After the Tall Timber

Renata Adler

One of the downsides of my technique of requesting lots of popular books from the library and then reading them as I progress through long hold lists is that I sometimes get books when I’m not truly prepared to delve into them. Most likely I would have picked something lighter after just reading a long non-fiction book than another long non-fiction book. But there was no dallying when my turn came, as this clocks in at about 500 pages and plenty of library users were in line behind me; I only made it through about half the book before opting not to rack up fines to try to finish it. I’ve read mixed opinions about whether the first third or the last third is the strongest, so either I read the best part or missed it entirely.

Renata Adler’s work has been getting renewed interest thanks to her fiction being republished by the New York Review of Books and now this collection of her non-fiction as well, almost half of it pieces she wrote while a staff writer for The New Yorker. Also included is her infamously scathing review of Pauline Kael and some more contemporary essays that I might come back to someday.

It’s interesting to read her journalism from the 1960s, especially the pieces about civil rights marches in Selma and Mississippi, as these events have contemporary significance with the activism of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. From reading Speedboat last year, I found some certain similarities in style, even if the genre is theoretically different — most notably that Adler has a propensity for relating banal details with the wryest of punchlines. This was a bit less entertaining with her long essay about G. Gordon Liddy, of the Watergate scandal, which I skipped half of — though I skimmed through to make sure there wasn’t a point beyond documenting every bit of publicity he did that she witnessed upon the publication of his autobiography Will. I might go so far as to say that this kind of journalism loses its punch at a historical remove since there is less context to understand the whole story, while at the time of publication it would have been one of many pieces to glean information from and compile a bigger picture out of. Though this isn’t always true in this collection, as I don’t know a lot about the Six-Day War, but that piece included just enough background information to appreciate her observations.

I hope to get back to this someday. Even if I found the middle third too tough to get through quickly, I’m curious to see how where the outer thirds lie for me.

more from this author