Is it a good book?

In an upcoming issue (October), we will be publishing an interview with author Helen DeWitt, whose most recent book is the brilliant Lightning Rods. As a preview, we are excerpting an email response to an author who had sent her an unpublished book (perhaps an odd book), asking her to read it, and to reply as to whether she thought it was a “good book.” (The author’s agent did not much like the unpublished book.) After explaining how she saw the book, DeWitt went on…

HELEN DEWITT: I am not sure this really clears up the question of the simplest thing. (Is it a good book?) It’s hard for us, now, to recognize how radically other the work of late Wittgenstein was in the context of professional philosophy of the time. It has been packaged, commodified for us; it has not only glamour but credibility. There are commentaries, seminars, there is a philosophical literature, it has allowed a whole new industry to grow up. But all this, really, is the consequence of [Bertrand] Russell’s intervention on his behalf, getting him a place at Cambridge where he could work and lecture. He published very little in his lifetime; some of what we know of his work comes only from students’ notes in lectures. (You may remember that Wittgenstein, exploring the possibility of private languages, trying to think about how we talk about pain as if it were not just a sensation but a private sensation, trying to work out what we mean by “private”, says (I am paraphrasing grossly and carelessly): what would it be like if there were regions of pain, if we walked through these like patches of fog? Well, suppose you had someone doing that kind of work, and this person was in a relationship with someone who understood nothing about it, and the person doing the work had no purchase on the world of professional academia which could confer glamour, credibility? What would that be like? Maybe the most interesting question is not the validity of the theory.) But in any case, we see that Wittgenstein’s position, rather than the quality of the work, also confers glamour on forms which are completely outside the conventional forms of presentation of philosophy - on lecture notes, on note cards, on notebooks. So it then seems somehow as though asking whether this is a good book is really a way of smuggling in questions about form, because there are forms of fiction which have established an unquestionable claim to legitimacy.

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Image source: “Ludwig Wittgenstein und Bertrand Russell,” oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm, 2009, Bernhard Brungs