When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
Vintage, 2001
485 pages, paperback, $15

Twelve years ago, with his literary debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers may have given us a book that is impossible to review, to discuss, or to criticize. In the long war of author against critic, this is an impressive victory for the author. Everything that can be said about Dave Eggers’s book (which he nicknames A.H.W.O.S.G.) has already been said by Dave Eggers. If I exaggerate, I don’t exaggerate very much: the first paperback edition of the book contains a critical apparatus that’s more on the scale of a Norton Critical Edition than it has any right to be. The front matter—including an “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors,” a copyright page reminding us that the influence of corporations like Bertelsmann A.G. on our “daily lives and hearts” is “very very small, and so hardly worth worrying about,” and a drawing of a stapler—is 45 pages long. When I flip my copy of A.H.W.O.S.G. upside-down and look at its back cover, it becomes a different book, Mistakes We Knew We Were Making (this under-cover proudly announces not that it is a National Bestseller but that it is a National Curiosity), 48 more pages of “notes, corrections, clarifications, apologies, addenda.”

Apologies, I think, is the most apt of these descriptors. Really, these pages are more in the vein of self-deprecation—but what a self-defensive self-deprecation! You don’t even need to look further than the title to understand this: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius aspires to be just that, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It wears that aspiration on its sleeve (does anyone ever call a dust jacket a “sleeve”? I guess that pun doesn’t really work) in order to protect itself against the charge that it’s trying too hard. “Of course I’m trying too hard,” the book winks at us. “That’s what’s so funny about me.” Continue reading When Is a Book Review Not a Book Review? When It’s a Review of Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

What is beauty?

A review of Beauty by Roger Scruton and The Sense of Beauty by George Santayana

It may be the most important question for a philosopher to concern himself with–more important, perhaps, than questions about politics, or epistemology, or proofs of the existence of God–is beauty. What is beauty? How is it known? And how, given the answers to these questions, may it be evaluated? I recently acquired two books on this subject: Beauty by philosopher and critic Roger Scruton (1944- ), and The Sense of Beauty by the early 20th century philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). Both writers are consummate prose stylists who display as well as discuss a fine aesthetic sensibility in these little volumes. Continue reading What is beauty?

Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010
Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs," 2010


“When you meet a modern man, he is always coming from a place, not going to it,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. Arcade Fire is a band that is certainly aware of where it has come from; how else to explain their 2010 concept album about where they came from, which sent them to the 2011 Grammy Awards to collect an Album of the Year trophy on behalf of all the good music that is predictably overlooked year after year by the awards industry? That album’s title character, The Suburbs, is an easy villain to hate. Snobs and hipsters hate the suburbs because they are not authentic, and because they are slow and boring. Agrarians and localists (if I may stereotype) hate the suburbs for perhaps similar reasons: the suburbs are not an authentic place, if by “place” we mean a location that encourages community; a landscape that constrains us and shapes our growth; or, to return to Chesterton’s statement, somewhere we can meaningfully speak of ourselves as coming from—somewhere we can call, if not our home, our place of origin. Or somewhere we are headed towards: a destination.

That’s the simplest view of the album: it’s a systematic excoriation of that peculiarly mundane manifestation of the American dream, the suburbs. Having set up this straw man, I will now boldly proceed to knock it down. I submit that the two broad condemnations of the suburbs, the urban critique and the rural critique (or, the big-city critique and the small-town critique), don’t have that much to tell us about the easily-demonized suburbs. In fact, I think the genius of the album lies in the way that its surface message—suburbs are lame—is revealed to be superficial, as its protagonists grow up, leave the suburbs, and return. Continue reading Let’s Go Downtown: What Arcade Fire Is Really Saying About the Suburbs

Hipsters and Taste

James Northcote (1746-1831), "Edmund Burke"
James Northcote (1746-1831), "Edmund Burke"

The great English conservative Edmund Burke, in his essay entitled On Taste, discusses the components of taste and what distinguishes good taste from bad taste. He refuses to offer a definition of taste, arguing that much bad philosophy is made through being too quick to define. Instead he merely explains what he means when he uses the word “taste” in his essay: “that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts.” (¶ 4) Being a conservative, his approach is clearly not egalitarian—not all tastes or preferences are created equal. He also argues that there is a universal standard of taste, just as there is a universal standard of reason. Hipsters, conservative or otherwise, can look to Burke’s essay for support in their quest for authenticity and their dislike of popular preferences. They can also look at the principles of good taste discussed to evaluate their own tastes and preferences. While the aesthetic experience is inherently subjective—and one’s judgments regarding art are likely to be as well—standards help shape that subjective experience to what it ought to be. Continue reading Hipsters and Taste