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Editor’s Choice: ‘There Is Simply Too Much to Think About’ by Saul Bellow

There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction by Saul Bellow edited by Benjamin Taylor; Viking, 532 pages ($35). This is the weekend that the first volume of Zachary Leader’s Saul Bellow biography appears. It’s unimaginatively called “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964.” Considering how much hay Bellow made out of literary biography in his fiction (Humboldt in “Humboldt’s Gift” was modeled on Delmore Schwartz, Ravelstein in “Ravelstein” was modeled on Allan Bloom), there needs, of course, to be a place where Bellow speaks without wearing a cloak of fiction. Bellow doesn’t begin to approach the essay achievements of other writers in his generation and environs – Gore Vidal, John Updike, Norman Mailer. While no one expects that, what is also self-evident here is that the novelist and essayist inside the same man are intellectual brothers, if not twins.

While one might be forgiven for shying away from a writer whose nonfiction is festooned with such leaden titles as “The Writer and the Audience,” “Where Do We Go From Here: The Future of Storytelling” and “The Writer as Moralist,” there are also reflections on Ellison, Dreiser, Roth, Yevtushenko and the conditions of a world that force a novelist to write “there is nothing left for us novelists to do but think. For unless we think, unless we make a clearer estimate of our condition, we will continue to write kid stuff, to fail our function; we will lack serious interests and become truly irrelevant.” But then, in a later decade, that “thinking writer” who so pleased the Nobel prize jury discovers that “few opinion makers are able to think at all. To leave matters in their hands is an acute danger” (that’s from 1992, just as we were warming up to the talk radio and cable news Babel these days where public debate seems entirely senseless).

The whole point of a novelist identifying as a public intellectual is that he’ll write as an intellectual with a novelist’s skills, burning at “the rejection of thinking in favor of wishful egalitarian dreaming … There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless – too many kinds of special preparation are required ... This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.” This is, to be sure, not “packaged opinion.”

– Jeff Simon

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