Sunday, October 3, 2004

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Joe Queenan's huge glass house

The print version New York Times Book Review has been reformatted, with the curious decision to remove even the one-sentence summary of the book reviewer's bona fides (they're still on the online version, however). This is too bad, as it would prove most useful in assessing Joe Queenan's review of A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All.

Queenan trashes the book, and from the excerpted portions, it sounds like he's got a decent case to make. However, Queenan is aiming at a larger target:

[E]ven after allegedly reading the encyclopedia, Jacobs still doesn't know who Samuel Beckett is, an admission that is almost criminally stupid, even for someone who has written for Entertainment Weekly.

A graduate of the prestigious Dalton School in Manhattan and Brown University, Jacobs is a prime example of that curiously modern innovation: the pedigreed simpleton. Blithely confessing to Brobdingnagian gaps in his knowledge even before he started reading the encyclopedia, Jacobs seems unaware that without some sort of mentor to shield him from his staggering lack of sophistication, he will seem more ignorant when his self-improvement project is over than when it began. Jacobs's biggest problem isn't that he doesn't know much; it's that he doesn't realize how much educated people do know. There's just no two ways about it -- people who read Marcel Proust and Bertrand Russell instead of Entertainment Weekly actually do learn stuff....

Far from becoming the smartest man in the world, Jacobs, at the end of his foolish enterprise, wouldn't even be the smartest person at Entertainment Weekly

Not even the great Flaubert could devise a condemnation harsher than that. (emphases added).

There's probably a lot of insider information about the cultural mediasphere that I'm missing out on (paging Jeff Jarvis), but what on earth is Queenan's beef with Entertainment Weekly? Jacobs now works (as a senior editor) at Esquire, but Queenan somehow shoehorns three mentions of EW into the piece. Did Jacobs beat out Queenan for a writing gig there or something?

This is niggling, but as someone who's read both Bertrand Russell and is an avid consumer of Entertainment Weekly, I'm genuinely puzzled by Queenan's hostility. It would be like erroneously blasting watchers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and assuming that this is where they get all of their political knowledge. In point of fact, Daily Show viewers are better informed than other viewers -- not because they watch The Daily Show, but because they gravitate to that program since, as this press release observes, "These findings do not show that The Daily Show is itself responsible for the higher knowledge among its viewers... The Daily Show assumes a fairly high level of political knowledge on the part of its audience – more so than Leno or Letterman." The same is true of Entertainment Weekly when compared to the other popular culture magazines -- such as, say, TV Guide, which is where Queenan wrote a column from 1996 to 1999.

A former TV Guide writer bashing Entertainment Weekly as being an attactor of uninformed writers? That's just too big of a glass house to pass up.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias points out some of the problems with reading Bertrand Russell. He's right -- if memory serves, Russell's take on Hegel is pretty distorted.

posted by Dan on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM


the NYTBR now lumps all its contributors together up front in the section (on page 4 today), along the lines of the NYRB, New Yorker. must be the new highbrow rule. queenan is described like this:

JOE QUEENAN'S "Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country" will be published in November.

hum. sounds remarkably self-involved, as niche as Jacobs is broad. maybe someone should review it for... i dunno... Entertainment Weekly???

posted by: carlos on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

I'm with you, Daniel, I read Entertainment Weekly and am an avid celebrity hound. So, lay off the celebrity magazines, Joe.

At the same time, however, I think that Queenan's hit upon something with his phrase "pedigreed simpleton," used for people who have excellent cv's but can't do much more than make pop culture references.

To my mind, one should strive for a pleasing balance of both crap and substance. People who know both sorts of things make the best and most entertaining conversationalists.

posted by: H.D. Miller on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

Hmmm. Both you and MY say: "Well, I have read the Russell..." Which I guess implies you haven't read Proust, or maybe just the first book. How any smart teenager could not be drawn to a piece of art with a title referencing Sodom & Gomorrah is beyond me. Times have changed, I guess. Used to be fun looking for the dirty stuff.

I don't read People, EW, or TV Guide. Nor watch the Daily Show. Ain't got no culture.

posted by: bob mcmanus on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

As I recall, EW was not exactly soft on the encyclopedia guy either. I suspect Queenan took the book more seriously than the book took itself. Not, that I have any intention of wasting time on it. That's what EW is for - it's a useful weekly summary of crap that I don't want to waste time actually seeing. Plus, it allows one to keep abreast (heh heh) of the celebrity titty parade without purchasing any of the fine fine products those spokesbreasts are representing.

TV Guide, on the other hand, hasn't been useful since 1981.

Mr. Queenan didn't bother to mention what was wrong with the Greenland description (Greenland was forested in the west when the Vikings found it. They stayed there long enough to have their own bisphoric before the ice and the Aleuts finally overwhelmed everything.) so one wonders if he has holes in HIS knowledge.

I freely admit to holes in my knowledge of philosophy - mainly because I've spent too much time studying war and history. To each his own and all that.

I suspect that JQ complaint is that Jacobs is too smart-asses to display proper deference to people at New York City cocktail parties held by 'intellectuals'.

['Maybe Queenan hopes Jack Nicholson will play Queenan in a movie.']

posted by: ash on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

still i have to admit that was a wonderfully written polemic that left one with a vivid image of both the writer (clearly an insufferably pretentious guy who thinks he knows a lot more than he does) and the target (also probably insufferably pretentious in a different and equally annoying way)...

posted by: vik on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

I think you're all missing something. People who are inclined to learn things can learn them from reading Proust, Russell, Entertainment Weekly, or the Yellow Pages. People not so inclined will avoid becoming educated whether they attend Harvard or the local junior college. Increasingly the purpose of higher education is not an education but training, rather like performing seals.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

Put please don't compare the Daily Show and EW. I know that tastes vary, but the former has wit, the latter has t-ts. I do agree though about pedigreed simpletons, which I attriubte to the emergence of SAT tutors for the upper upper middle class and the dumbing down of college curricula. I have reguarly encountered these types in my classes. I find it very discouraging that the SAT, which was intended as a levelling tool, has become yet another instrument of privilege.

posted by: gene on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

For a real hoot, read Russell on Nietzsche. Very embarrassing.

posted by: goethean on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

As MY points out, the benefit of Russell is that he reads well. Most philosophers can't write worth a crap and their subject matter is just plain difficult. Wittgenstein, anyone? What a joyous read he is.

This may be just the sort of thing an open source, but not quite wiki, approach could sort out. You need specialists to accurately cover the ideas of the players, but no single body can be that good with all of them. Getting open agreement between specialists on connecting themes while might be a way to go. That should only take you a zillion years or so with good software and high rates of participation ...

posted by: Jason Ligon on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

Busting on the book for being comedic and juvenile is pretty silly. Reading the whole encyclopedia is a pretty funny thing to do. ''Bouvard and Pecuchet'' is a comedy too.

posted by: Joe O on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

Truth be told I've met Mr. Queenan (and in fact appear in one of his books) and he is both surprisingly nice and surprisingly knowledgable and "educated"; God help us if he typifies TV Guide writers.

posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

In a more civilized generation, we believed in the adage, "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything".

posted by: Mike on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

One strongly suspects one of Joe's books got a bad review from EW.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

The hidden gem of the review is the educational "pedigree" of Mr. Jacobs: Dalton and Brown. These are not random choices; both schools are quite distinctly the most experimental, progressive, and flexible (I choose words they would both use honorifically) of their kind, and both utterly abhor anything remotely resembling cultural literacy or a core curriculum. And both, as Queenan shows amusingly, reap their empty but just rewards.

posted by: Edgar on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

I second Ash's view -- Queenan appears to have taken this book much more seriously than its author ever did.

What I find interesting is that Queenan appears to believe that a real "education" is based on the study of philosophy, literature and art -- and he makes no mention of science, mathematics and engineering. Presumably because he knows nothing about those topics but still wants to believe that he's "educated."

Queenan also appears to believe that something is famous if he and his friends have heard of it.

posted by: DRB on 10.03.04 at 12:49 PM [permalink]

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