I have spent the last several days anticipating the New York TimesBook Review’s review of Ultimate Journey, my new book, and the fact that I earn my living writing two reviews a week for the daily Times did nothing to lessen my anxiety. But where is this anxiety coming from? One might suppose that the critic is worried that he cannot do, and that’s why he criticizes for a living. But this is not the case. My nervousness comes from my awareness of the phenomenon common to the book-reviewing world that I like to call the normal nastiness of intellectual life.
A French friend of mine once explained to me why Parisians are less friendly than the inhabitants of the French countryside. “Parisians associate friendliness with a lack of sophistication,” he said. I suspect that a similar anxiety explains the gleeful viciousness of many book reviews. Your average critic, a fragile and uncertain creature, doesn’t worry so much that a cutting review will provoke an act of vengeance; he worries more that he’ll appear to be a rube if he fails to maintain a supercilious distance.
As a critic who writes books, I do know how intensely bad it feels to receive a bad review, and this, I hope, keeps me on the kinder, gentler side of high standards as I perform my weekly duties at the Times. I have clearer recollections of certain effusions of nastiness contained in the bad reviews I’ve gotten than I do of most of the effusions of praise I’ve received. By “bad reviews” I don’t mean principled disagreement, a cogent ferreting out of shortcomings. I’m talking about book reviews that fall into certain categories: reviews that are sloppy pieces of writing in themselves; reviews that don’t quite manage to cover up the reviewer’s failure to have read the book; reviews whose main purpose is to demonstrate the superior wit of the reviewer; reviews that are casually, insouciantly, oh-so-effortlessly dismissive.
My new book is a story of two journeys. One is that of a Chinese monk named Hsuan Tsang who in the seventh century traveled from the Tang Dynasty capital at Chang-an to the South of India and back, in search of the Buddhist truth. The second journey was my own retracing of Hsuan Tsang’s route over four or so months in 1999. I went for roughly 10,000 overland miles by bus, train, and Jeep, across deserts, Himalayan mountain passes, two former republics of the Soviet Union, Pakistan, India, and Nepal—and back. It was a long, eventful, mind-bending journey, and it has already garnered its share of condescending comment.
I give one example: “A thoroughly modern traveler, Bernstein didn’t do a whole lot of walking,” wrote a reviewer in Los Angeles magazine, one of those glossy numbers that smell of eau de toilette when you open it. I can’t quarrel with that remark factually since I confess that I did not go from Xian to Kanchipuram and back on foot; and standing alone, the statement’s not vicious either. It is rather weirdly gratuitous, and it reflected what I perceived to be a kind of out-to-get-you-ness evident in the rest of the review—the normal nastiness of intellectual life.
This is background information to the gratification I felt yesterday when my wait for the Times Sunday review came to an end. It was written by a gentle genius from England named Alexander Frater, and it made me happy. I resist here the temptation to quote from it, and will tell a story instead whose moral has to do with the unknowable ways in which lives can touch each other.
I don’t know Frater, have never met him. But it happens that on the plane to China in 1999 at the beginning of my own journey, I read a book by him, Chasing the Monsoon, which is a marvelously witty and observant account of … well, chasing the monsoon from the south of India to the far Northeast. I remember very clearly finishing that book in some hotel in the far West of China and thinking, “This is a model for what I am trying to do. I hope my own book manages to be half as good as this one.”
So, some good deeds do go unpunished after all. I learned a lot about formulating a travel story from Chasing the Monsoon. Inadvertently yesterday, Alexander Frater generously recognized how well I learned what he didn’t know he had taught me.