Reading a book review today, Neocon or Not? opened my eyes to why I like to read the NYT book reviews: there are often three ideas at play.
In this review, Robert Alter is reviewing Steven B Simth's biography of Leo Strauss. Those of us who saw the Tim Robbins play Embedded learned somthing about Leo Strauss. I'm sure I was not alone among the many who knew little of Strauss prior to this play. Smith's book, Reading Leo Strauss, may help me to better understand Strauss. But, in general, why is a book review so valuable?
Embedded placed Strauss in a 'Big-Brother-esque' position of the all-seeing eye over the machinations of the current neo-con oligarchy who run the country in the absence of real leadership. A not very flattering view, considering the behavior of the charicatures of the real people. Smith, if not Alter as well, seek to right that perception. Quoting Alter's review,
"Why some of his most prominent students missed this essential feature of his thought, and why they turned to the right, remains one of the mysteries of his intellectual legacy"
I guess I'd like to know why as well.
The book review, as this example shows, gives two more levels of analysis on the underlying subject. In this case, Alter, the reviewer agrees with Smith the author. Alter helps the generally informed reader by a choice of selective quotes, and by comparison to other work. I'm a recent secondary educator, amateur historian, and literary person, I'm made to feel more enlightened when any of these connections resonate. A well-written review challenges me to seek more answers, rather than feel demeaned becuase of any lack of knowledge on my part:
"... and Smith is right to assocaite Strauss with cold war liberals like Raymond Aron, ... and Lionel Trilling."
At this point ask myself, "Self, Lionel, ... Calvin ... any connection?" and adjourn to search