Reading Backwards, by John Crowley

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is a mixed volume of essays and reviews, and the reviews are the kind of reviews that are more essay than straightforward booknote. While the topics vary, the trend line of Crowley’s personal life means that the personal essays tend to veer literary and artistic anyway–with the exception of those that focus on end-of-life issues, which in some ways are the strongest in the book, the most compassionate and the most able to step outside their own perspective.

Because perspective is both the strength and the weakness of this volume. Crowley is, as you know if you’ve read any of his novels, an extremely erudite writer with a fluid prose style. Reading his essays is a window into that person, and mostly that is an extremely relaxing and enjoyable experience.

The problem comes in when there are places where he has failed to consider perspectives unlike his own to a degree that can make some of them feel blinkered–for a sentence, perhaps, in some cases, or for entire passages–and then I wrinkled my nose, drew back, wished that someone, at some point in his long life, had suggested to him that his might not be the only point of view worth considering. From casual sexist asides (“mentrix,” really? snark about how people used to raise their own children?) to book summaries that ham-handedly put the onus for racism in entirely the wrong place, there are all too many moments where a broader perspective would have improved the work immensely.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the collection got better as it went on. I’m glad I got past Crowley blithely asserting that everything is basically handled for wheelchair accessibility in US cities (what, no, that is not true) and apparently having no introspection about what it might mean to have lied about his sexuality to get out of the Vietnam War considering what toll the reality of that sexuality took on actual friends of his, because he did have other things to say that were very much worth hearing. But if you find those early essays too high a barrier to entry and find somewhere else to look for discussion of end of life care or the works of Richard Hughes, I can’t say I’ll blame you for that either. This is a very mixed bag indeed.

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