Stan Persky is a subtle and tricky thinker. His work merits close attention, but at the same time, its tone is so relaxed and inviting, you can let things pass that will strike you as odd only after you’ve put the book down.
In fact, I think Persky’s tone is the most remarkable thing about his work. His essays are almost entirely unfussy, but they’re obviously the product of wide and thoughtful reading. He can invoke Heidegger, R.K. Narayan, Paul Krugman or Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. But he also allows the reader ready (if, in this book, mostly glancing) access to his own life experience: a bird singing on his balcony, his knowledge of AC/DC, his Jewish-American roots, etc. In other words, Persky’s style is warmly erudite, never overbearing, avuncular in the best sense. However, the man himself – on the evidence of this new collection of essays – is focused, puzzled and in some distress about the state of our culture.
Reading the 21st Century is a somewhat thematically consistent collection of essays on books that, to Persky’s mind, are representative of the decade from 2000 to 2009. Persky’s concern is with books rather than authors; yes, to an extent, the two are inseparable, but it’s a matter of emphasis. Among others, he considers Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, as well as books about the Middle East, the state of the U.S. post-9/11, and books by older writers (Bellow, Milosz, Coetzee, Saramago, Edward Said).
Persky’s reading is wide-ranging. The thematic unity comes from Persky himself. As he writes: “ Reading the 21st Century doesn’t purport to provide a full description of our present cultural crisis, much less a set of remedies, but I make a point of discussing several books of the past decade that address the crisis in reading, knowledge, and intellectual life generally.”
What Persky means by “the crisis” is fairly straightforward. We have come to the point when there are any number of subtle writers, but fewer and fewer subtle readers. Our reading skills failing, we not only lose what is good in our present culture, but also find ourselves adrift from the writing of the past, our literary heritage. Thus we are adrift from something essential: the play with signs and symbols that allows us to construct worlds, versions of “truth” and, of course, the pleasure symbol-play affords (mutual world-building above all).
Persky is not proposing any solutions to the “crisis.” As he writes in his closing chapter: “I’m distrustful of people who know with certainty either the truth or the future, my inclination being less towards the declarative sentence and more towards the interrogative one.” What he means to do, and what he has to a large extent done, is to contextualize his distress at the general decline of reading.
I am very much on Persky’s side in all this, but I’d like to point to two moments in the book that made me go “hmmm …” First, in his account of the late historian Tony Judt’s Reappraisals, Persky writes: “Judt’s essays are free of political ‘spin,’ suffused in intelligent thought, and just might free us from another plague of locusts.” It’s an amusing sentence, but Persky kind of means it. It’s not the only place in the book where he speaks of books as possible life preservers. And I began to wonder just how much he believes a book of, in this case, essays could free “us” from anything at all. That is, I began to wonder about the extent to which Persky’s idealism influenced his sense of the depth and character of our crisis. (Naturally, this was also an occasion to wonder about my own idealism.)
The second moment is more fleeting. In discussing The God Delusion, Persky defends Dawkins’s sometimes shoddy thinking on the grounds that the book was meant for a “middlebrow” audience, that Dawkins set out to write a polemic and that, besides, it has stimulated meaningful discussions about atheism and fanaticism. He recognizes that Dawkins, to an extent, deserves criticism; he persuasively criticizes Dawkins himself. But Persky is an atheist and in defending Dawkins, he writes: “Given the enormous extent of unlikely religious beliefs abroad, I’m surprised that such critics aren’t prepared to cut Dawkins a bit more slack.”
Previous to this sentence, his book has pointed to the need for deep reading, for real engagement with texts. To “cut Dawkins a bit more slack” would seem to mean that critics such as the Catholic Marxist Terry Eagleton should read Dawkins in a more basic way, ignoring his silly ideas in favour of engaging with his big points and intentions. This is an argument that is anti-reading and it is made by Persky at his most committed. So, again, I began to wonder about the nature of Persky’s idealism.
To me, this engagement with Persky-the-essayist is a good thing. It made me more aware of the book’s subtleties. And if Reading the 21st Century hasn’t supplanted Then We Take Berlin as my favourite Persky books, I’d still recommend it highly.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis’s most recent novel is Childhood.