Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hugging the Shore by John Updike: A review

Hugging the Shore: Essays and CriticismHugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been periodically dipping into this book for months now and finally I feel as though I've read, if not every word, at least enough of them to have formed an opinion. Although I must say that writing a review of a book by John Updike in which he reviewed and offered criticism of the work of other writers is a rather daunting prospect.

Updike was, of course, a famous reviewer of books, especially for The New Yorker, in his day. This particular collection was published in 1983 and it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism that year. Sometime after that - I don't remember when - I purchased it at Barnes and Noble and it has languished on my bookshelf ever since, waiting to be read. Last summer, I decided it was time and so I began and now in the new year I am prepared to mark the book "read."

Updike explains the title of his book as an allusion to the critic who does not venture far from the shore or go into the deep waters. Instead, it is the creator of fiction, the dreamer, who sails far out to sea, where the safe sight of land disappears from view and one is entirely on his/her own. He obviously was an admirer of those who took the risk to expose the worlds of their creation to the critical view of the readers.

Most of the writers whom he reviewed were his contemporaries, but we also get three long essays, appreciations really, of writers he terms "American Masters" - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. As a long-time admirer of Melville, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about him, and I was struck again with the sad fact that so much of Melville's work, including his master work, Moby Dick, was not really appreciated during his lifetime.

Here we have Updike's thoughts on the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Iris Murdoch, Italo Calvino, and many more. It is such a pleasure to read his perspectives on these authors, even when I don't necessarily always agree with him. His reviews are always thought-provoking.

In addition to his reviews of works by professional writers, we also are able to read his criticism of memoirs by people like Doris Day and Louise Brooks. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Doris Day when I grew up, but had I had any idea of some of the sorrows of her life perhaps I would have looked elsewhere for a role model. On the other hand, she survived and overcame her troubles, so she was not a bad role model after all.

This is a very long book, stretching out to well over 800 pages, and it is not just book reviews and criticism. There are a number of essays included on a variety of subjects which interested Updike, not least of which was golf and golfers like Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. In fact, there are two essays on golf.

Updike was a master wordsmith. He could string words together with the best of them, and it is a pleasure to read his smooth and flowing sentences, even when those sentences were written on a subject that didn't necessarily interest me, like golf. Just to view his writerly craftsmanship was an instruction in the art of writing. I expect I will continue to dip into this book for months to come.


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