For someone who has gained a modest reputation as a bumptious crank, critic Krystal (A Company of Readers, not reviewed) comes across here as sensible, personable, and unafraid of his own ideas, whether good or gaseous.
Which is not to say that the author isn’t a crank, given to writing things like, “that word is spelled t-a-s-t-e . . . does the fact that everyone has the right to an opinion mean that all opinions are equal?” Not in this book. For Krystal, great works “enter the blood,” where “self-communion folds into self-realization,” with the wonderful possibility of transformation and transcendence at the hand of “the truest expression of human condition.” However, all this delectable reading, this “sequestered, magical, self-absorbed fun,” had better not become an end in itself, he writes in an essay that condemns living through books at the expense of using them as guideposts to the directly experienced lifescape. The title doesn’t lie; there’s agitation aplenty in these pages. Krystal mulls over big topics like religion (“I expect God gets certain people high in the same way that Nature or the Sublime used to get Woodsworth and Coleridge high”); footling topics like deconstructionism (“professors of literature, as they will be the first to acknowledge, are quite superior to the text in hand”); and that fundamental question anyone seeking publication ought to ask: “Will the world be better for what I write?” To be sure, he is often peckish about contemporary writing, no longer finding exaltation or the retreat into fabulous countries or enough metaphysical meat on the bones of his reading. “The best is the enemy of the good, and once you have become acquainted with the former, why bother with the rest?” writes Krystal. Well, perhaps he is being a crank, and maybe he ought to get out more.
All the same, this poke in the eye of literary opinion and knowledge feels oddly good.