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Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic Hardcover – July 1, 2011
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"Arthur Krystal does what only the best writers can do: provides you with a deeper appreciation of the things you already cared about, awakens you to the things you didn't know to care about, and--on the strength of his intelligence, wit, and erudition--manages to engage you with the things you were sure you never cared about. His essays, many of which are collected here, are among my favorite prose works in recent memory, bar none." - David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha and Other Stories
"Arthur Krystal is a writer whose essays I always want to read even when I'm not interested in their subjects - until I become interested by reading them. What makes those subjects interesting is Krystal's personal voice: sympathetic, alert, skeptical, comic, sometimes sharp, sometimes extravagant and with a sharply-focused moral intelligence. Duels, nights, writers, aphorisms, the Sixties: Krystal's latest and best book offers the pleasures of all of these and more." - Edward Mendelson, Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University
"[Krystal is] a friendly, learned and witty companion in this collection of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker or Harper's. The collection ranges as widely as Krystal's reading." - New York Times Book Review
"Arthur Krystal's latest, Except When I Write, may be his best yet, a hedging statement I make not in an attempt to dodge making a case for the book, but because greatness unmans us. I am humbled before Krystal's virtues: clarity, variety, levity, gravity and the single trait without which all others are beside the point-humanity." -- Wyatt Mason, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine; Senior Fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics & the Humanities at Bard College
"Except When I Write reflects the varied cultural interests of an intellectual son-of-a-gun. Krystal's essays and reviews are unfailingly lucid and balanced-to-a-T, as is customary for this writer (I would highly recommend this and his other two essay collections)." - The Arts Fuse
About the Author
Arthur Krystal has written for The New Yorker, Harpers, the American Scholar, the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. He is the author of The Half-Life of an American Essayist and Agitations: Essays on Life and Literature. The title essay of Except When I Write was selected for inclusion in the 2010 edition of Best American Essays. He lives in New York City.
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Entertaining is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose - there probably has to be an interest in this kind of essay in the first place before Mr. Krystal's work will resonate. I confess that even though I enjoy literary criticism, sometimes I feel as if I'm shortchanging myself by reading that instead of just reading the books that the essayist is critiquing. What blunts that feeling is when the critic or reviewer entices me to read authors whom I would have previously ignored, or to look at old subjects in a new way.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed EXCEPT WHEN I WRITE very much, I can't say Mr. Krystal's essays affected me in either of those two ways. Instead, most of them were simply short, smart discussions of a variety of subjects, using a recent publication as a focal point. As such, the book covers such topics as Nighttime, the 1930's, the 1960's, Poe's detective work, aphorisms, duels, and F. Scott Fitzgerald as a screenwriter. There are also two essays which extol the virtues of the poet and critic William Hazlitt and the cultural historian Jacques Barzun; and three essays which loosely fall under the heading of the book's subtitle, REFLECTIONS OF A RECOVERING CRITIC.
Actually, I believe that subtitle is a bit misleading - one could read that and think that the book was autobiographical. The last essay is, and I think the first could be looked at as a 'reflection', but the rest are 'reflections' in the sense that critics could all be said to be reflecting when they discuss their subjects. This doesn't detract from the book in any sense, unless one were eager to read Mr. Krystal's autobiography.
This is the third collection of essays that Mr. Krystal has published - I've also read his Agitations: Essays on Life and Literature, and while I enjoyed that one as well, I found EXCEPT WHEN I WRITE to be far more accessible. AGITATIONS contained essays which were downright opaque at times, while this last collection is geared less toward the philosophical and more toward general subjects. But in this collection as well as the earlier one, Mr. Krystal often has a lively point-counterpoint discussion about his subject, and brings information to the table that I find unique and interesting. That he does so in the manner one might expect a literate friend to communicate is also very gratifying. Recommended.
When I've been reading Krystal, much of what comes to my attention in the course of a day has me wondering if Krystal has ever written about it--and hoping he has. The essays here are wide-ranging, genial and amusing, which may not exactly characterize their author, who seems to cultivate certain curmudgeonly qualities, but which are most welcome to any reader.
There! Has Krystal ever written about the word "curmudgeon?" I wish he would. I'm certain Samuel Johnson would get him started...
Obviously, Krystal is not only a good writer, but an excellent reader as well, and he has a knack of making you glad he's read so much, which is not something I find in many writers.
This may be the best of Krystal's collected essays I have read. The temperament evoked is lucid, fair, and penetrating, and the choice of subjects - among them the aphorism, the Hollywood career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the duel, remembering the sixties - is always rewarding.
Reading these essays makes me feel better, which is another thing I don't get from most other writers.