Suffering draws to a close

The reviews of This Republic of Suffering are drawing down, with only three pages of links indexed on Yahoo News and Google News.

The intriguing trend noted earlier - of assigning a writer especially to the review - continues. So too, the flip side of that - no syndication to speak of. I have seen but one outlet pick up the Bloomberg piece and none have run with the Washington Post's, New York Times', or Boston Globe's. This may be a side effect of commissioning "special to the paper" pieces, with some restriction on syndication. Not sure.

The sole exception to this syndication comes from the Sol agency which has racked up three reprints, by my count, of a review by its columnist Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri reflects, in her corpus, the tragic effects of freelancing: generating too much copy too fast to pay too many bills. By her own count, she "reads" five books a week and her review of Faust shows the depth of this "reading." Her review treats Suffering as if it were a newspaper account of deaths and dying in the Civil War. She can't get past the interesting and useful information. I'm not sure that's an unfair approach to looking at this tome but it took me by surprise, given the alternate tendency to frame Suffering as an invitation to meditation.

The Harvard Crimson weirdly wraps its own review of the book into a far-ranging news story considering Faust's Civil War writing career; its writer appears fearful of giving any opinion and he thoughtlessly, even cruelly enlists James McPherson and Edward Ayers to comment on Faust's significance to the field of Civil War history. (Among the mistakes of immaturity, publicly "validating" the president of your college is a beauty.)

The Christian Science Monitor states that "It is the struggle for meaning that is at the core of this book." Yet this review fails to examine Faust's strategies for engaging the reader in a struggle for meaning. Perhaps the Monitor sees "meaning" as a problem Faust is supposed to solve for the audience. The review offers a flat, simple recapitulation of a few points in the volume. Thanks be, this critic - the paper's book editor - avoids recapping dust cover copy.

The New York Times has placed Suffering at the top of its "Editor's Choice List." In a single-line the compiler sums up its importance as political and sociological: "The lasting but little-understood impact of the war’s immense loss of life is the subject of this extraordinary account by Faust, who is president of Harvard." Written like a true newshound: Suffering as a civics lesson offered by a distinguished educator. Here another reader successfully avoids Faust's invitation to find personal meaning in her subject.

If the publishing phenomenon of Suffering were to be summarized, this would likely be it: A book thought important by editors and assigned to writers who could not digest the offering. We have a raft of pieces written by people who think this tome is important but cannot quite say why. This is a dilemma constantly facing cafe society: "important" books that are hard to "get." Cafe society favorites like the late Susan Sontag can make a career churning out titles of seeming importance. The reviewer's strategy for dealing with such is to blandly recapitulate some points, indicate importance generally, and move on. Here Faust is reaping those reviewing "chops" - the question remains as to whether she deserves this reaction.

I will post my own review of Suffering. I had, based on the publicity materials, expected a superficial, generic, and highly derivative work and will explore those issues here later in the week.

Previous Suffering recaps here and here.

Edward Ayers' review in the Chronicle of Higher Education is subscription-only and therefore not linked here.