He who laughs last probably answered first

Write a blog long enough, and your family and friends will become content scouts.  

My husband handed me his May 3 issue of The Christian Century (respected, but not generally regarded as a laugh riot). Indicating the item “Preliminary Thoughts”, he predicted I’d love the quotation cited by Alan Jacobs in his forthcoming The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, it outlines a succinct rating system for books:   

For an adult reader the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

My snickers of appreciation for that dead-on summation eventually gave way to envy.  If Auden and his ilk hadn’t already produced so many repetition-worthy statements, wouldn’t it be easier for the rest of us to come up with something original?  Imagine sharing an elementary school classroom with Auden.  You really wouldn’t want to be the one called to answer a question after Mr. Quotable; the standard “That’s what I was going to say” just isn’t believable in such cases.  

Other Auden gems:

  • A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.

  • A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.

  • No good opera can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.

  • Between friends differences in taste or opinion are irritating in direct proportion to their triviality.

Admirable as Auden’s 5-point system is, it sadly precludes the necessity for critics’ inventive judgments.  Sure, I could breeze through a journal’s worth of book reviews in an hour if they were all ranked 1-5, but then I’d miss the snarky-but-evaluative Preliminary Thoughts inspired by disappointing offerings.  Among the mostly praiseworthy annotations, assessments like “bloated”, “flimsy”, “scattered”, and “overwrought” sparkle with novelty.  An occasional reference to a “damp squib” or “a chaotic sprawl”, or an unfortunate text that “verges on the unintentionally hilarious” definitely leaves an impression.

As Auden observed: One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

Leave a Reply