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.
Mendelsohn’s academic background is in the Classics (that is, the works of ancient Greece and Rome), so many of the essays are related, at least tangentially or thematically, to that field. Even with that focus, though, Mendelsohn still manages to cover a wide variety of art forms—novels, nonfiction, theater, opera, movies—and he extrapolates from narrow critical reviews to broader meditations on contemporary culture. The essays are never just about the ostensible subject, so even essays on subjects that are unfamiliar to me or that hold little interest for me held me in rapt attention. (While reading How Beautiful on the subway, I lost track on several occasions of where the train was and had to scramble upon suddenly realizing it had reached my stop.)
By now it should be obvious that I love Mendelsohn’s writing because I aspire to it; in my modest little way on my modest little blog, I try to be as insightful in my thinking and graceful in my expression as he is in The New York Review of Books. (For the record, I’m well aware of how far I fall short of that lofty model.) So let me stress that my admiration is not contingent on my agreement with his opinions. To the contrary, I think he is too hard on the Met’s recent production of Lucia di Lammermoor and not nearly hard enough on the movie 300, and I haven’t yet settled on how I feel about his interpretation of The Importance of Being Earnest.
But so what? Reading criticism merely for affirmation of one’s own opinions and prejudices is pathetic and ultimately unrewarding. I might not always agree with Mendelsohn, but he is provocative in the best sense: not rude or cruel but thought-provoking, challenging his reader to try on a new perspective. I might object to some of his points against Lucia, but I learned a lot from his essay, and I have new things to look for next time I see the opera. His love for Donizetti’s masterpiece made me want to marvel all over again at its fragile beauty.