Most helpful critical review
39 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Good reviews but some seriously foolish pontification
on February 20, 2008
The New York Review of Books is somewhat of a mixed bag. If you have objections to pretentious pundits passing judgment on anything that comes their way, or are irritated by insipid intellectualia, there will be something in every issue to drive you crazy. But if you can get past that, you'll find some high quality writing about some of the most important new ideas out there.
As far as I can tell, the NYRB does two things. Sometimes it gets a great new book and sends it out to someone who is deservedly prominent in the field and then you get a wonderful combination of a recapitulation of someone's argument, a critical examination of this argument, and references to other related pieces. The other thing the NYRB does it get one of their usual suspects--freelance intellectuals, i.e., retired something-or-others, i.e., has beens--to write about whatever they want, whether they know much about it or not. So you will get preachy articles in foreign affairs written by someone who hasn't been out of Sardi's restaurant in Washington in 30 years, telling you what "the real scoop" is on country X. Except for those written by Gary Willis, these articles are usually sub-par, and those who read them aren't well informed--they're just regurgitating whatever is the received wisdom among the involuted circle of greying New York intellectuals that runs this paper. (The worst is reviews of biographies--watch out for the little footnote that goes something like this: "In the interests of complete honest disclosure, I must say that famous person, subject of this biography, always was chummy with your humble reviewer, and we once split a six pack of malt liquor while riding the rails across Wyoming." Oh please!)
But the reviews--and sometimes the debates--are usually stellar. I wonder why they don't just switch to all reviews. Of course, I bet some of those big names wouldn't be willing to write reviews--why, then they'd have to actually READ something they hadn't written, and they might come across a new idea. And actually, I do understand that. It is a lot of work to do a thoughtful and balanced review. And while people will always faun all over some pseudo-reportage with plenty of name-dropping flashbacks (oh my! he just let slip that he once smoked a cigar with Franco!), reviewing isn't always rewarded. I certainly know the hurt of spending a great deal of time on a serious review, and learning that "0 out of 5 people found this review helpful." Why bother? And it goes deeper--if you find something seriously problematic with some product, keep it to yourself! An honest review...or interference with interstate trade? Someone in the pocket of the company is likely to be the judge!