Sunday, March 06, 2005



There is a certain model of book reviewing -- perhaps the model for book reviewing -- that must always leaven its analysis of the book that was written by criticizing the author over the Book You Didn't Write.

For those of you just starting out in reviewing, a helpful hint: these potshots are traditionally placed in the final or penultimate paragraphs. Now go knock yourselves out!

Just where reviewers get this Platonic ideal of The Book You Didn't Write is mysterious; what is known is that, even if the author did write that book, they'd still find another Book You Didn't Write hiding behind it. No matter: pointing out this fictitious BYDW is apparently what proves the reviewer's critical cast of mind.

And that's why, although I was delighted to see today's San Francisco Chronicle reviewing Scott Sandage's new book Born Losers, I was dismayed to see this BYDW hackery at the end:

Sandage needs a more detailed comparison with other cultures and other times, as well as a more honest accommodation of the variety of attitudes we find in contemporary American society than he provides. How does our version of failure differ from those in Japan and India and the emerging markets of Eastern Europe? If different, are theirs any better, or are all market economies flawed? How has the participation of women and minorities as they gain greater access to the market shaped (or not) our business ethos and our perception of losers?

Finally, if ours is a system of habitual and dysfunctional risk, one that has left us with a greatly diminished vocabulary for assessing people and thus a greatly diminished people, what then does Sandage imagine is a step in the direction of restoration?

Ok. First of all, Sandage's book is subtitled A History of Failure in America. America. Not A History of Failure in the Entire Goddamned World. Does this reviewer have any notion how much additional work she is asking him to do here? And why does a historian like Sandage have to "imagine a step in the direction of restoration"?

Isn't that the reader's job?

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