Uncommon Readers

by Christopher Knight
ISBN: 0802087981

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A Review of: Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner and the Tradition of the Common Reader
by Eric Miller

Christopher J. Knight's Uncommon Readers celebrates three strong intellects that have expressed themselves extensively in the format of the review-Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode and George Steiner. The celebration is also an intermittent critique, on the understanding that opposition is sometimes true friendship. For Knight, each of these critics has, at the heart of his generous attention, a characterizing emphasis-Donoghue on the imagination, Kermode on canonicity, Steiner on elegy.
To compose a long book (Knight's work runs to 506 pages) about the short form of the review may appear a suspiciously paradoxical project. But this is to overlook how every period endorses a hierarchy of genres. This hierarchy changes over time. Genres sink or rise, vanish or emerge. The novel perhaps now occupies the heights of the hierarchy. But, if we think about genres in terms of the actual pleasure each may offer, our real literary experience appears in a refreshed light. A decent review often bestows as much happiness as a poem or a short story. When we read fiction, we undertake to learn the names of unreal characters and of non-existent places. Reviews compel us to do something similar. When we read them, we often absorb verdicts on writers whom we may never read. The nexus of reference remains alien to us, or familiar to us only through the review. What we savour is the delivery of judgements-a rhythm in the fashioning of a critique that probably has analogies with music.
Knight rightly says, "We can each probably draw up our own list of reviewers whose works, serially read, mean as much to us as that of even justly admired novelists."
Enjoyment arises from noting the skill with which a reviewer responds to the medium's epigrammatic constraint and to the necessity of quoting appositely from the work under consideration, a necessity that creates on the spot a miniature anthology to serve an evidentiary role. Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner are masters of this form.
Knight's Uncommon Readers is at once easy to describe and somewhat dumbfounding. The book is too long, although it offers a brave and impassioned critical account of Donoghue's, Kermode's and Steiner's careers. A writer who composes a great number of reviews over a long span of time has something in common with a character in an epistolary novel: he or she appears, always, as the author of a unit (the particular review) and of an opus (the succession of reviews, each prospectively and retrospectively modifying the others). Knight reminds us toward the end of his book, "We are each provincial in one way or another, and sometimes the best thing we can do for one another is to take note of the fact." The review as a genre, too slight to articulate a grand theory, acknowledges its own provinciality. Knight subdues the problem of miscellaneousness-a trait that he celebrates, for its freedom from allegiance to any school-by addressing similar motifs in the lifework of his writers. Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner address religion, deconstruction, the literary canon and the idea of inwardness. Knight can throw the threefold light cast by his authors on these compelling concerns.
When Knight acknowledges the inevitable provinciality of anyone's intellect, he accepts that all thought is provisional-which is not the same as a disavowal of commitment. Influenced by the practice of Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner, Knight claims "if we have not already lived and thought in the realm of the imaginary, we probably make bad determinations in that of the real." He rebukes the moral haste, the righteous failure of imagination that distorts the findings of much contemporary literary scholarship, fating it to the repetitive (though plausible) disclosure of prejudice. He prefers judgements to be held in abeyance for as long as possible. He deplores "the ethical implications of reducing, by means of tabloid-like attention, Hawthorne to a misogynist, Melville to a wife-beater, Whitman to a racist, Conrad to an imperialist, Eliot to an anti-Semite, and Bellow to a racist."
Knight opposes the business-school ethos that reduces scholarship in the universities to what the slick call "the profession." He remarks, "The study of literature has gone corporate, and if one does not wish to be left out, one needs to get with the program. There is little, or no, space for those lacking a corporate identification card." A review of the kind that Donoghue, Kermode or Steiner writes constitutes no such identification card-not even the torn scraps of one. Hence its attractions for Knight. He cherishes the eccentric exertions of "one mind" over against the enforcement of obligatory teamwork. Uncommon Minds supports Knight's convictions, because the exemplary Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner all display the simultaneous universality and idiosyncrasy that goes with the role of the reviewer. Such a person goes in lieu of us, presumably representing us-and yet he or she implicitly claims exceptionality, a judge's vertiginous rights precariously held.
One great delight of Knight's book is its central conceit, of bringing within one binding the intellectual worlds of Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner. In the nineteenth century, many people kept "commonplace books"-collections of their own favourite quotations lovingly copied out. Knight's Uncommon Minds is, in one sense, a contemporary commonplace book. In the interstices between contentious quotations from Donoghue, Kermode and Steiner is Knight's own polemic against present tendencies in the university. Real pleasure derives from Knight's choice of excerpts. Here is Steiner: "Because it carries the past within it, language, unlike mathematics, draws backward. This is the meaning of Eurydice." Here is Georg Simmel, an influence on Donoghue: "every day and from all sides the wealth of objective culture increases, but the individual mind can enrich the forms and contents of its own development only by distancing itself still further from that culture and developing its own at a much slower pace." Here is Kermode: "I made mistakes but I regret none of that, for the life of intelligent poetry and criticism is a life of error twinned with truth-like twins, they quarrel and are interdependent."

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