cover image Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading

Robert Christgau. Duke Univ., $27.95 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-4780-0030-3

Veteran music critic Christgau (Going into the City) assembles a wide swath of book reviews, written over the past half century, by turns impressively meticulous and frustratingly self-indulgent. Christgau mostly writes on books by or about notable musicians, though he hits other cultural touchstones too, such as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s in these nonmusic pieces that Christgau is most successful, shifting focus from his encyclopedic music-industry knowledge to the nuances of language. His essay on books about the 2008 financial crisis is a highlight. Part of the problem, Christgau writes, is how bankers talk about what they do, such as by calling insurance policies “swaps,” or, more generally, making “human beings into abstractions by making abstractions the substance of their private subcultural argot.” It’s unfortunate, then, that for all the attention paid to linguistic clarity, Christgau sometimes ignores his own advice, frequently employing hyperspecific references that obfuscate rather than illuminate. For instance, in a review of a book about singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, Christgau showers the reader with song and record label names yet neglects Cooke’s defining characteristic: his voice. Indeed, it’s Christgau’s own voice that comes through most strongly in this collection, to both the advantage and detriment of the books under discussion. (Apr.)