Editor's Choice December 2011

The Greatest Gossip

Plus a history of the Bank of England
Jesse Frohman/Corbis Outline

In 1965, John Updike published his first compilation of wide-ranging critical essays. A decade later, he gathered his second. Every eight years from then until 2007, the novelist, short-story writer, poet, and playwright would issue another self-deprecatingly titled, gargantuan collection (Martin Amis perfectly described the assemblages as “cuboid”), made up mostly of essays on literature, though increasingly of essays on art. This huge body of work, 4,314 pages in all, secured Updike a place among America’s few great men of letters (since Edmund Wilson’s death, only Gore Vidal and Updike can be added to the pantheon). Cultivating his ever more refined tastes and deepening his profound self-education, Updike assessed, in his lapidary prose and with workhorse thoroughness and grace (no one could summarize more elegantly or quote more aptly), pretty much every subject in the humanities, from the literatures of the Americas and Britain (he wrote discerningly about and championed Howells, Roth, Anne Tyler, Henry Green, Muriel Spark, Borges), western and eastern Europe, Africa, India, East Asia, and the Arab world to art, architecture, movies, history, philosophy, and theology (Karl Barth was an especially important figure to Updike).

Christopher Carduff, who has astutely edited this posthumous collection, took the title from Updike’s assertion that book reviewing was “gossip of a higher sort.” Updike tailored his approach fittingly. His stylish criticism, marked by an easy erudition, was invariably smooth and accessible; he compressed and elucidated but never reduced or oversimplified. He is probably the last in a line of haute vulgarizers that runs from Dr. Johnson to Sainte-Beuve, Virginia Woolf, V. S. Pritchett, and Wilson. A generation of high-minded general readers (remember them?) looked to Updike essays to teach them about civilization.

But, alas, this book doesn’t represent Updike at his best. Because it mostly gathers the critical work of the final two years of Updike’s life (and excludes many pieces of art criticism, which will be brought together in a future book), it lacks the heft of prior compilations. Moreover, Updike was battling cancer for much of the period here, so some, really most, essays understandably lack both the bounce and the depth typical of his earlier critical work. To the end, though, Updike could penetrate to the heart of a subject with offhand but exact and telling observations. See, for instance, his comments on the ways the Great Depression arrested the American townscape, so that up through the war years, horses and cars mingled, and lots vacated in the Jazz Age remained empty; or his analysis of how the Kodak camera “both exalted and invaded domestic privacy.”

Above all, and most poignantly, this collection highlights Updike’s evaluation of the slackening of his own mental and athletic prowess (Updike was a devoted golfer, and this anthology contains a good deal of writing on golf, as did his prior anthologies). A generous and companionable critic and an avowed Christian, Updike met the decline of his powers with courage and good humor, but also with a clear-eyed recognition that the compensations of old age—a hard-won sagacity, a bemused detachment—don’t make up for the irretrievable losses.

Who would have thought that an 890-page chronicle of central banking could be so engaging? This elegantly and slyly written book, the fourth volume of the official history of the Bank of England, covers a turbulent and demoralizing period. The “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” the world’s second-oldest central bank, lurched from crisis to crisis (the word appears 14 times in the book’s table of contents alone) as it struggled to maintain low interest rates and a fixed exchange rate, to tame inflation (during the 1950s, the annual rate of inflation averaged 4.3 percent; in the 1970s, it averaged 12.6 percent and reached 24.2 percent in 1975), to arrest weaknesses in sterling through credit and exchange controls, to resolve a potentially catastrophic banking emergency, to negotiate increasingly testy relationships with successive British governments and with the IMF, and to navigate the breakdown of the international monetary system.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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