A Great Bad Review

Book Critic Matt Taibbi of the NY Press has great fun trashing Thomas Friedman’s new book  THE WORLD IS FLAT. I’ve never read Friedman, and never will, but I thought the review was hilarious. Here’s an excerpt:

Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent  passages invite feature-length essays. I’ll give you an example, drawn at random
from The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here’s what he says:

I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.

Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.
This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It’s not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It’s that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it’s
absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of
dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that’s guaranteed, every
single time. He never misses.

Taibbi doesn’t just take potshots at Friedman — he also analyzes the substance of Friedman’s thesis, such as it is. But for me, this review will always hold a special place in my heart for this observation:

Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears
malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.

Surely, this is the first time Bob Denver and FAR OUT SPACE NUTS have ever been referred to in literary criticism…and I, for one, hope it’s not the last.

10 thoughts on “A Great Bad Review”

  1. Hunts for what? Ahem. Herd animals, Caribou for example, hunt for food by poking around the tundra looking for shoots and leaves. They also hunt for space in which to do this hunting/searching and for which to give birth, which this week just got closer to being limited by the US Congress. They never look in overhead bins though, although that may be part of the mitigation.
    The whole Friedman thesis stikes me as a keen perception of the obvious, but he has the stage so he uses it.

  2. Pretty picayune criticism if the best he could find is herd animals hunting.
    What I like better is this phrase:
    “the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit.”
    What I wouldn’t give to be able to write that sentence in some of my reviews. Heck, that alone could *be* the review.

  3. I am glad that someone read the book, Friedman has been all over my tivo lately… Daily Show, RealTime etc and his snarky smile irritated me. I have to agreee with Bill Peschel above on the review, that has been my take on him every time I have seen him.

  4. Well, that was only one thing. I’m a biologist so it’s sort of a joke. Although I’m serious about the Caribou issue. I loved the review. Read every word of it. Someday I hope to write a book that wouldn’t deserve it. But Friednman hasn’t. I particularly liked the “who can open windows in walls that have fallen flat?” That’s paraphrased.

  5. This is great. Yesterday I had to write my English exam analysing one of his articles and I found his thesis statements and his writing somewhere between very unintentionally amusing and very irritating. Where was this review yesterday? It was lots of fun reading this, thanks for posting!

  6. You know, that quote about getting on the airplane is exactly how I feel every time I fly. There are some times when you can mix metaphors and it works. Airlines do herd you onto the plane and then you do have to hunt for overhead space. I’m questioning the entire review based on that one quote. The reviewer could be right, but you’d think he’d give the best example, and that sure ain’t it.

  7. This is good too:
    He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity. Like George Bush, he’s in the reality-making business. In the new flat world, argument is no longer a two-way street for people like the president and the country’s most important columnist.
    Interestingly, a few months after the invasion of Iraq (which Friedman thought was necessary), he removed his e-mail address from his columns. I guess his self-image was suffering under the weight of I-told-you-so messages.
    David Brooks and Friedman should have a Sunday talk show called “Unstoppable Non-Sequitur Meets Immovable Malapropism.”

  8. Lee, while I am not a fan at all of nasty reviews, this points out EXACTLY what is wrong with so many people who *think* they know how to write!
    Friedman has a Pulitzer, doesn’t he? For column writing or something? But he has no clue about writing.
    People think they if they’re published – in any form – than they are writers. And I guess you can argue that they are. But a pub deal has nothing to do with whther or not you know how to write well.
    I’ve seen Friedman interviewed a couple of times, and by smart people. And they’re telling him what a great book he’s written. I’m convinced it’s Emperor’s clothes, or that really knowing what is good and bad writing is a much more difficult thing for people to get than I thought.


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