Wherein I take a book review too personally

In yesterday’s New York Times had a book review essay that got me thinking. And not necessarily happy thoughts.

Joe Queenan reviews Henry Petroski’s new book The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, and it’s not a particularly flattering review. The review is not so much unflattering of the book or the writing, per se, but rather of the general trend in a great deal of academic work that looks towards the role of the quotidian objects of world history.

(By the way, I just noticed that the Times Book Review puts books in quotation marks and not italics. Or at least this essay does. What’s up with that? Anyway …)

Queenan proposes an intervention for Petroski, like the sort of intervention that John Travolta needed after making Battleship Earth. He explains that


The very existence of “The Toothpick” is a testimony to the perils of inhabiting a permissive society, for just as the unchastised teenage shoplifter, mistaking society’s indulgence for applause, will evolve into a bloodthirsty hired killer, it is inevitable that the author of “The Pencil” will one day morph into the author of “The Toothpick.” Quite rightly, he assumes that society is simply not paying attention anymore.

“The Toothpick” is animated by the dubious proposition that the venerable mouth-cleaning device in and of itself is worthy of our consideration.


Queenan points out the response that reviewers will have, and why he thinks he is inappropriate:
Reviewers of “The Toothpick” will automatically lump Petroski’s work in with “Salt,” “Cod,” “How Soccer Explains the World,” “A History of the World in Six Glasses” and other volumes that view society through an odd prism. These books argue that without cod, salt, booze or the penalty kick, we would not be where we are today. This is true, though the same could be said about tuna, cocaine, beavers, coriander, the infield-fly rule and the “going out of business” sale. These books settle arguments no one is having.

Moreover, comparing “The Toothpick” to these other works is inappropriate. Books of the “How Longitude or Beer or the Irish or Something Changed Civilization” sort are mostly the work of journalists. No strangers to harmless hyperbole, these writers desperately want to close the deal but are aware that unless they keep hawking their wares, the reader may nod off. …

“The Toothpick,” by contrast, is the work of a maddeningly sober pedant who is anything but a crowd pleaser.


The response that Queenan has – that these are arguments no one has – frustrates me. My initial response is that this is the sort of response scholars had when feminist scholars suggested that woman’s daily lives might be worthy of study.

This isn’t even what I find most frustrating in Queenan’s response to this book (a book, I must admit that I haven’t read). Queenan out of hand dismisses the work of any scholar who works with material culture – and particularly the quotidian material culture. These are things that are important.

I admit that I do find it pretty funny to look at the history shelves of my local bookstore – there are many, many books claiming this, that or the other peoples invented the modern world or the modern human. At the same time, this dismissal of salt and cod – and even the toothpick – suggests a lack of understanding of a great deal of current scholarship. Although books by journalists are not the same as books by scholars (those of use that Queenan calls pedants. Ahem), the argument that salt is an important material for modern culture is true – salt, not coriander meant that people could preserve food, which in turn enabled further sea travel. Is this the most important thing for modern existence? Not necessarily, but it is one of a variety of important pieces that make up cultural history.

This gets me back to my initial response – Queenan insists that “these are arguments that no one is having.” I’m simply not sure that this is true. It took a major overhaul of the way that we think about the nature of scholarship – in history, art, literature, etc. – that we moved away from thinking about history as moments when great men did great things.

I’m getting long … but I’m just trying to think through this article. Part of the reason that I’m so immediately bothered by it is that it essentially attacks what I do. I’m preparing to return to a small project on tobacco usage on the early modern stage. Would Queenan think that this is irrelevant? I’m not going to argue that it’s the most important thing in the world, but talking about these things does allow us insight into the ways that people of other times thought and felt and lived.

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