When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. It took a long time getting to “New York”; it seemed longer getting back. … As the train left the tunnel to rattle along the elevated tracks, I felt I was being jostled on a camel past the last way stations in the desert. Oh that ride from New York! Light came only at Sutter Avenue. First across the many stations of the Gentiles to the East River. Then clear across Brooklyn, almost to the brink of the ocean all our fathers crossed. All those first stations in Brooklyn – Clark, Borough Hall, Hoyt, Nevins, the junction of the East and West Side express lines – told me only that I was on the last leg home, though there was always a stirring in my heart at Hoyt, where the grimy subway platform was suddenly enlivened by Abraham and Straus’s windows of ladies wear. Atlantic Avenue was vaguely exciting, a crossroads, the Long Island railroad; I never saw a soul get in or out at Bergen Street; the Grand Army Plaza, with its great empty caverns smoky with dust and chewing-gum wrappers …
The amazing thing about this description of the New York subway circa 1928 from Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City is that 80 years later people still never get on or off at Bergen! Cancel Bergen! It must be because, if you’re going to that part of Flatbush, you’ll just take the Q.
I have a review of the new Kazin biography in the new LRB but you need a subscription and I’m happy to recommend instead… well, I was going to recommend Jed Perl’s piece in TNR, which I thought was very good, but it’s subscription only. Then I was going to recommend Edward Mendelsohn’s piece in the NYRB, which was odd but also very good—but that too is subcription only. Ho ha. In any case I was always going to recommend Brian Morton’s piece, here, and you don’t need a subscription. Sheesh.
A little-known fact about book reviewers is that every time a big new book comes out, they tacitly enter a Book Review Contest. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s truer of younger reviewers. When I was a younger, angrier reviewer, I always wanted to go up against the heavy hitters—to write about the same books. (This, incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why a big book will get reviewed by *everyone*, even when it seems like we all know already what’s in it, is one of the reasons.) Unfortunately you can’t ever tell in advance what the heavy hitters are going to review. (The heavy hitters in this case are The New Republic (TNR), Harper’s, the Atlantic, and sometimes the TLS and London Review of Books (LRB). The Nation falls in and out of the major leagues, depending. For various reasons I can’t go into here—but primarily because they’re so ecumenical—the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books (NYRB) don’t play.) So for example I’d be reviewing the new Victor Serge biography for Dissent, certain that everyone else was going to review it too—and then we’d see—only to find that no one else had in fact reviewed it. (Actually in that case the Weekly Standard reviewed it and called me a Stalinist. This led to one of the most remarkable email exchanges of my entire life. Really. If I’d had a tumblr then, oh how we would all have laughed and laughed.) Or, given that I wasn’t really in the loop of what was coming out—and back then, I mean six, seven, eight years ago, you really had to be in the loop—I’d review something too late. There’s a kind of time limit during which the Book Review Contest accepts entries (another reason the NYRB sometimes gets excluded).
The one time I actually managed to enter the contest as a young reviewer was when the James Atlas biography of Saul Bellow came out in 2000. I reviewed it for Feed. James Wood reviewed it for TNR, Lee Siegel for Harper’s, Paul Berman for the TLS. It was on! But of course Feed was online and no one really cared what you wrote online back then. Unlike now, my fellow bloggers!
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, just that you get everything in life too late. When I was 24 I was certain that I knew everything that was wrong with the literary world and if only people would listen to me! I could see more clearly than they. And in a sense that was really true. Now I’m finally able to enter the book reviewing contest officially but I no longer have any interest in reviewing books. And I don’t even care about winning. And you need a subscription to read every damn thing. I thought Jed Perl’s review was really good.