Thursday, November 02, 2006

Simple Simon Says...

...put your hands on your hips, make your backbone slip, Simon says...(and all these years I thought it was "backbone flip"...note to self: look up on Kiss this Guy to see if others had equally wax impacted ears)

Simon Blackburn on Harry Frankfurt's new book On Truth, perfect for the wait for connecting flight delay, as was On Bullshit for me when heading back from AERA and Montreal a few years ago. My eyes gave out on reading all of Blackburn here, as I heard my major professor, long dead, remark about his friend Erich Heller that his books on some authors were longer and more interesting than the authors' books. So Blackburn, clever fellow, has written what might be a longer review than the book he is examining.

But the opening 'graphs are delightful:

In his prime, and without benefit of a keyboard, Samuel Johnson could write twelve thousand words a day. I doubt that there are many more than half that number in Harry Frankfurt's diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere. Evidently the commercial giant Knopf wanted to get in on the act, and the result is this almost equally tiny book, nicely positioned for a similar success this Christmas, since there is an announced first printing of 200,000 copies. Its appearance and its design make it almost identical to its hot little predecessor: at 101 baby pages, On Truth appears to be fractionally longer, but On Bullshit buttressed itself with as many as nine footnotes and this book contains none.

One can see why publishers love the miniature, especially when such mouth-watering sales are in their sights. Production and editorial costs must be almost invisible. Even the tardiest author can be expected to produce this amount of copy to a deadline, since one would need a thick skin to trot out the standard excuses of illness, family, competing duties, and the rest to explain delays in what could scarcely be more than a week's work. And there are some subjects well-suited to treatment in a short essay, subjects on which a brief meditation is all we require. We enjoy a few carefully chosen reflections, an aphorism or an insight we might not have managed for ourselves, perhaps a dusting of academic icing in the shape of a quotation or two, and so to bed. The tone of such writing is fairly uniform: confidential, humane, amused, civilized, and leisured. The Oxford Book of Essays, which I have open in front of me, includes such titles as "Thoughts in Westminster Abbey" (Addison), "The Plumber" (Trollope), "The Departure of a Guest" (Belloc), and "Well Informed Circles and How to Move in Them" (Waugh). It also contains Swift's acidic take on the meditations of Robert Boyle: "A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick." But it reminds us that the great essayists include philosophers too, such as Montaigne and Hume, as well as the various masters of satire and whimsy.

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