of Obama’s lies were pointless at all). And then, of course, McGrath follows it up with an ignorant and/or purposeful mischaracterization of the meaning of Kellyanne Conway’s comment, a mischaracterization that has become a favorite of the left. Conway was trying to say that facts are sometimes reported correctly and sometimes reported inaccurately, and that when facts clash we must read both sets and try to sort out the alternatives if we want to make a decision about which may be true (or closest to the truth). And nowhere was she saying anything remotely like, “The facts are whatever the leader says they are”—much less exactly like that.
McGrath’s essay drips with so much condescension that I almost felt the need to wring it out and dry it off.
The goal of all of this is to deliver the message that the Times and its readers are all in this terrible Trump thing together, and that it’s not only every bit as bad as you might think it is, it’s worse. And that they don’t have to prove it, because anybody who’s anybody (and anybody literate enough to read the NY Times book review section) already knows it.
Let’s get back to one of my favorite passages in the world, from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (how’s that for being literary?):
Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.
By the way, this is the cover of the paperback version of Kundera’s book that I own: