Did you know you are, right this moment, living in the same country as one of the smartest humans ever in existence? I know, I didn't think so either, but you can't look to the usual places to find him. He's a college professor (surprised? of course not), in New York, and he writes, mostly, for the New Yorker, although he's got writing just about everywhere, or maybe better said, everywhere wants something of his.
Oh, his name? Sorry: LOUIS MENAND. Wrote this little book last year called The Metaphysical Club, and somebody said something so nice about it that this award, little thing called the Pulitzer for History, was awarded to the book. No big deal, I know, but still—it's something. Looks nice on the mantle place, anyway.
Well, he's got another one—book, that is. Before we get any further, I want to encourage you to judge a book by its cover. Specifically this book, Louis Menand's brilliant American Studies. And I want you to judge because it's perhaps the best book cover in the history of books or covers or both. The only hint you might need is that you've got to open the book all the way, open both covers, take the damned dust jacket off and take in the whole picture. Get it? Pretty perfect, huh?
Okay, the real meat: Menand writes better than most of us will ever do whatever it is we do best. Wait, it gets worse: he thinks better than he writes, and I don't mean think as in navel-gazing or stuffily theoretical or anything like that. And his writing isn't full of the juiced-up lines that are selling something instead of saying something. You know those charts you see sometimes, about how the US outspends the next six top-spending military nations in the world combined (that's fact, by the way)? That's Menand's mental firepower compared to everybody else.
First evidence: the first essay in this book has a good chance of completely seducing you. You'll read the whole thing, transfixed by how perfect and fluid the writing is. And then you'll finish, maybe set the book aside and go fix a cup of coffee, and it'll hit you: you just read an essay about William James, masturbation, and depression. Not only will this not ruin your cup of coffee, you'll actually want to read the essay again, just because Menand pulls it off so...soundlessly, by which I mean his writing style is sneaky, taking you in with trust and authority and then tucking little facts and truths in here and there, till before you know it you're actually anxious to find out whether or not the supposed epileptic episode William James once spoke of was fabricated or not, and why. Laugh all you want, read the essay. These things will matter to you.
What else can you expect? Oh, the usual academic posturing: an essay convincingly showing Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell as perfect bedfellows in their diametrically opposed but mutually symbiotic evangelicalisms; one of the most tough and touching memorials about a critic, Pauline Kael, and her perfect, endlessly imitated style; a decent, humane examination of Al Gore as person, Vice President, author, environmentalist, and tactician. Richard Wright, T.S. Eliot, Rolling Stone, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Conant, Maya Lin—anything sound good? Take them all, they're all in there and each, of course, illuminated in a light that seems both spectacularly revelatory yet totally sensical, as if the most natural examination of Norman Mailer, in 2002, would include a crystal argument staking out why he's actually a man of the 1950's more than the 60's.
That fact alone—not the Mailer aspect, but the Menand skill—is reason enough to read him. He could probably convincingly write about the decomposition rates of biodegradeable fake styrofoam shipping peanuts and keep readers enthralled for twenty or so pages. He engages in this beautiful rope-walk wherein he's so generous, so straight and direct and without any remote hint of condescension or, god forbid, intellectualism, that it's almost a trap: you can't really disagree with him because the writing's so smooth that you don't want to disagree, you just want more of that silk.
The great thing, of course, is that there's little to disagree with. Menand's skills stop plenty short of anything nearing dogma-spouting, unless the dogma is simply being critical, aware, and complete. And he is, over and over in these pages, as clear, patient, prescient, and glintingly tough as any of us could hope or ask for in a cultural critic. If these times are about anything, the hope (from this camp, anyway) is that they're about clear-minded, reasonable, smart, historied understandings of all the various new threats and challenges to this country, this world, every person. For that, we're all helping ourselves and each other by reading Louis Menand. Over and over and over again until we start getting things right.
- Weston Cutter