As a critic, you encounter all kinds of books. Some are just awful. Some are worthy, but dull. A few are good; some books even entertain. Then there are books you live in. (They don’t come along very often.) Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest is one of those kind of books. As thrilling as any adventure story, and grounded in awe-inspiring research, this magnificent account of the British Everest expeditions of the 1920s and the doomed attempts of George Mallory to scale the world’s tallest mountain is one of the best books I have ever reviewed.
Two cheers for the critic! Superannuated (perhaps, but still hanging on by a thread), woefully underpaid (most definitely), and charged with the thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens, the critic, says Francis Wheen in a recent Financial Times piece, can still tempt us to risk something different.
A quote from a favorite critic and a few words of introduction. Frank Kermode, a model generalist and the elder statesman of literary criticism, once explained himself this way: “So I educate myself in public, which I take to be the reviewer’s privilege.” It’s a line that’s always stuck in my head. I’ve admired Kermode’s forceful yet modest way of going about his task—Sir Frank’s modesty is something else to behold: the man has a knighthood, but he called his memoirs “Not Entitled”—and his operating principle is about as fine a guidepost for a literary freelancer as anything I’ve come across. In my ten years as a freelance writer, I’ve been lucky enough to work with editors who have allowed me educate myself in public. (I also hope I’ve entertained a few readers along the way.) Blogging is something a little different for me, but it’s a way for me to offer a passing record of obsessions, enthusiams, and interests. I’ll look at it as another way of educating myself in public.