The Merits of the London Review of Books

When I wake up too early on weekend mornings I frequently read interviews at the Paris Review.  Have you seen their interviews archive? You can read really cool interviews by any number of your favorite writers.  Borges, Heaney, Vendler, Vonnegut… the list goes on.  The interviews span 50 + years.  Want to learn about writing, the writing process, and the daily mechanics of being a writer?  There is no better resource than this.

Or else I read archived London Review of Books reviews, as I did this morning.  These are really terrific.  How can you get your ideas across tersely and clearly?  Read these reviews as models of good writing style.  I haven’t come across a poorly written review yet.  Why are these reviews particularly good models of writing?  Because they exemplify the ‘angles of vision’ in academic writing:  summary, paraphrase, analysis, argument (claim and support), close reading.

For example, I read a wonderful article by the late Bernard Williams.   I met him at Cal and he was a wonderful human being, one of the last gentleman scholars.  He wasn’t a stranger to tweed jackets.  And his eyes brightened when he spoke about morality, truth, or free speech. Then incumbent on his views, Richard Rorty reviewed Williams’s important book on truth.  I’m not much of a fan of Rorty but he wrote an interesting review, clear and precise, exhibiting the virtues of analytic philosophy.  Then, to continue, I read Rorty’s review of Scott Soames’s two-volumes on the history of twentieth century analytic philosophy.  Here, I think Rorty gets things right:  as important as Saul Kripke has been in contemporary philosophy (on necessary apriori propositions), the crucial debate centered on the correspondence theory of truth. Can a proposition isomorphically represent states of affairs in the world?  This was the bugbear question that haunted Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

It really is a splendid resource and so fun to re-read these archived reviews which are terribly well-written and even insightfully construed. Imagine that.  To be honest, I need that kind of jolt on mornings when I’m awake too early.   I need to be confronted (and comforted) with clear writing, as the Platonist needs to be acquainted with the purity of the Forms.  I need to know that clarity matters and that philosophical questions and the pith of our disturbed dreams matter in waking life.

In other words, I need to wake up with coffee and a good book review.  I need to know that we still live in a world in which honest and forthright criticism, in supplement to sound scholarship, truly matters to those who claim to be intellectually minded.  I need to know that with all of society’s anti-intellectualism those who sound the horn of intellectual debate, those who believe and trade in ideas,  well, I need to know that these things matter to people who are more like me, or to people I want to be like, than those who dismiss academic efforts as mere jibberish naivety.

All hail ideas!  Hurrah for my splendid coffee blend!  Hurrah for the jazz music that plays in the background or foreground of our present thinking!  And how thankful we must be for the London Review of Books!


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