The Right Coast

August 21, 2005
NYT book review review
By Tom Smith

When I was young, I used to read the NYT book review every week and thought it full of wonderful stuff. Now I read it occassionally and am appalled of how full of cant and hackery it is. I don't know if I have gotten grumpy or if it really has gotten worse. But today, miraculously enough, there are not one but three items actually worth reading (and of course, many more that are not). First, Christopher Hitchens has a review of three books about pirates in the foundling (?) era of our Republic. I had no idea the Barbary pirates had kidnapped as many as a million Americans and Europeans into slavery, knew nothing of the Lafitte brothers or Jackson's deal with them, or where the words to Rule Britannia came from. Fascinating stuff.

One Charles Taylor (not the philosopher) has a mildly amusing essay about bad behavior in NYC mega book stores. He does not like the way people slouch and sit all over the place and get in the way of his browsing. At first I thought he was just being a weenie. It is hard to imagine someone would not get out of your way if asked them nicely, and if that didn't work, threatening to break their arms. There are some relevant martial arts principles here, but that would be a digression. But on reflection, I think Taylor may be correct. It's just not a problem in San Diego yet. NYC is more crowed, and while New Yorkers are not as rude as their reputation has it, they still can be fairly rude. Book store denizens are probably worse than the average New Yorker as well. Surely, though, there is something encouraging about so many people wanting to read.

Not counting as one of the things worth reading is Richard Cohen's weekly ethical musing (in the Magazine section). He has become something of a still point in my turning world; he can be counted on to get every ethical issue, no matter how trivial, wrong, and at length too. Two burning ethical issues this week. First, a would be yoga instructor writes in to whine that she is not being allowed to take her instructor's exam because the National Association of Yogi, or whatever, believes that the required postures could harm the fetus (by squashing it perhaps) and the mother, and so sorry, you'll have to wait until there's no bun in the oven. How very outrageous. How shocking. How downright unethical. Not to worry. Herr Prof. Cohen writes to a law professor at Hofstra, who assures him such would be illegal discrimination. I don't know if that is true, but it is certainly plausible. Between Congress, the Department of Labor and the Supreme Court, the very notion that an employer could lawfully both test for actual competence and protect fetuses at the same time, seems dubious indeed. But, Cohen is not a lawyer, he is an ethicist, dammit! The idea that it is unethical for Yoga Instructors to say, what are you crazy, you want to lie on your stomach, grab your ankles, and touch your head to your heels while you're pregnant? That's insane! -- seems anything but immoral. It seems downright prudent, common sensical and to be commended. Other trades pregnant ladies might want to consider avoiding are human cannonball, professional wrestler, and food tester for a mafia don. Richard Cohen's other missive is more routinely idiotic. An election observer writes in to say, my job is observing elections and trying to make them fair; I found out my driver was taking kickbacks for setting up others in employment with me; this is a common practice in the third-world hell hole where I currently work; should I worry about this, or should I just focus on free elections? The correct answer is, Just shut up! But out of politeness, one may say, ah, don't worry about it; you just work on the democracy thing. It is far from clear there is anything unethical about a driver taking a finder's fee to recommend a cook, or whatever. Maybe the driver has a duty of loyalty, maybe not. But surely to worry about the ethics of that in your typical third world hell displays well, an untoward over-scrupulousness. Still, I want Cohen to keep writing. He has refined self-parody to high art. Is it wrong to hope he keeps entertaining us with his peculiar brand of self-important, pseudo-moral fussy-pants-isms?

Finally, here is a pretty devasting review, which shows one function of the reviewer: to attempt to kill really bad books before they can corrupt public sensibilities. A well-crafted dart.