Harper’s magazine is the only periodical to which I subscribe whose issues I read cover-to-cover every single time. Or, that used to be true—until Zadie Smith stopped writing the ‘New Books’ section. I don’t really have anything against Larry McMurty or Joshua Cohen, who have succeeded her, but now it just seems like every book review section in any good periodical—sure, there are gems, but I don’t hesitate to skip over a review that doesn’t appear at a glance to interest me.
In our contemporary culture, where choice is paramount, so much emphasis is put on providing people the ability to get what they want that we seem to have forgotten a much more magical circumstance—when we are provided something we had no clue we deeply desired. Smith’s electric writing and astute opinions kept me reading the entire section, regardless of what she was talking about, and she supplied me such circumstances again and again.
This was the case in June 2011 when she reviewed a new book by an author I’d never heard of, Geoff Dyer, who I now consider one of the top essayists working today (I’ve since found this is not a particularly original judgement). The book Smith reviewed, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, includes meditations on Susan Sontag, Robert Capra, Richard Ford, and John Berger, among others, and a mode of intellectual exploration born purely of intense interest. “When asked by a librarian at the Institute of Jazz Studies what his credentials were for writing a book about jazz,” Smith writes, “[Dyer] replies, ‘I like listening to it.’”
Otherwise, which spans nearly 20 years of Dyer’s work, went on to win the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Criticism. He is also author of four novels, two other collections of essays, and five “genre-defying titles,” including book-length considerations of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The London Daily Telegraph recently called him “probably the best living writer in Britain.”
Dyer will present his work at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 8, in the Lavin-Bernick Center on Tulane’s campus as part of the university English department’s Writer’s Writer Series. His relative obscurity outside the world of letters makes him an apt inclusion in such a specific series, and he likely won’t draw much of an audience. But those writerly sorts who thrive on intense curiosity and insights rendered as adeptly as, “I am seized by two contradictory feelings: there is so much beauty in the world it is incredible that we are ever miserable for a moment; there is so much shit in the world that it is incredible we are ever happy for a moment,” should not miss it.