Review — From the December 2007 issue
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Review — From the December 2007 issue
If it were your wish, however, to try to learn what critical care and thought demand—if you were seeking to cultivate your own thoroughness as a reader, whether you be a silent critic or a noisy one already delivering opinions in print—I submit that you could do far worse than to begin with a field trip to a town in Massachusetts called Manchester-by-the-Sea. If the name is charming, I should say the town is not so very; rather, it is the sort of place to which one’s grandparents might hope to retire comfortably if they had the means. There is, however, an enlivening feature of the town that could incline you to a longer stay: a shop with the punny name Manchester by the Book. That it is an attractive used-book shop of the kind we see less and less makes it a nice place to pass an hour. That it has in a glass case, among assorted pricey rarities, scores of John Updike’s review copies might be cause to loiter.
In the forty-nine years since Updike’s first collection of poetry, The Carpentered Hen, appeared in 1958, amid the fifty-nine books that have followed—six subsequent poetry collections, five children’s books, one memoir, a play, fifteen collections of stories, and twenty-two novels—there also have been eight collections of essays. Although it is the novels and stories that have kept Updike a household name for fifty years, in undertaking what he calls his “daily exertions” Updike has also been generating essays that cover a hodgepodge of topics: art, golf, health, fashion, media, America, and others still. The essays alone run to nearly five thousand pages. Of these volumes, the six largest have been devoted mostly to a single subject—books—three hundred signed reviews of which have appeared in The New Yorker. (Updike also wrote dozens of unsigned reviews for that magazine’s “Briefly Noted” section, including an anonymous review of Nicholson Baker’s U & I—a memoir of its author’s infatuation with the book’s eventual reviewer.) All told, Updike has published more than a million words on books.
The entry points for those exertions have been the countless paperback promotional copies sent out for his consideration. Updike has sought various strategies for dealing with this bounty. He has, it is said around Manchester-by-the-Sea, given review copies away to his church, for the book sale. Others have been handed off to the wives of the men with whom he golfs. But those copies on deposit at Manchester by the Book were, as he told the Boston Globe, “just collecting dust and mouse droppings” in his cellar and his barn before he sold them for “a fair price.”
Thus, you can sit on a couch in the store and open (until it sells, of course) Updike’s copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. A penciled “ugh” greets the reader in the margin of page 12 adjoining the line “Inman was shaking his head so hard his jowls were lagging behind his chin and flopping around.” On the same page, the pencil pinpoints the phrase “an extraordinary pounding,” and then notes, supra, “clichés—a semi cliché in every sentence.” Yet that same reader’s pencil, so peeved so soon, does not fail to fit a “good” onto page 531 beside a description (“He surveyed the tiny red eyes and all the mangy faces looking at him”); or, on page 552, to tag a sartorial catalogue of some length with a “beautiful.” And in Updike’s galley of Gain, by Richard Powers, one notes a ballpoint-penned “awful” pinned to the phrase: “For over a century, Clare laid countless clutches of eggs whose gold only the niggling would stoop to assay”; whereas, nearby, a passage of reportage earns an approving “what a trick!,” and an epigram soon thereafter—“Funerals are for the living, to punish them for all that they’ve failed to do for the dead”—nets a tidy “ha.” A peppering of “ha”s, in fact, in pencil and various tints of pen, season the once-bland margins of many of Updike’s uncorrected proofs; Norman Rush’s Mortals, say, in which its 700-plus pages are stung with spidery tattoos—“graceless sentence,” “good,” “run on,” “good,” “a talky style,” “‘angel-tits,’ cloying,” “‘worse for war’—pun!,” “do we need this?,” “dithering,” “is this too blunt or excellent?”—not to say corrections, even to the novel’s final page, where a forgotten “in” has been planted with a caret.
To peruse copies of books that Updike read with the intention of reviewing—including Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; Alice Munro’s Selected Stories; Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin; Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex; and many others—is to meet a reader who, in a most inarguable way, is a picture of thoroughness. The margins run with comments, even in appendices, even by footnotes. “I read slower than I write,” Updike wrote, rather amazingly, in 1975, suggesting that these annotative efforts represent a substantial investment of time. If criticism is, as Terry Eagleton has said, a way of “looking at meaning not as an object but as a practice,” then one can see in Updike’s review copies the humble, rudimentary motions of that practice. As often as not, his marginalia may be seen doing one of the most immediate jobs of criticism, which is to distinguish, however arbitrarily, good things from bad. And yet, in the main, Updike may be spied undertaking a more considered task: that of interrogation. The form of punctuation that predominates in his margins is the question mark. What one is witness to is a patient reader’s private conversation with a book.
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