Reading the 21st Century

By Stan Persky

In a review of Tony Judt’s Reappraisals, Capilano University philosophy prof and literary commentator Stan Persky remarks how “the book is strikingly more coherent and tightly argued than one might expect from a compilation of seemingly disparate essays.” It is a comment that could just as easily be applied to Reading the 21st Century, the collection of essays and reviews that includes the Reappraisals review alongside with many others from the first decade of our new millennium.

Persky has structured the material so that the book as a whole stands as “an assessment of the important intellectual currents and the books that gave expression to them in the first decade of the 21st century.” So there are chapters on books about the new atheism, the fallout from 9/11, the economic crisis, and a wide variety of fiction from around the world (poetry is left out). But perhaps the most central theme developed is that of the fate of the book itself. Persky pulls no punches in his early essay “Ignorance in the Desert,” seeing “the decline of book reading and the deterioration of knowledge as an impending cultural catastrophe,” and concludes by sounding a “Code Red” alarm for cultural literacy.

What makes the book so appealing, however, isn’t this coherence but Persky’s facility with the form of the essay review. As a way of demonstrating that his reading is “not an abstract exercise” he makes use of personal and professional experiences in order “to show the relevance of books to our lives.” It is an engaging, openly idiosyncratic approach that always lets us know where he is coming from and what he is bringing to the table. Most reviewers shy away from injecting themselves into the frame so much, and Persky’s take – emphasizing reading over writing – is a refreshing change.

As with any such book there is much to quarrel with. For example there isn’t much said about Canadian writing, and two essays on Philip Roth is at least one too many considering how disappointing this master’s output has been over the past decade. But as Persky admits, every reader will have read a different 21st century a different way. His own reading is an alert defense of the important but now “endangered activity” of public criticism, “in the broadest sense of that term.”

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2011.

%d bloggers like this: