HARDLY ANY DISCUSSION of books and ideas starts without some ritual throat clearing, so here goes. I am not a professional critic. If you are not a friend or family member, you will have little notion of where I’m coming from. It would seem like a good idea, then, to start on a paradigmatic note. I could, for example, review my favorite novel. Several titles come readily to mind. Cervantes’ Don Qixote and Kafka’s The Castle are the most important novels I’ve ever read. They diagnose the human condition with more wisdom and sympathy than can be found in a hundred other outstanding works. Together they bookend the tradition and history of the novel.
But my appreciation of Cervantes and Kafka is lifted largely from Milan Kundera—who made an explicit case for their greatness—and from Albert Camus, who came at their works more obliquely but still raised them to he status of gods. Perhaps I’d better start with them.
Then again, if I have a patron saint, it is Orwell. I read him these days as I once read the Bible, fervently, avidly, sometimes in great swathes to catch the big themes, often in small snatches before sleep. Orwell’s words, still vivid 70, 80, 90 years after he wrote them, inspired the name of my blog and the sentiment behind it. He pressed his readers to believe the world, troubled and corrupt as it was, was still ameliorable. This mortal life was not merely a vale of tears, worthy in the end only of pious indifference; it was worth struggling over. In a diary Orwell kept during World War II, he recorded that he had “so much to live for, in spite of poor health and having no children.” To expand a bit on Orwell’s terse expression of things: he was dying slowly of tuberculosis; his home, London, was being bombed on a daily basis; Hitler had conquered much of Europe and showed no signs he could be defeated. And, Orwell lacked children, the only thing most of us have that promises our passions and beliefs might survive our death in some form. If Orwell could make an appeal for optimism under such circumstances, we owe him a hearing.
Oh, yes, the blog’s name. As I said, it comes from Orwell. Tucked away in one of his shortest essays, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” he makes a case for drinking strong Indian rather than delicate Chinese tea. Chinese tea is fine in flavor, Orwell says, but unlike Indian tea, “there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.” When I read that line the first time I immediately felt that good books often produced a similar feeling, and, short as life is, I wanted to concentrate on reading more books of precisely that sort. My passion for reading is an unsupervised one; I’ll read just about anything with a reputation. The best books, though, are the ones that leave me feeling the way Orwell felt after his nice cup of tea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to my starting point. We instinctively draw frames around our thoughts, lay out gridworks where the coordinates will fall. In many pursuits this instinct is a sound one; a plan of some sort is almost always better than no plan at all. But the best decisions in my life have come from just plunging in. So that is what I will do here. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this collection of book reviews, or if I’m even going anywhere, but in any case I will start where I think best, in medias res. The last book I read was . . .