Gertrude Stein once asked: “What do writers want?” Her heartfelt answer (this was one thing she really knew about): “Praise, praise, praise.” Truer words, etc., etc. I’ve had occasion to ponder the fathomless vanity of writers recently. I won’t go into the particulars, except to say that it is an untidy subject, mournful and painfully comic by turns. You thought you knew someone quite well and, bang, you discover a yawning, unsatisfied narcissism that follows him around like a doppelgänger. The discovery is rarely pleasant. That’s the thing about vanity: it’s almost never unencumbered. Even in its most chanticleer-like boastfulness, a writer’s vanity is only a half step away from that curdled variation, wounded vanity, and we all know what that is like.
But enough about vanity. What I really want to talk about today is me. Or rather, I want to invite you to listen to National Review’s Jay Nordlinger talk about me. This past Monday evening, I was at an event at which a friend asked if I had seen Jay’s review of my book The Fortunes of Permanence. I hadn’t. I somehow forbore to look it up until I got home. It was worth the wait. What I discovered was not one but two pieces by Jay about the book, and more was on the way. The series ended this morning with part 5. What can I say? Jay is a writer I greatly admire. He is the chief music critic for the magazine I edit, The New Criterion. I published his incisive book about the Nobel Peace Prize, Peace, They Say, last year at Encounter Books. And here he was meditating at stupendous and gratifying length on my latest effusion. Gosh.
My friend the other night described Jay’s performance as a “review.” But it’s much more, something quite other, than a review. “Appreciation” comes closer, but that’s not quite right either. As every writer knows, even the most positive review has something alien about it. Praise is all well and good, but there is generally something external about a review. Even when the description is accurate, it’s by an outsider looking in. What Jay has managed in these five essays is to inhabit a book. It’s a bravura performance, gratifying not (well, not only) because of its praise but because of its uncanny familiarity. My birthday is a few months off but Jay’s series on The Fortunes of Permanence certainly puts me in festive spirit. You’ll see why when you leaf through them. Start with part one and continue on here, here, here, and here.