Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The New Yorker, April 2

Alright, I received my April 2 New Yorker issue in the mail three days ago and I decided enough was enough. I am drowning in New Yorkers. I’ve been trying so hard to get through the books I’m reading that I simply haven’t had time to finish a single New Yorker since the end of February. This week’s New Yorker, which arrived a full five days earlier than it usually does, was the last straw. I am proud to say that, four days later, I have finally finished a complete New Yorker.

I decided to do something a bit different this week. Instead of reading the magazine front to back, which is what I usually do, I decided to read the articles in order of interest. So, I started with John Updike’s review of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein. In his own Picked Up Pieces, a collection of assorted prose, Updike lays out his own rules for writing reviews. One of those rules was:

Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

It’s a good thing that Updike admits to breaking his own rules because plot summary is exactly what he did with this review of Isaacson’s biography. Albert Einstein is such an iconic figure that it’s unlikely that the new biography is fraught with suspense and “surpiseful narrative.” Only those who have read the book (I haven’t) would know whether Isaacson sheads new and shocking light on Einstein’s life and if Updike knows it, maybe he’s following his own advice and not telling us. But if it’s unknown whether Isaacson has anything new to say about Einstein’s life, it’s certainly clear that Updike doesn’t.

I don’t see how this article could classify as anything other than an elegant summary. Updike neither provides a new theory or way of looking at the man, nor does he provide any illuminating comments on the biography itself outside of calling it “thorough, comprehensive, [and] affectionate.” One wonders if, for all of its elegance, this article would have even been accepted by the New Yorker if it hadn’t come with John Updike’s byline.