James Bowman's review of The Trust (Book World, Oct.18) by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones is every author's nightmare -- not simply because it is so unfair but because it faults the authors for not writing the kind of book the reviewer desired to read. (Full disclosure: I know the authors.)
As far as one can tell, Bowman wanted to read a book about the history of the New York Times, told in a factual and inert way, with the primary emphasis on the institution rather than on the people who controlled it for over a century. Of course, the book's subtitle -- "The Private and Powerful Lives Behind the New York Times" -- should have alerted Bowman to the fact that The Trust was not the book for him. No matter, he complains. The reviewer brands the authors' focus on the Ochs and Sulzberger families "as a vulgar fascination with the rich and powerful." What he so negligently fails to mention is that the Ochs-Sulzberger clan was one of the most powerful and influential families in 20th-century American history.
Ironically, Bowman's charge is itself vulgar, if only because it appeals to the commonplace desire to compress and simplify history, and to recount it as objective data free from the subjective influence of the human condition. So too, Bowman criticizes the "sloppy" and "problem[atic]" writing style in The Trust. The charge -- supported by nebulous claims and a solitary nit-pick -- is surprising, to put it kindly. A fair reading of the book finds the weave rich, the characterizations precise, the context always present, and the facts uniquely well-researched.
Finally, James Bowman, for all his purported concern with the history of the New York Times, fails to note a remarkable fact discussed and detailed in The Trust. I refer to the way the paper under-reported the Holocaust. Bowman elected not to remark on this remarkable fact . . . perhaps because it is one that so clearly reveals how the history of the Times was defined by the families behind it.
RONALD K.L. COLLINS
James Bowman responds:
Mr. Collins should not be allowed to get away with suggesting that "factual" equals "inert" or that writing about people, even in their private lives, requires an author to repeat gossip or to engage in amateur psychologizing. Such intimations are almost as disingenuous as the inference that I am such a fool as to suppose that history ought to be only "objective data free from the subjective influence of the human condition." I can assure Mr. Collins that I hold no such opinion. Nor does it seem quite fair of him to fault me for failing to mention a fact so obvious as that the Ochses and Sulzbergers are very powerful and influential, or any given detail, however important, in a book of over 800 pages, or for failing to provide in 1,100 words enough examples of over-writing to satisfy a friend of the authors.
I enjoyed Dore Ashton's review of the new Balthus biography (Book World, Oct. 24). We're told that, at age 40, Balthus began calling himself Count Balthazar Kossowksi de Rola, and today claims descent from the last Polish king.
Interesting pedigree, but we should not forget that, according to Thomas Harris, Balthus is also kinsman to that celebrated American psychiatrist and all 'round bon vivant, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
In Harris's newest novel, Hannibal, on page 287, we are told that Dr. Lecter "treated himself to a week of music and museums in New York, and sent catalogs of the most interesting art shows to his cousin, the great painter Balthus, in France."
Wonder if they get together at family reunions?
Guys and Disguise
Robert Hass writes a delightful column, but even the best can nod. From the Oct. 31 Poet's Choice: " `Poor Tom's a-cold' is Kent's line from `King Lear,' when he follows the king onto the moor, dressed as a mad beggar."
Kent's line and disguise? No, Edgar's. And he's a-wandering on the moor before Lear is.
An Ear on the Andes
In his translation of Cesar Vallejo's poem "Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca ," Robert Hass (Book World, Nov. 28) has chosen to "ignore the grammatical strangeness" of the poem. I think, rather, that the ungrammatical language is intentional, as is Vallejo's use of the words "huesos humeros" for the bones of his arms. My feeling is that the poet speaks in this poem like the people he grew up with in a remote Andean town. This is probably the language that a campesino or someone with little formal education would use and the one Vallejo adopts to voice his sense of displacement.
AMALIA F. CABIB
Out of Place
In her review of Edward Said's Out of Place (Book World, Nov. 7), Jill Kerr Conway writes that Said's book was attacked prior to publication by "militant Israelis" who view the man and his memories as "political dynamite." Though her characterization calls to mind a pack of zany fundamentalists, I assume that Conway refers to the recent article in Commentary by Justus Reid Weiner, which questions the veracity of what Edward Said says about his background.
But is it militant to inquire whether what a prominent scholar-activist says about his life is true? Put another way, had a reporter for The Washington Post uncovered falsehoods in a politician's memoir, he would be celebrated, not derided as a militant. Memoirists are supposed to tell the truth. So are scholars. Jill Kerr Conway is both. But what is it about this controversy that makes Conway disparage those who are trying to establish the facts?
After the Fall
Over years, Lilia Shevtsova and I have disagreed frequently and sometimes publicly, yet I find Abraham Brumberg's review of her Yeltsin's Russia (Book World, Nov. 14) a biased, mean-spirited hatchet job and an insult to a colleague.
Dr. Shevtsova had tried -- clearly, with uneven success -- to convey and think through the enormous complexities and ambiguities of the Russian post-communist transition under Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Brumberg, in essence, takes her to task for not producing a crude anti-Yeltsin caricature, while telling the reader very little about the book he is pretending to be reviewing.
It is, of course, Abraham Brumberg's right to hate, with passion, Boris Yeltsin and post-communist Russia, but it is unfair to your readers (and offensive to authors whose work he misrepresents) for him to use book reviews to indulge his loathing.
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Abraham Brumberg replies:
My review of Lilia Shevtsova's Yeltsin's Russia is no doubt open to criticism, But Mr. Aron does rather go over the top. "Biased, mean-spirited hatchet job" taking to task the author "for not producing a crude anti-Yeltsin caricature," written with "hate," "passion" and "loathing" -- come now, Mr. Aron! Since I myself am not given to writing "`caricatures" (at least I don't think I am), it is absurd to charge me with demanding that others do so. I want to assure Mr. Aron that while I may indeed dislike Yeltsin, I do not hate or loathe either Shevtsova or "post-communist Russia" -- or, for that matter, my critics.
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