We all know that a book can change the shape of history. Think The Communist Manifesto and Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, not to mention the Bible and the Koran. But a book review? How much influence could a book review possibly have?
Judging from Norman Mailer’s review of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir, Making It, a lot. Serving as a catchall and a coda for the collective judgment of liberal intellectuals of the day, Mailer’s review would help turn Podhoretz against his progressive roots and harness his exceptional energy and intellect on behalf of neoconservatism, a movement that played a role in the election of Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes, and Donald Trump.
It’s so easy to lose track of the meaning of words. Say any word enough times and it becomes a mere sound, its semantic content steadily evaporating with each additional usage (“anthill…anthill…anthill…”) Some words, such as “democracy,” “justice,” and “fascism,” can eventually turn into little more than empty praise or pejorative, essentially the equivalent of declaring “Hooray for this thing!” or “Boo to that thing.”
But, and this should go without saying, if people are actually trying to communicate with one another their words need to have meaning, and we need to have relatively fixed and identifiable definitions for concepts and actions. That’s always going to be elusive, because the usages of words will change over time and vary among users, so it will be impossible for any definition to stay truly stable and universally agreed. Yet while their boundaries can be fuzzy and contested, words ultimately need to be something more than meaningless mouth-noises. When nobody agrees on the definition of a word, when it contains so many possible connotations that it’s impossible to know what anyone who uses it actually means by it, the word is no longer able to effectively communicate.
Post-Napster, the music world’s self-righteousness dried up along with its giant pools of money, and the patronage model was revived in the forms of commercial licensing and Kickstarter. Stravinsky, for one, would have approved: “Let me say, once and for all,” he wrote in 1966, “that I have never regarded poverty as attractive; that I do not wish to be buried in the rain, unattended, as Mozart was; that the very image of Bartok’s poverty-stricken demise, to mention only one of my less fortunate colleagues, was enough to fire my ambition to earn every penny that my art would enable me to extract from the society that had failed in its duty toward Bartok as it had earlier failed with Mozart.” On that, both artists and labor organizers could surely agree.
This kind of meta-textual playfulness is not exactly rare in The Idiot, but its success does serve to highlight the impressive level of control Batuman has over her writing. The Idiot is funny and light, but also consistently perceptive, adventurous and intricate.