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BOOK REPORTS by Robert Christgau


A Music Critic On His First Love, Which Was Reading

by Robert Christgau

Pub Date: April 12th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0030-3
Publisher: Duke Univ.

A culture critic roams far and wide.

Veteran music critic Christgau (Is it Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 2018, etc.) writes that he discovered his future profession when he read the journalism of Red Smith, Pauline Kael, Tom Wolfe, and Susan Sontag. This substantial collection of nearly 100 eclectic, thought-provoking, and idea-laden book reviews were published in a wide range of publications, many in the Village Voice (where he was a writer and editor from 1969 to 2006) and the Barnes & Noble Review. Christgau writes that they “dive deeper” into two broad themes, bohemia and politics. His range of topics is impressive, and his references are prolific. Unsurprisingly, many of the books reviewed are music-related, but Christgau is just as adept delving into capitalism, pornography, and literature. He begins with three reviews of books by “master stylists,” aka the “Collectibles.” John Leonard is a “small treasure,” Jonathan Lethem is a “hell of a critic,” and the “best of all,” Dave Hickey, has “been doing work that leaves your own flopping around on the deck.” One of the longest and best pieces is an outstanding overview of the “lumpily indefatigable” Raymond Williams. Christgau calls him a “socialist intellectual” with an “appetite for knowledge.” Another highlight is “A Darker Shade of Noir,” an incisive and wide-ranging assessment of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. Christgau makes a good case for why these “historically evolving books constitute the finest detective oeuvre in American literature, surpassing even that of card-carrying formalist Hammett and dwarfing Chandler and Leonard and Macdonald.” Other literary figures Christgau admires include Robert Coover, Michael Chabon (“language dazzling and deft”), and Roddy Doyle. There are also savvy assessments of autobiographies by Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith, whose M Train, writes the author, “transported me.”

These sprightly, highly opinionated “adventures of an autodidact” reveal Christgau to be a highly literate, astute, and discerning book critic.