The Nuttiness of Publishing, Darwin, Linear B, How Sex Changed, Night in the Middle Ages–and much more

By Benjamin Schwarz

Fall is the most important season in the book business: From the Monday after Labor Day until close to Thanksgiving, the biggest books by the biggest writers and the most promising debut novels of the year relentlessly spew forth. Almost all will fade; each year sees fewer than a dozen extraordinary critical and popular successes. And every author knows that he or she is engaged in a zero-sum game: readers have limited time, and most of them have limited book-buying budgets, so if they are spending hours and money on one writer’s book, they are almost certainly ignoring another’s. The competition this year is especially severe, owing to the anniversary of 9/11. Publishers knew the somber commemorations would leave no room on the Today show for author interviews and would divert attention from book reviews—so the fall season starts late, the week of September 17. Most galling for writers is that to a large extent the game has been decided long before their books are in the stores. Publishers, of course, don’t distribute advertising and marketing budgets evenly among their titles—they bet on the surest things and the sexiest subjects; at sales conferences in the spring they decide which books have the best chance of breaking out in the fall. The rest are pretty much left to die—no ads in major newspapers, no national author tours. During the summer, sales reps report which fall titles have won over booksellers across the country, further refining the list of titles the publishers will push. By late summer the trade journals—Publishers WeeklyKirkus Reviews, and Library Journal—have nominated the upcoming season’s winners and losers, which greatly influences which books, and how many of them, bookstores and libraries will order. By summer’s end the cognoscenti in New York have already decided which fall titles to anoint with elaborate author profiles in The New York Times (the only paper that matters in the publishing world) and other publications. This seemingly idiosyncratic sanctification alone can explain the reams of flattering attention devoted to the Yale law professor Stephen Carter, which helped to propel his stilted, swollen, and predictable novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, onto best-seller lists. We don’t want to tell you which books will be the hot books. Rather, we want to tell you which to read—and which to ignore.



Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Knopf, 627 pages, $37.50

The second and concluding volume of Browne’s life of Darwin covers the publication and reception of On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s subsequent fame, and the gestation and writing ofThe Descent of Man. It is a masterpiece. At once wide-ranging and tightly woven, The Power of Place is as profound an intellectual history of Victorian Britain as has ever been written; an incisive consideration of Darwin’s mind, personality, marriage, and tragic family life; and an elegant exegesis of his ideas, influence, and literary style and technique. Browne took on an enormously ambitious project, and only an astonishingly skillful writer and a masterly historian could have pulled it off. She has.

The Man Who Deciphered Linear B
by Andrew Robinson
Thames & Hudson, 168 pages, $19.95

The decipherment of the Mycenaean script known as Linear B, inscribed on clay tablets discovered at Knossos and Pylos, was probably the most significant development in twentieth-century classical archaeology. Robinson reconstructs that elaborate code-breaking process with precision—or, rather, with as much precision as possible, given that he stresses the role intuition played. What makes this book so intriguing, though, is its depiction of the code breaker. Michael Ventris, the epitome of the gentleman scholar (he was an architect by training and profession), was a sweet, sad genius, and Robinson touchingly chronicles his life-long obsession with those mysterious clay tablets.

Napoleon and Wellington
by Andrew Roberts
Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $27.00

Books about Napoleon should, as Orwell said of saints, be judged guilty until proved innocent; the world needs many things, but not another pass at the Little Corporal—to whom more ink has been devoted than to probably any other historical figure except Jesus Christ. But Roberts, one of Britain’s most talented and stylish young historians (his sparkling biography of Lord Salisbury still, alas, lacks a U.S. publisher), has written a brilliant work—an astute examination of Napoleon and Wellington’s military rivalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, a subtle and revealing character study of the two commanders, and a penetrating look at their evolving historical reputations and complex relationship (they shared, among other things, two mistresses).

Paris 1919
by Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 560 pages, $35.00

This study of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, written for the general reader, will—you’ll see—get a lot of favorable critical attention. But bland and bloated (with a foreword by the appropriately superficial and self-important Richard Holbrooke), it falls between two stools. It’s neither as entertaining and revealing as Harold Nicolson’s irreverent and elegant (if somewhat dated) popular history Peacemaking 1919 nor as intellectually sparkling as Arno J. Mayer’s commanding and controversial scholarly books Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking andPolitical Origins of the New Diplomacy. Better to read Nicolson for entertainment or Mayer (or such specialized studies as Lorna Jaffe’s The Decision to Disarm Germany and Piotr Wandycz’s France and Her Eastern Allies) for discerning scholarship.

Night in the Middle Ages
by Jean Verdon
University of Notre Dame Press, $25.00

“What was it like in the Middle Ages when darkness was nearly unbroken from the setting to the rising of the sun?” To answer this question Verdon mines his sources with dexterous imagination as he elucidates an extraordinarily wide swath of medieval life, from crime to sexuality to architecture to religion.

Sullivanesque: Urban Architecture and Ornamentation
by Ronald E. Schmitt
University of Illinois Press, 368 pages, $60.00

Through elaborate text and photographs this book helps to define the distinct look of the urban Midwest by examining the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century aesthetic of the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and his disciples and imitators. Schmitt traces the development of a commercial midwestern architectural and decorative style, at once solidly handsome and sprightly, that is embodied as much in the banks and stores of Wisconsin and Minnesota downtowns as in Chicago’s celebrated Carson Pirie Scott and Auditorium Buildings.

How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States
by Joanne Meyerowitz
Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $29.95

This unusually intelligent and straightforward cultural history (the topic virtually demands obfuscatory, PC-laden jargon) convincingly shows that our coming to view “biological sex”—the physical markers of femininity and masculinity—as malleable rather than immutable constituted one of the most profound moral, social, legal, and medical changes in twentieth-century America.

Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500-1800
by Raffaella Sarti
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $29.95

This vivid book takes readers through the daily life of European families at every economic level over three centuries. Sarti is a nosy guide: she barges into the houses of the past and shows us who hired a wet nurse and why, how often men changed their shirts, what toilets were like, how underwear fashions evolved, what kinds of soup people ate and when they ate it. With keen intelligence she explains what these facts reveal about relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. The publisher has recently issued a number of important, specific studies on the history of European family life, but this book, with its clear writing and wealth of arresting details, will fascinate and beguile the general reader.

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam 1862
by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $50.00

September 17, 1862, the day Union and Confederate forces fought at the Battle of Antietam, is the bloodiest day in American history. More than 6,000 Americans were killed—well more than twice the number lost on D-Day. The battle was also the political and diplomatic turning point of the Civil War. McPherson’s latest book (its publisher’s lead title for the fall season) is a slim account of the battle that does little harm but little good, and hardly justifies its marketing campaign—which seems designed to synergize Civil War and 9/11-anniversary solemnity. Those looking for a detailed, dramatic, and authoritative narrative of Antietam will be far better off reading Stephen W. Sears’s Landscape Turned Red.


Literary Studies

London Perceived
by V.S. Pritchett, photographs by Evelyn Hofer
David R. Godine, 224 pages, $19.95

Pritchett’s graceful and elegiac portrait of London, its history, architecture, literature, and daily life, originally published in 1962, is finally back in print. I’ve never read a more penetrating or lovelier book on the city. The author, the most accomplished English critic of the second half of the twentieth century, concludes that London is above all a city of conversation, conversation that is “light, sociable, discursive, enquiring … and is regarded as a relaxation and not as a means to an end.”

Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth
edited by Richard R. Lingeman
Library of America, 1346 pages, $40.00

The publisher has already issued the definitive texts of Lewis’s greatest novels, Main Street and Babbitt, and with this volume readers now have easy access to all the author’s important works from his most creative period, 1920-1930. Through their ceaseless, precise detail these books capture bourgeois midwestern life—its speech, its houses, its gadgets, its caste marks, its stultifying social rounds. Lewis’s absorption in this milieu made him able, as E. M. Forster marveled, “to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination.”

The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939
by John Carey
Academy Chicago Publishers, 246 pages, $16.95

In this reprint of his seminal, disturbing, and excoriating 1992 study, Carey argues that modernist literature is founded on an almost murderous loathing of common men and women. His argument is at times overdrawn, but Carey’s assessment of Pound’s, Joyce’s, Woolf’s, and Eliot’s crude and unconscionable detestation of the newly educated reader is chilling, and his intricate dissection of the relationship between politics and aesthetics—along with his clean and scintillating style—should serve as a model for literary historians and cultural critics.

The Immortal Dinner
by Penelope Hughes-Hallet
Ivan R. Dee, 360 pages, $27.50

Whereas MacMillan’s Paris 1919 takes a large subject and reveals little new about it, Hughes-Hallett’s book examines a small topic—a single London dinner party in 1817, which included William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb—to illuminate an entire world. This discursive and lively book uses the party’s conversation (which was recorded in great detail in the host’s diary) to elucidate not only the personalities and work of the writers but also such subjects as surgical techniques, the London theater, and African exploration.

Vera Brittain
by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge
Northeastern University Press, 581 pages, $24.95

This exhaustive but trenchant biography limns Brittain’s heartbreaking transformation from shallow jingoist in the First World War to committed pacifist in the Second—and thus, like Brittain’s own memoirs, is as much a portrait of a generation as of an artist. With great sensitivity the authors focus on the central struggle in Brittain’s professional life (and in that of many women writers): the effort to reconcile the attractions of domesticity and marriage with those of solitude and independence.


Current Affairs

High and Mighty
by Keith Bradsher
PublicAffairs, 464 pages, $28.00

Bradsher, The New York Times‘s Detroit bureau chief for five years, examines the environmental, economic, and—most important—safety problems created by sport-utility vehicles. An intelligent reader will conclude from this meticulous and sober investigation that the makers of these behemoths have exploited a lucrative market of self-regarding urban and suburban consumers who care not a whit that by driving such menacing and wasteful machines they are committing a horrendously antisocial act.

Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11
by Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pages, $26.00

The author, the foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times, occupies the same position in the cultural and political landscape as that once held by Walter Lippmann—which will confirm for any independent-minded person that our civilization has utterly collapsed. Friedman’s latest book, a collection of his columns, displays his peculiar propensity to be at once hokey and pretentious (a typical column takes the form of a memo to “The Arab Street”—a phrase signaling that the conventional wisdom is sure to follow—from “President Bill Clinton”). Friedman says in twelve words (“This book is the product of my own personal journey of exploration”) what a competent writer could say in—actually, wouldn’t say at all. What’s worst about this book’s publication, though, is the sickening display of mutual ingratiation on Charlie Rose that will, inevitably, kick off its promotional campaign.

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