June 30, 2006

Comment on Book - Creators by Paul Johnson

I wrote this up last night since I had some free time. In the last 6-8 months, I have spent a lot of time in gleaning information (with lots of hyperlinks to the infinite information available on the web) and blogging, which, irrespective of whether anyone reads my blog (do not know if they do! If any one reads regularly, leave me a comment or email me!), this effort taken to blog also provides a historical timeline of some of the things I read online. In fact, it all started with me using Blogger to keep a running compilation of various interesting things on subjects of interest to me that I ran into while surfing online... but earlier this year, I decided to also blog (on this blog) in a more traditional sense. However, I also started keeping a list of the many books I read and also occasionally write my impressions, comments, and occasionally a short review of some of the books I read.

Well.. here is my initial gut reaction to a book I started perusing through last week, albeit after reading only a few dozen pages.

I remember, in the late 90s, my Dad asked me to get a book, Intellectuals : From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky by Paul Johnson. However, when we both read it, we were both very disappointed with his gossipy bios of these luminaries.

Others also have felt the same with the book - see these two reviews, for example:

Conservative historian Paul Johnson wears his ideology proudly on his sleeve in this often ruthless dissection of the thinkers and artists who (in his view) have shaped modern Western culture, having replaced some 200 years ago "the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind." Taking on the likes of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, and Noam Chomsky in turn, Johnson examines one idol after another and finds them all to have feet of clay. In his account, for instance, Ernest Hemingway emerges as an artistic hero who labored endlessly to forge a literary style unmistakably his own, but also as a deeply flawed man whose concern for the perfect phrase did not carry over to a concern for the women who loved him. Gossipy and sharply opinionated, Johnson's essay in cultural history spares no one. - via Amazon.com

Does it really matter that Henrik Ibsen was vain and arrogant, that Jean-Paul Sartre was incontinent? In Johnson's view, it does: these all-too-human foibles disqualify them, and other thinkers, from presuming to criticize the shortcomings of society. "Beware intellectuals," he concludes (though, given the subjects of his book, it seems he means intellectuals only of the left). "Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice." Whether one agrees or not, Johnson's profiles are frequently amusing and illuminating, as when he suggests that the only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid, except in room and board, for her labors. --Gregory McNamee

Johnson here sets his sights on Marx, Sartre, Shelley, Tolstoy, Brecht, Ibsen and others. "Written from a conservative standpoint, these pummeling profiles of illustrious intellectuals are caustic, skewed, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging," - From Publishers Weekly


The new book by him that I picked up at the public library last week is called Creators : From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney, which is a profile of various artistic, creative heroes.

Despite our experience with the former book, I picked this one up to read from the public library after I read the preface to this new book at the library itself, wherein the author admits that he got feedback from some people that the book was "mean-spirited, concentrating on the darker side of clever, talented individuals'. And so, to correct this, he is written a book on Creators, "dealing with men and women of outstanding originality" (and hopes to write a third book in the series on "Heroes, a book on people who have enriched history by careers or acts of conspicuous courage and leadership."

All good intentions with the potential to be great books for inspiration.. BUT.. based on the little bit of reading I have done so far, doesn’t look like he sticks to this promise to not focus on the negative elements of people's lives. Looks like Paul Johnson is a very opinionated bitter right-wing conservative man although he has made a name as a historian of some repute. In my mind, however, he is essentially is a tabloid-writer by nature who indulges in mud-slinging at the political left and other liberal-minded people.

Although less gossipy than the previous one, it is still caustic and once again is full of biased, opinionated, pointed remarks about these famous people and their lives. For example, reading the chapter on Jane Austen, who incidentally has written just six novels (all famous and never out of print for over 200 years now!), made me realize that this guy is probably also a sexist. While on the one hand he writes about the huge challenges women faced due to stereotypes in that age which forced ‘women striving to reach the heights of creativity to lead isolated, lonely, and often desperate lives’, he himself uses language and pointed stereotypical words like, “She thought a good deal about handsome young men, and there is even a suggestion that she was a husband-hunter. Well, what normal girl was not, in those days? But no one ever suggested that she was a beauty.” And then.. “The chances are that Jan Austen was no more than ‘a fine girl’, the rather dismissive phrase that she uses to describe a houng woman who has no claim to personal distinction in her looks.

He says this in trying to make a point that in those days, ‘beautiful women got married and produced children instead of novels. If Jane Austen was beautiful, we would have never heard of her.’ See what I mean by nonsensical, stereotypical, gossipy, and shallow speculation about the lives, looks, and motivations for these creative people.

Almost feel like it’s a waste of my time to read this book when there are so many good books to read – I hae half a mind to not even read any more of his book though I might continue reading some more as I do love to read biographies of people and get more insight into their lives than merely their accomplishments that we have heard about before.

P.S. There are some good sentences on what creativity means and what traits creative people have and how they used it to breakthrough and create lasting works of art and literature (the book concentrates only on these fields and not on creativity in the sciences) which I will copy and blog about later…

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