The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Errato, the Muse of Blogging

August 14, 2007
Washington, DC

Errato, the muse of blogging is, a harsh mistress. In addition to the typos, misattributions, gaffes and goofs that keep sneaking like gremlins into seemingly pristine copy, never forget the other, less forgivable kind of goof: saying what you meant to say and then realizing how wrongheaded it is.

Luckily, my invaluable colleague David Low -- in addition to feeding the gerbils whose exercise wheel powers this website -- is around to keep me honest. After my last post, in which I exhorted readers to mount "quality challenges" against the mediocre library books that tend to crowd out better ones, he found it "troubling that we'd post something suggesting that our Big Read list represents "good books" and that libraries (and bookstores) are full of "not so good books" that millions of people are buying, borrowing and enjoying."

He's right, of course; moreover, he can shut this blog down with an errant elbow any time he chooses. As if justifiably calling me out for elitism weren't mortifying enough, he quoted against me one of my favorite contemporary writers, Nick Hornby, whom I've reviewed favorably twice, and glowingly three times. I'll save the Hornby quote till my next post because it's on the long side, and also because I haven't found a good public-domain picture of him yet.

Meantime, forgive me for pulling a Terry Teachout (cultural omnivore, exemplary blogger at, National Council on the Arts member, and past master of the well-chosen quotation) by quoting in my feeble defense another favorite, Tom Stoppard. The occasion, in his play The Real Thing, is the playwright Henry Boot's wife's infatuation with a bad writer. Frustrated by her annoying inability to agree with him, he takes a cricket bat down from the mantel and tries to demolish the idea that quality is relative:

Oh, one other thing first -- "MCC" is apparently (i.e., per Google) the Marylebone Cricket Club, and "Lords" is the pitch where they play:

HENRY: This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly? [He clucks his tongue to make the noise.] What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might ? travel ? [He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.] Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting Ouch! with your hands stuck into your armpits. This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.

Is Henry right? Are good books better just because they're better, and if you can't hear it, tough toenails for you? Or is David Low right, and enjoyment hard enough to find without some smartypants critic making you feel guilty for finding a book you actually, harmlessly like? What do you think? What does Nick Hornby think? Tune in for copouts, honest vacillation, and split differences, when next we meet?