Tag Archives: steven d. smith

Second-half review

So, j’ai fini. The fifty-book challenge can finally, and mercifully, be laid to rest — not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I most certainly did. (And I’ll get to that in a later post: the ups, the downs, the profound life lessons learned. Things like that. Hint: purchases of $25 or more on Amazon.com get free shipping. This was crucial in making the fifty-book challenge less challenging financially.) It’s strange: these days I’m reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a lengthy novel I’d been putting off forever, and there’s absolutely no deadline for its completion. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to read without even a slightly gnawing sensation of panic.

Anyway, in adhering to tradition (by which I mean my solitary midpoint recap), please allow me to dole out the awards to best and worst of fiction and non-fiction, for my last twenty-five books. But first, a few statistics. On the year, I read thirty-five works by males and fifteen by females. (Believe it or not, this ratio actually improved in the second half of my challenge, with sixteen books by men and nine by women. I am ashamed. In my defense, most of my selections were culled directly from major publications’ book review sections, which are overwhelmingly biased towards male authors.) And although I considerably improved my fiction exposure (fifteen of my last twenty-five books, or sixteen if one counts the hopelessly naive polemic by Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope), I ended the challenge with an even split between fiction and non-, with twenty-five books apiece. I would go into further detail — divisions by nationality, book length in pages, median year published, etc. — but that would only serve to depress me and, even worse, would require actual research, which (as anyone who’s kept up with this blog should know by now) is the bane of my passively critiquing online existence.

Onward, then.

Best Non-Fiction Book: The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier

This feels a little like cheating. As a memoir, The Mystery Guest hovers somewhere between the realms of fiction (from which all memoirs take their cues) and fact (to which all memoirs purportedly aspire). But while the genre is ambiguous, the quality of the story, and the depth of feeling it achieves, is anything but. Grégoire Bouillier manages to capture, in the space of a tidy little book with a very skinny spine, the inner psychotic that rears its ugly head in all of us, given the right (wrong?) circumstances. In the case of Bouillier, this circumstance is his invitation to a birthday party of a woman he does not know, as the “mystery guest” of a former lover who had left him without explanation five years before. Perfectly depicting the protagonist’s — his own — frayed nerves amid the taut ambiance that builds throughout the party itself, Bouillier courageously unravels the mysteries of his mind, laying bare his insecurities and thus affording grateful readers an eerily familiar reminder of the sheer insanity of romance.

Honorable mention: Unfortunately, none.

Best Fiction Book: The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer

Perhaps it’s the gleeful manner with which Adam Langer mocks every aspect of the publishing industry. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that, in getting such literary bunk published, Langer’s distaste for editors’ discernment was vindicated by his novel’s very existence. But whatever the reasons, The Thieves of Manhattan is at once a laugh machine and a sober inspection of the challenges facing modern writers in a shifting publishing landscape. Employing a niche jargon so drenched in industry particulars that he includes a glossary at the end, Langer hilariously documents the commercialization of literature, a transformation that has placed the works of ex-cons and Pulitzer Prize winners on the same bookshelf at the local Barnes & Noble. Clearly, Langer is a man more amused than outraged at the rapidly disappearing distinction between novels and non-fiction, and he references numerous hoaxes, forgeries, and plagiarisms within his own novel. It may be that Langer, exhausted by high-minded denunciations of authorial appropriation, decided that the best rebuttal was to mirthfully engage in the practice himself. For this, The Thieves of Manhattan won’t snag him a Pulitzer Prize, but it will provide his readers with a basic, and far more useful, reward: a most enjoyably clever story.

Honorable mention: The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli; and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith

This may come as a bit of a surprise, since I was not unkind to Steven D. Smith in my review of his book. But my own brand of disenchantment is owing not to lack of substance but of style: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is, quite bluntly, not that interesting. Smith’s particular axe to grind revolves around a practice he calls “smuggling:” the influence of moral judgments on public dialogue despite their conspicuous absence as explicitly delineated premises. In the author’s view, this results in a disingenuous conversation: the participants cannot help but unconsciously draw on their individual belief systems but are prevented, through a collective desire for credibility among peers, from admitting these principles’ central role. The concept of “smuggling” is an intriguing one, but The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (as suggested by the title itself) is, to put it lightly, an extremely dry analysis of its effects. Really, though: thumbs up for the idea.

Dishonorable mention: Once again, I didn’t read any particularly horrible non-fiction books in the second half. It was, overall, a steadily decent non-fiction batch (without many outliers) this time around.

Worst Fiction Book: One Day, by David Nicholls

David Nicholls likely deserves better from me. It’s not exactly fair for a beach read to be judged as a Serious Book. Then again, One Day was once reviewed in The New York Times. As Spiderman’s uncle once explained, not unkindly, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Mr. Nicholls, I do hope your film adaptation of the book does well at the box office, since (as I mentioned in my earlier review) that was clearly the objective you had in mind the entire time. There is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that books written as screenplays tend to exhibit, well, diminished literary value. And I don’t think I’m being cruel here. The driving concept of the book — a peek, on the same calendar day of each successive year, at a pair of mutually-obsessed protagonists — is better suited for straight-to-TV fare than for serious dissection. But read it I did, and skewer it I must. One Day is probably not so bad when the only alternatives are celebrity gossip mags and racy tabloids. People Magazine he is not, but neither is he Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. John Grisham, then?

Dishonorable mention: Tinkers, by Paul Harding; and If You Follow Me, by Malena Watrous

I’m still not quite finished with this blog. There’s definitely one more post coming, at the very least. Keep checking back!

#27: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse

In The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, author Steven D. Smith discusses a practice he dubs “smuggling.” He explains the term thusly: “Our modern secular vocabulary purports to render inadmissible notions such as those that animated premodern moral discourse…But if our deepest convictions rely on such notions, and if these convictions lose their sense and substance when divorced from such notions, then perhaps we have little choice except to smuggle such notions in the conversation — to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

Smith then purports to debunk classic modern examples of jurisprudence or governing philosophy as embodying just this sort of intellectual hijacking, or smuggling. Stating that “conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling,” Smith then attempts to display how these logical implications play out in real-life applications.

Shining an inquisitive light on some of our more revered (e.g. the harm principle) and controversial (e.g. end-of-life decisions) principles, Smith works to show the ways in which their public expression has been abbreviated by the conspicuous lack of transcendental foundations (be they religiously based or otherwise). Unfortunately, while these embodiments of his theory are convincing at times, Smith is noticeably reticent to provide any neat solutions. In the book’s last paragraph, he alludes to their absence, writing, “And so, in the end, it seems that the only general prescription that can be offered is, once again, the seemingly bland recommendation of…openness.”

Openness in the lexicon of Smith means to allow those “inadmissible notions” to join their logical conclusions in the realm of public dialogue. However, even as he argues for their inclusion, he appears reluctant to embrace this broader conversation wholeheartedly. “There is a risk that a more open conversation may be acrimonious,” Smith acknowledges. “Even so, that sort of conversation is ultimately more respectful of the participants. More respectful and also, potentially, more productive and substantial: that is because we will be talking about what we really believe.”

Whether Smith is right remains to be seen. The left and the right appear to be diverging more quickly now than ever before, and this political dichotomy is only one of many fault lines dotting the mottled landscape of public conversation. Openness as a societal antibiotic, or as an unnecessarily opened can of worms? Let the debate begin, Smith would say, but at the very least let us be honest about how we choose our sides.