Taking a look at a second look
By STEVE WEINBERG
Second Reading:Notable and Neglected Books Revisited
(Europa Editions, $16)
Writing a book review of a book consisting of book reviews composed by an esteemed fellow reviewer might sound professionally incestuous to those outside the small craft of book reviewing. But I am forging ahead because Jonathan Yardley is perhaps the most interesting, intelligent book reviewer published in the English language.
Let’s establish one point right away: Just because I admire Yardley immensely does not mean I always agree with his evaluations. I admire him for his perspectives and his fine writing, not so much for his likes and dislikes.
Now past age 70 , Yardley has reviewed books professionally almost his entire adult life, working at TheWashington Post since 1981. He has also written books of his own, including fascinating biographies of Ring Lardner and Frederic Exley. Even when not reading, he probably discusses books often at home, because he is married to Marie Arana, who used to serve as the books section editor at the Washington Post.
Yardley’s Second Reading feature started in 2003, Yardley billed it as “an occasional series in which the Post’s book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.” He continued to review current books apart from the Second Reading feature. At the point that Yardley finished the
collection under review here, he had published 97 Second Reading essays. Of those, 60 are reprinted, and the rest are noted in a list.
Yardley is known to some authors and publishers as a bit of a curmudgeon. That trait shows up only rarely in these pieces. As Yardley notes in his four-page introduction, “It didn’t take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my past reading —as you’ll see, the word ‘fun’ ap-
pears frequently in these pieces —or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post’s readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books.”
Outside of Second Reading, Yardley often reviews nonfiction books.Second Reading,however, is weighted toward fiction. The passion is obvious, starting with the opening paragraph of the first review in the collection, a review of H.M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand.
“It is just about impossible for me to imagine beginning a series of essays about books of yesterday — books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover — with anything but a novel by John Phillips Marquand. His are not the best books I’ve ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.”
Other novelists reviewed include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger and Eudora Welty. Yardley knows his tastes might be considered idiosyncratic by some, rather mainstream by others. The only predictability in this collection is the high quality of the thinking and writing.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.