How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

By Daniel Mendelsohn. Published in 2008.

When people complain that blogs are lowering the level of critical discourse, I always take it kind of personally, which is stupid for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that this site is a poor excuse for a blog (too insular and infrequently updated). But even though I think it’s silly (not to mention offensive) to generalize about such a wildly diverse medium, I believe I understand what the Luddites are condemning. Lazy, glib, vicious, uninformed criticism does, in fact, proliferate on the Internet, but let’s be honest: that kind of dreck can be found everywhere. (I studied movie reviews in mid-tier newspapers as part of my master’s thesis—yes, really!—so I know of what I speak.)

The fact is that truly great criticism is a rare commodity, both online and on paper. Criticism that gives you something new to think about, criticism that both educates and entertains, criticism that inspires you to look at something familiar in a new way or to look at something new, period—that kind of writing is special, and it always has been.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing is definitely special. His new collection of essays, most of which were previously published in The New York Review of Books, showcases elegant and persuasive arguments, beautiful turns of phrase, and a deep understanding of his subjects. That alone would make How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken well worth reading, but what elevates the work to a higher level is Mendelsohn’s obvious passion for his subjects. He cares about contemporary interpretations of Tennessee Williams’s plays and what they might say about contemporary culture. He cares about well-meaning but misguided attempts to universalize the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain. He cares about cinematic dramatizations of the 9/11 terrorist attack, what they conceal and what they reveal. That caring is contagious, and what’s more, it immediately belies the nasty myth that an intellectual reading must be a cold one.