On Sunday, Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book received a rather tepid or even negative review in the NY TIMES Book Review Section. I have not seen the book, but the review reminded me once again what a thankless chore book reviewing is. I have brooded about this for more than half a century, ever since, as a doctoral student rummaging through the Widener Library stacks as part of my dissertation research, I came across the original 1739 review of David Hume's immortal work, A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE, in a journal titled A HISTORY OF THE WORKS OF THE LEARNED. Here in part is what the reviewer had to say about Volumes One and Two, which were published anonymously in 1739 [the last volume appeared in 1740.] "... a Man, who has never had the Pleasure of reading Mr. Locke's incomparable Essay, will peruse our author with much less Disgust, than those can who have been used to the irresistible Reasoning and wonderful Perspicuity of that aqdmirable Writer." Hume was so devastated by the review that in a later work, his Two Treatises, he included a preliminary "advertisement" in which he disavowed the work of his youth, little realising that it would in time come to be recognized as the greatest work of philosophy ever to be written in English.
You have to feel a certain sympathy for the reviewer [also anonymous]. To be handed A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE and be called upon to cough up a review in a few weeks or a month is really not fair! [I felt an even deeper sympathy for the reviewers who were forced to tackle the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON when it appeared in 1781, although they, aware that its author was already a distinguished Professor at Koenigsberg University, were a good deal kinder.]
But beyond the problem of evaluating a complex and demanding piece of work in a tiny fraction of the time it took to produce, there is another issue that the Ehrenreich review raises. It has always seemed to me to be unfair to judge a minor effort by an established creative person -- author, painter, composer, performer -- as though it were the first and only production of someone with no history of acknowledged accomplishment. "What have you done for me lately" seems to be the mindset of most reviewers -- who of course in the overwhelmiong preponderance of cases have themselves done nothing at all! We do not think that way about the masters of past ages. We take an appropriate interest in Mozart's lesser symphonies [which, on their own merits, are not actually superior to the works of many contemporaneous composers, even Salieri.] We read all of Jane Austen's novels, not just the two or three that are transcendentally great. We put on stage Shakespeare's least notable efforts. The idea behind this is that once a creative person has, through a body of work, earned a permanent place in our estimation, we consider it worthwhile to experience the totality of his or her works, for what the oeuvre can tell us about the mind and heart we have come to admire.
No one would quarrel with this judgment when Shakespeare or Dickinson or Austen or Tolstoi or Matisse or Bach is in question. But do we not owe something similar to the lesser spirits among us? Which returns me to my starting point. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a number of extremely valuable books which, taken together, give us a focused and richly detailed look at the lives of the scores of millions of Americans who languish at the bottom of the income pyramid. She has earned the right to our attention even for her lesser writings. Like Jane Jacobs, say, or Erving Goffman, or Richard Dawkins, or -- to take a very much greater example -- Amartya Sen, she has established a voice that is a part of our conetmporary conversation, and I for one want to hear what she has to say, on her worst day as much as on her best. I feel the same way about great film directors, great violinists, great painters, even great physicists.
Is there a bit of covert parti pris and special pleading in this? I would not be surprised.