My favorite book about book reviewing is by the Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska. From the early 50s through the 80s, she wrote a book review column for a literary review magazine, many of which were translated and collected in Nonrequired Reading, published in 2002.
Not many of her reviews are exclusively about the books. Instead, they’re like little jazz riffs, inspired jaunts to wherever the subject matter of the books—many of them dry and less-than-inspiring, some unreadable—took Szymborska’s fancy. For example, here are her opening lines for a book titled Scientists in Anecdotes:
Anecdotes about great people make for bracing reading. All right, the reader thinks, so I didn’t discover chloroform, but I wasn’t the worst student in my class, as Liebig was. Of course I wasn’t the first to find salvarsan, but at least I’m not as scatterbrained as Ehrlich, who wrote letters to himself. Mendeleev may be light-years ahead of me as far as the elements go, but I’m far more restrained and better groomed regarding hair. And did I ever forget to show up at my own wedding like Pasteur? Or lock the sugar bowl up to keep my wife out, like Laplace?
Not the best example, since she stays close to the book’s subject, but trust me: there’s no predicting where she’ll go with each review. I think about Szymborska’s book all the time, as it is so appealing to imagine writing a book review by pursuing those happy, synchronistic jumps the mind makes when confronted with information of any kind. Right now, I’m fascinated with the phenomenon of synesthesia, which Monique Truong (The Book of Salt) has written about in her new book, Bitter in the Mouth. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which sensory or cognitive pathways cross each other: We see colors when we hear music, or, in the case of Truong’s character, we can taste words. Apparently this condition was known as far back as the 19th century, but has only recently come back to light. Truong captures the sensation by tagging words with italicized tastes, so that the main character, Linda, hears a question in school this way: “Lindamint, where did the Englishmaraschinocherry firstPepto-Bismol settlemustard in Northcheddarcheese Carolinacanned peas?” Instead of working on the review, I find myself hopping all over the web finding examples of this intriguing disorder. In his book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Richard E. Cytowic writes about a new friend who lets it slip one evening that the chicken he’s cooking for dinner will never work, because there aren’t enough “points.” “Aren’t enough what?” Cytowic asks. “It’s too round,” his friend explains, blushing. He had wanted the taste of the chicken to be pointed but it came out “spherical.” No way could he serve it in that condition. I should be hard at work reviewing Bitter in the Mouth, instead of off on this cloud of wondering what it would be like to taste words or see music. Truong holds back the real secrets in her book for a long time. She is a superb writer, so clambering over the clumsy language of her character’s synesthesia is worth it. But I wonder if it will turn off some readers, when they should be caught up in her fictional world. PS: Here is my review of Bitter in the Mouth in the AJC.