From Publishers Weekly
Kimball, a respected critic and managing editor of the New Criterion, applies the pornography standard to intelligence in this collection of essays about famous men and their smarts: it's hard to define, but he knows it when he sees it. "Intelligence," Kimball writes, "like fire, is a power that is neither good nor bad in itself but rather takes its virtue, its moral coloring, from its application." Among the figures the author identifies as having constructively applied their intelligence are Plutarch (who taught us about character), Kierkegaard ("the supreme anatomist of the aesthetic mode of life"), Wittgenstein (for whom philosophy was an "existential imperative") and, of course, Descartes. (Apparently, real intelligence requires a Y chromosome). Kimball notes that in these studies the heroes "rather outweigh the villains," but a little more abuse might have helped liven things up. The personal bits-Kimball's sickbed discovery of Wodehouse, or Trollope's account of his schoolyard woes-stand out brightly in essays that are earnest and rigorous, if occasionally a bit dry.
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One of the best kinds of writing about writing--criticism, literary history, and all that--is the cultural review article, short enough to be read in a sitting and long enough to educate. Kimball is a master of the genre, as collections of his pieces attest, none more impressively than this set concerned with philosophers, political commentators, two novelists, and one artist--modern, post-Enlightenment figures, most of them; the exceptions are the Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch and that forefather of modern philosophy, Descartes. Kimball customarily begins a piece with some characterizing remarks about the figure at hand, proceeds to a little biography, and then comments on the subject's writings and what others have said and written about him. Kimball likes most of his subjects, and when he doesn't, as in the cases of Hegel and Bertrand Russell, he is fastidious about stating why; not for him the malicious squelch or iron-fisted put-down. As for the leitmotiv of this book, the expression of intelligence, Kimball acknowledges it in all his subjects, but discriminates among them according to his preferences for common sense, custom, traditional religion, the cardinal virtues, and the enjoyment of present pleasures, and against ideology, revolution, materialism, expediency, and utopian promises. His essay on the least-known figure here, Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-94), is not to be missed. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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