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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Novel - A Biography by Michael Schmidt

Michael Schmidt, author of The Novel - A Biography, an impressive achievement, published in April of 2014.

Book Review:
 The Novel - A Biography
 by Michael Schmidt
April 14th, 2014 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
1100 pages, with index and time line

  Couple facts to know about The Novel - A Biography by Michael Schmidt are 1) This book is 1100 pages long.  2) This book is analogous to the 1001 Books Project, except it isn't a list, there are no pictures, and Schmidt draws his secondary material almost 100% from comments made by other Authors discussed in the book. 3) While the book isn't technically ordered chronologically, it does read that way, so that each chapter's main author/s are discussed sequentially, with later authors who were influenced by that writer grouped in the initial chapter.

  The Novel - A Biography may seem like an unlikely subject for a book that is seemingly written for a "general" Audience, but the idea of it being a Biography is key. After a straight up list, a biography is the genus of non fiction most amenable to the general audience for non fiction subjects, whether it be history, science or some other discipline.  Thus, calling this book a biography seems like a valid ploy as a marketing gimmick to engage a general readership with what is more of a history of the novel as an art form.

 Schmidt's decision to restrict his secondary material to comments by other Authors discussed in The Novel - A Biography proves savvy on a number of levels.  First, he excludes with one swipe of the hand a half century of unreadable critical theory. The inclusion of that material would have doubled the length and made The Novel - A Biography unapproachable.  Second, comments by one author about a second author are a good way to transition between putatively unrelated subjects.  Third, the reliance on a single category of secondary material binds the book together thematically, making a potentially unwieldy subject (and length)

  The amount of insight a random reader will derive from The Novel - A Biography will be inevitably tied to the amount of the authors discussed that the reader has read, and their underlying interest in the novel as an art form.  In my case, I score high on both axis-es, and came to see The Novel - A Biography as the second circle of a triangular venn diagram alongside 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and a third point to be determined.  Unsurprisingly, there was a huge overlap between the works discussed in The Novel - A Biography and 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  The areas of disagreement are limited- less discussion of German, French, Scandinavian and Latin American authors, in The Novel - A Biography, and a heavier discussion of English and American authors.

  Occasionally interesting discussions are interspersed with paragraphs that appear to be included in workmanlike fashion, and there are actual typographical errors and spelling variations of character names within a single sentence which made me question just how carefully this 1100 page book was put together.  Although I borrowed The Novel - A Biography from the library, I will likely be adding it to my personal library once the price drops from current newish release level prices.

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