Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix 1998 Nonfiction In Review

Public lives

By Charles Taylor

DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

1. The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown). A savvy and engaging collection of autobiographical essays. The centerpiece, which appeared in the New Yorker, is Beard's account of a day she left work early, the day a co-worker came to the office and killed her colleagues. It's a chilling, compassionate piece of writing. And it's a measure of how good this book is that that isn't even the best thing here. These memoirs of growing up, falling in and out of love, are completely bereft of self-involvement. The hard-won independence of this book is about finding your own, whatever it may be.


2. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, by Taylor Branch (Simon and Schuster). In the middle volume of his biographical trilogy of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Taylor Branch declares his ambition to encompass far more than just King's life -- his conviction is that King, more than any other figure or event, dominated and shaped American life from the mid '50s to the late '60s. You could say this is one of the greatest achievements in American biography. It's also an epic that shows every sign of being equal to the moral, emotional, and narrative complexity of the civil-rights struggle.


3. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973, by Robert Dallek (Oxford University Press). Another entry from a multi-volume biography. This second and concluding volume of Robert Dallek's relentlessly detailed biography of Lyndon Johnson contains more of that contradictory man than any other source has yet captured. Dallek has written history that has the unresolvability of great drama. It doesn't sing in the way that great dramatic writing does: Dallek writes plain, workmanlike prose, and he is never less than clear (a blessing to the reader, given the denseness of the dozen years he is writing about). LBJ emerges as the rare public figure who deserves to be called a tragic hero, certainly the man Ralph Ellison described as "the greatest American President for the poor and for Negroes."


4. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A masterpiece. Philip Gourevitch's reporting on the 1994 Rwandan massacre and its aftermath has been hailed as journalism raised to the level of literature. Only I didn't read any fiction this year that approached the depths of pity and terror Gourevitch's book does. He is not afraid of making fine distinctions or tough calls. And he never makes the crucial mistake too many writers fall prey to when dealing with genocide: he never banishes the inexplicable. If you don't think you can still be outraged by the failure of Western governments to intercede, by the failure of news agencies to report the story fully, or by the failure of aid organizations to distinguish between refugees and fugitives, read this. Gourevitch has written a deeply humane book about the blinkered limits of humanitarianism.


5. I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer (Random House). Sometimes God is in the details. But in the first volume of the diaries of Victor Klemperer, a professor of Romance languages, a Jew who lived through the years of Hitler's reign, it's the Devil who's in the details. Klemperer's diary entries, in which his growing sense of hopelessness and despair shares space with the most mundane details, is about the derangement of ordinary life. The book gives you what histories of the Nazi terror cannot: a sense that, amid it all a sort of recognizable, everyday life was still being lived -- which of course makes what happened all the more terrible. What could be more terrible than life lived in a culture that, by its nature, was anti-life? In a way it's the lack of drama that is so awful here. Without the last-minute escapes and sudden tragedies to which novels and movies set in this era have accustomed us, we're left with the grinding inexorability of a waking nightmare.


6. Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire, by Laurence O'Toole (Serpent's Tail). A piece of cultural criticism that gathers much of its strength from listening to the voices of fans, and because the author himself is one. Englishman Laurence O'Toole neatly sidesteps the flaws of the two main schools that have written on porn: the hissy-fit hysteria of Dworkin and MacKinnon, and the distaste expressed by the good liberals who defend porn only as an evil by-product of free speech. O'Toole is smart and witty in discoursing on how porn is imagined, manufactured, and used. And while puncturing many of the most persistent myths about porn (like the ridiculous notion of porn addiction), he makes a solid case about how the prosecution of porn has made for some of the most flagrant -- and uncontested -- violations of the right to free speech.


7. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, by David Remnick (Random House). We've all heard the story David Remnick relates here: young Cassius Clay's upset victory over Sonny Liston, and how the heroism he displayed outside the ring matched the showmanship he displayed within it when he refused the draft. But Remnick's book is a demonstration of how the most familiar stories can be freshly engaging when they're well told. He's a writer who allows the voices of others to rise to the surface and carry his tale. That empathy is beautifully expressed in the pity he extends the fearsome Sonny Liston and the respect he accords Floyd Patterson, a champ who carried his title as if it were a burden, certain someday he wouldn't be able to live up to it.


8. Letters and Profiles, by Kenneth Tynan (Random House). Finally published here after a long delay, the letters of the great British theater critic Kenneth Tynan offer the (not always flattering) personal side. But it is his passion for work that comes through, his conviction that theater should do nothing less than reflect, influence, and lead the tenor of the times, and his willingness to put himself on the line in defense of those claims. Even when he risks ridiculousness, his passion and commitment can make his critics (and other critics) look puny. The companion volume, Profiles, is a bittersweet memory of a time before the terms of journalistic profiles were dictated by publicists, agents, and the craven editors eager to accede to them, when such things as critical profiles were still possible. Profiles offers some of the greatest writing on actors and directors ever. Read it and weep for what "journalism" (and criticism) has become.


9. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester (Harper Collins). In this splendid, irresistible, oddball slice of history, Simon Winchester relates the fascinating tale of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. The prism through which he tells his story is that of the odd friendship the project gave rise to between the editor, Professor James Murray, and Dr. William Charles Minor, an American Army surgeon who contributed more than 10,000 definitions to the dictionary from his room at the Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Winchester, a superb historian because he's a superb storyteller, conjures the gaslight appeal of a Victorian thriller. The queer richness of the story is enhanced by the flawless clarity of the almost Victorian prose style that is Winchester's natural mode of expression.


10. The Starr Report (various editions). Included here in the belief that it isn't just good books that can change the world -- sometimes scurrilous, warped, duplicitous ones have the same potential. Kenneth Starr has accomplished what Democrats since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan have rarely even attempted: he has forced the right wing of American politics to show its true face and reveal its utter contempt for the Constitution or the will of the people, its complete lack of compunction about destroying anyone whose behavior it might disagree with. Whatever happens in the months to come, remember: the right wing of American politics is destroying itself, and for that we have Ken Starr to thank. May his days be merry and bright.


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