A year has passed here -- how do you feel we might do it better, or just differently?

January 21, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

A year has gone by, too swiftly for me easily to believe. But the first of these columns, on the first of these redesigned book pages, appeared on Sunday, Jan. 29, 1995.

I have had a grand time of it. Whether you have been a regular reader or are a casual, occasional one, I hope you have found these pages as provocative and nourishing as I have.

A year's end is a good time for reconsidering. Please help us do so.

I want to see your responses and your ideas. Please write me, however briefly, with your criticisms, appraisals or suggestions for these pages. What do you like or dislike, what would you like to see that you don't find here, what would you happily be rid of?

Every letter will be read carefully and taken seriously. Some of your ideas, I hope and expect, will lead to changes in the way we do things. Do get your letter or card postmarked Jan. 29 or before, so we can look at them all in the same context.

L What has this year been like from where I have been sitting?

Hard work, often joyful, almost always entertaining, sometimes ecstacy-inducing. This is a very interesting time to be doing what I have been doing.

It seems to me, and I hope this has been clear on these pages, that today the America that reads, intellectual America in the most hospitable sense of intellectual, is up for grabs.

Maniacs remain

The sentimentalities and hypocrisies that were used to brutalize much of Earth in Marx's name for much of the 20th century are dead as salt cod. Scary things still go bump in many nights these days. There remain visionaries and maniacs at the extremities of every spectrum. But never in a century has it been more clear that the howlers-at-the-moon on the left are blood brothers of those on the right. If, indeed, the left-right distinction itself retains a useful meaning.

This collapse of orthodoxies, this centripetal rush to a broad, largely agreeable middle ground, has occurred - I believe not coincidentally - at a moment at which the people of this Earth are generally better fed, better sheltered, more at peace, better educated and freer to express their minds and hearts than at any other time in human history.

There remain intolerable tyrannies and miseries, of course, and the duty of decent people to battle them is undiminished. It remains a mission of all art and literature in particular to expose and excoriate the failings of society.

But the stakes have changed fundamentally. The global movement toward liberation from orthodoxies makes this a magnificently exciting - and challenging - time for a life of the mind.

Today, thinking, writing, reading people throughout the world are engaged in the beginnings of fashioning a wholly new array of intellectual, aesthetic values. Those values will, as ever, lead the way in which Earth and its inhabitants are treated.

I don't know what those values will be, but I am confident of what they will not be: The exhausted pseudo-theocratic catechisms of much of the academy - Marxism-rooted, art-detesting rejection of three millennia of Judeo-Christian accumulation of humaneness and decency and rigorous intelligence.

On these pages, we will continue to try to track for you the record of that evolution, in forms that are clearly expressed, passionately felt and intelligently arrived at.

This past year of choosing books and the people who will review them, of wearing the top hat in a circus of ideas, has taught me lessons. The most exciting one was to have driven deeply home how dramatic is the line between the creative process and the scientific process.

Reviewing at its best is an act of intellectual creativity - informed, analytic, thoughtful, of course, but finally intuitive and spontaneous and emotional in a manner anathema to the process of scientific analysis.

Righteous, subjective

That is particularly true in reviewing fiction, where a hymn of ecstasy and a roar of contempt can both be "right" - intellectually defensible. But it has delighted me to find that righteous subjectivity also plays a significant role in the most provocative, and thus the most valuable, reviews of books of biography, history, current social and political issues.

How can this be so? Is there not a right and a wrong? Are there not clear standards? Of course there are standards, and by and large the books I choose to have reviewed more or less meet such accepted norms, or are particularly interesting because they do not, because they stand alone and apart.

But the important work of the mind - most of which finds its way into books - is process, not product. Most important writing involves a search for causality, a reach toward meaning, that most often is enigmatic - provocation, not bean-counting; art, not science.

The best of the reviews we have published here have been both richly informed and passionately personal. And so they will continue.

In five and 10 years, I hope and expect, the debates on these pages will engage and reflect an increasingly exciting declaration of spiritual independence coming from fiction and poetry and other writings of ideas.

I hope and expect to be here, being surprised. I look forward to being delighted and appalled, cataloguing hypocrisies and lauding the laudable loudly, going on asking some of the most perceptive and intellectually courageous minds thinking in the English language to write all about it.

Don't go away. I won't. But, help! Write me: The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD, 21278.

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