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12 books I should have reviewed last year: A critic’s lament

I ought never to have become a book reviewer. Aren’t critics supposed to resemble H.G. Wells’s Martians with their “intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic?” Instead, I’m a real softy, giving writers every possible break because I know how hard it is to produce even a so-so book. And then there’s the guilt: As 2021 ends, I can recall — to restrict myself to nonfiction — a dozen appealing biographies and works of history I meant to write about and, for one pathetic reason or another, didn’t. Let me confess some of these sins of omission.

Robert A. Gross’s “The Transcendentalists and Their World” (Farrar, Straus Giroux) focuses on two of my favorite writers — Emerson and Thoreau — but in the end, I just couldn’t face 864 pages of tiny type and all that minutiae about life in 19th-century Concord, Mass. Though stunning as historical re-creation, Gross’s book ultimately struck me as a work for American studies majors rather than general readers.

Something similar seemed true of Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter’s “The Making of the Bible: From the First Fragments to Sacred Scripture” (Harvard). I spent two of my four grad-school years studying late antiquity, so this account of scriptural canon formation attracted me more than a little. But I finally decided that it would only appeal to those readers — and I didn’t think there would be many — with a strong interest in early Jewish and Christian theological wranglings. Might I have been wrong about that? It would be pretty to think so.

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Twenty or so years ago, I reviewed two of W.G. Sebald’s melancholy, sui generis masterpieces, “Vertigo” and “Austerlitz.” Each of those pieces ran around 1,800 words. While Carole Angier’s “Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald” (Bloomsbury) would doubtless deepen my understanding of this German writer, would I actually write anything fresh and new? Just as likely, I’d simply use up my weekly allotment of 975 words telling people all over again why Sebald’s books matter.

Sad to say, this was also my excuse for skipping Richard Zenith’s “Pessoa” (Liveright), a 1,000-page biography of Fernando Pessoa, modern Portugal’s most original literary genius. Pessoa was best known for adopting multiple authorial identities and then writing in the differing styles of these “heteronyms.” Fascinated by his work, I’d once done considerable research on Pessoa for an essay pegged to his poetry and Zenith’s translation of the introspective journal-like “The Book of Disquiet.” Producing anything less now would simply feel unsatisfying.

Basic Books deserves all praise for publishing bothThe Library: A Fragile History,” by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen and The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts,” by Mary Wellesley. These are exactly the sort of engaging, ambitious works of scholarship that serious readers want to know about. Yet hadn’t several of my columns in 2021 been devoted to “books about books?” Despite the sweetness of the water, it seemed too soon to return to that well again.

After all, timing matters. Basilisks and Beowulf: Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon World,” by Tim Flight (Reaktion), appeared late in the year, otherwise it would have been perfect for this summer’s roundup of books devoted to mythological and fairy tale creatures. From just skimming Flight’s pages, I recognize a captivating scholarly companion to T.H. White’s “The Bestiary” and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Book of Imaginary Beings.”

I admit to being seriously tempted by Elizabeth L. Block’s “Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion” (MIT Press) just because I know nothing about haute couture. This handsomely illustrated, anecdotal volume illuminates the symbiotic relationship between late-19th-century Parisian fashion houses and their well-to-do American clients. Block, a senior editor for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s publication department, writes winningly, and I probably should have reviewed this after all.

Sophus Helle’s “Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic” (Yale) looks to be the last word on this Babylonian masterpiece. Still, much as I longed to revisit the exploits of the first superheroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it would be, as Mr. Spock used to say, “illogical.” I’d already reviewed an earlier “Gilgamesh” translation by David Ferry and produced a substantial piece about David Damrosch’s “The Buried Book: The Loss and Discovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh.” So, I reluctantly concluded, “Been there, done that.”

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I’ve never believed that Edith Piaf song about regretting nothing. Having once taught Robert Walser’s best-known novel, “Jakob von Gunten” — it’s mainly set in a school for butlers — I definitely planned to review Susan Bernofsky’s “Clairvoyant of the Small” (Yale), her biography of this eccentric Swiss German writer. I already owned many of his books, including Bernofsky’s recent translation of the “microscripts,” mini-essays scribbled in the mental asylum where Walser passed the second half of his life. Before tackling the biography, I consequently wanted to read through all or most of this material — and, suddenly, there just wasn’t time. Instead, I cravenly slunk away from the chance to learn more about this strange genius.

In retrospect, I was stupidly hasty about Mary Beard’s “The Twelve Caesars” (Princeton), which isn’t at all a modernized update of Suetonius’s gossipy biographical classic. A work of cultural and art history, it investigates numerous “images of power from the ancient world to the modern,” showing how later eras pictured, interpreted and repurposed what was known of Rome’s most famous emperors. Like all of Beard’s work, it is also a mesmerizing read, as I’ve discovered too late.

At first, I was feeling almost friskily eager to start the fourth volume of the late John Richardson’s life of Picasso, “The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943” (Knopf). And then I glanced at the back cover: There were seven reviewers of Volume 3 quoted, and my name wasn’t among them. It is unquestionably petty of me to feel dissed, but one tires of seeing hosannas from the same three New York-based periodicals while The Washington Post is overlooked. The possibility that my piece simply hadn’t been smart enough doesn’t bear thinking about.

But enough for now. No doubt 2022 will bring more wonderful books that I won’t be reviewing, but also — happily — at least a few that I will.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

Books Overlooked in 2021

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