(From Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle)
by Parul Sehgal | Mar-15-2011
This year’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, to Parul Sehgal, whose remarks are here:
I’m a bit overwhelmed. And I must confess that I’m wearing a sari not so much to signal ethnic pride than to conceal the knocking of my knees.
First of all, I must express my immense gratitude to the board of the National Book Critics Circle. To be acknowledged by my gurus, by writers I so respect, is an unprecedented thrill. And to be in the company, if only for a moment, with the finalists—Sarah L. Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, Kathryn Harrison—tremendous artists, all—leaves me on the verge of a swoon. Honestly, I’m less delighted than disbelieving. I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’ve been having nightmares of a bacon-clad Ron Charles trying to reclaim the award and prying it out of my presumptuous little paws.
It’s customary for the Balakian winner to share some of his or her ideas about book reviewing, to make a soothing speech about why reviews are useful and necessary and will survive. It’s the kind of speech I’m frankly pretty lousy at because 1.) I’m not very soothing and 2.) I hate the criteria. Utility, necessity, longevity—that’s not our bailiwick. Orthodonture is useful. A functioning judiciary and sewage system are necessary—and even in their absence, cities thrive (c.f. New Delhi).
The book review belongs to the province of pleasure. It directs readers to ideas that will stretch their sensoriums, that will give them a gladness, an exquisite fright or sorrow. And of course, our most skilled practitioners in this business of bliss produce reviews that are a veritable education, reviews that remind of me nothing so much as Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of the horse running, the gymnast leaping–those photographs that isolated locomotion, frame-by-frame. That’s what Daniel Mendelsohn or Sam Anderson (both Balakian winners, I realize) do for me. Their reviews show me how a mind moves. How it gathers itself, pounces, pivots, preens, reconsiders, repents, creeps to a conclusion. A review is someone performing thinking, and our finest reviewers are, to my mind, no less remarkable than our finest athletes: what do they do but exercise their precision, subtlety, and stamina for our enjoyment?