March 31, 2011

BOOKS: Read This Next, Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark (2010)

The failure mode of clever is "asshole." -- John Scalzi
And to prove it, we have Newman & Mittlemark's book. It's a recommendations list for book groups, and it could be very useful, were it not written in a tone so smirky and wiseass as to offend anyone who takes books seriously.

It's a well-organized book. Ten chapters are devoted to broad themes -- war, family, politics, humor -- and each chapter focuses on a dozen books, providing a short summary and some questions for discussion.  Each chapter also includes three or four "Read These Too" lists, rapid-fire lists of a dozen books, usually on a theme triggered by a book from the chapter's main list. So, for instance, in the "Family" chapter, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home leads into a quick list of graphic novels; Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina triggers a "misery lit" list; and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is the cue for a group of African American books.

And the range of books included is interesting. Newman & Mittlemark aren't snobs; they embrace a wide range of reading, and their categorizations aren't always the most expected, which could offer readers the opportunity to make interesting connections among disparate books. The chapter on death includes not only John Hersey's Hiroshima, Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, and James Agee's A Death in the Family -- all relatively safe choices, given the topic -- but also Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which might not be among the first books that leap to mind.

But the book goes horribly wrong almost every time Newman & Mittlemark speak. Their discussion questions sometimes start off well, but the authors can't resist the temptation to throw in a joke at the end of almost every single question. Take this, for instance, from their questions for Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love:
Linda never cared for her daughter Moira, and never had much interest in her. Is this a writerly conceit, or does that happen in real life? Have you seen it in real life? Do you find the open discussion of this liberating? Would you like to admit to the group that you've never cared for your kids? Go ahead. Nobody will think badly of you.
The question itself isn't bad, and could start some interesting conversation, but the smirky bit at the end grates, and the book is plagued with these smug attempts at humor. You may very well come away from Read This Next having found a few unfamiliar books you'd like to read, but you'll also come away from it hating the authors and wanting to smack that smirk right off their faces. The failure mode of clever is indeed asshole, and that's precisely how Newman and Mittelmark come across here.

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