February 19, 2006

Anything for Publicity

I'm beginning to think that Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of the NYT Review of Books is trying consistently to find people with axes to grind to review books for him. (Actually, I know this is true—check this out.)

Although nearly everyone panned Mo Dowd's book Are Men Necessary, the NYTRoB's choice to do the hatchet work was Katherine Harrison, whom Dowd has mocked in her column. Then there was the ridiculous front page review of Bernard Henri-Levy's American Vertigo by Garrison Keillor, who showed off the ugly side of American pride for all interested parties (including Christopher Hitchens and the author himself).

Now, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic takes on Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon. Guess what, it's not laudatory. Wieseltier's major literary accomplishment is Kaddish, an autobiographical account of his coping with his father's death through religious ritual and study. In other words, exactly the kind of person who will be affronted by the idea of a philosopher telling us that religion may be nothing more than what Wieseltier used it for—a coping mechanism, an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to delegate certain weights and responsibilities to supernatural agents or essences. (And the Times not only acknowledges, but revels in this fact!)

I'm currently reading Breaking the Spell (in hopes of getting around to a review of it myself), and Wieseltier is simply unfair. He goes after Dennett for self-congratulation when all I can find is affability; he tries to break down Dennett's arguments without realizing that Dennett's project is more a road map to future answers than an authoritative pronouncement. Wieseltier is so horribly off-base that he even tries to portray David Hume as a theist (what next, Bertrand Russell as a closet Catholic?). Honestly, I really can't critique Wieseltier point by point because he must have read a different book than the one on my desk.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't give reviews to people with a bone to pick with the author or who have nothing but animus for the author's project. This is a good way to sell copy but a bad way to give an honest account of a book's merit. If Tanenhaus wants to court controversy, he should at least have the decency to also include at least a brief objective review of the book in question alongside the snarky pseudo-review.

More: Philosophy prof Brian Leiter has a thorough fisking of Wieseltier's review. I'm really kind of embarrassed for Wieseltier. He gets his ass handed to him.


  1. Anonymous8:40 AM

    Check out Owen Flanagan's response to Wieseltier:


  2. Anonymous12:46 PM

    It's one thing to print reviews that are all venom but considering what the NY Times Book Review has been in the past, some bite may be a welcome development. Consider how many books by public intellectuals have received the most avuncular reviews. Case study: Fareed Zakaria reviews The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and lobs virtually no criticism against his Panglossian neo-liberalism, but probably secures his professional friendship--maybe Tom took him out to lunch afterwards? Order the fois gras, Fareed! Mmm! Intellectuals like to fellate each other to get ahead, and book reviews are a great way to do it. I say good job Sam Tanenhaus for shaking things up and doing a small part to dissolve the smug chumminess that encourages weak thought among the Community of Thinkers.

  3. I agree, but this does not really change what I said. It is one thing to assign a writer who will be critical of the ideas behind the book, but it is an entirely different thing to court controversy by choosing writers who have a personal grievance against the very idea of the book. And it is entirely inexcusable to assign people who have virtually no understanding of the fields covered by the book.

    Also, I was not suggesting that the NYT not run these type of hack-jobs, just that they also provide a genuine review of the book alongside it. It really pisses me off that some people may not read Dennett's book because Wieseltier doesn't understand evolution.

    Of course, this controversy may raise Dennett's publication numbers, which would be a great thing in my mind.