In A Temple of Texts, William H. Gass holds forth on the power and value of important and influential booksbooks that have influenced not only his own writing and career but also, in his opinion, literature and (mostly Western) thought through the centuries. Many of these selections, ranging generally from 1980 to 2004, are introductions, forewords, afterwords, or previously published reviews of classic and contemporary literature; most, though, stand “on their own” as essays on the nature of reading and of literature. A Temple of Texts is a book of meticulous performance and intricate composition.
Such musical terms provide a good metaphor for Gass’s work, for in many of the reviews and essays in the book, Gass critiques and writes of the “music” of literature and writingthe effects of tones, structure, and sound on the reader (and other writers). Indeed, in “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” Gass states that in good writing, “What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too.”
Gass is a “composer” of written language in much the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach or Claude Debussy were composers of music. Many of the essays have an overtone of depth or richness reminiscent of a Bach fugue, with themes appearing and subtly giving way to other themes. The essays, however, resist easy categorization. Though an essay will begin in a particular manner and keep that style through most of its length, every now and then there will be a plain, stark, perhaps dissonant line, phrase, or sentenceas if someone started playing “Jesus Loves Me” on a tuba in the middle of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Such a startling device is always intentional; it is Gass, tossing a rhetorical rock through the stained glass window of his own verbiage. Gass’s verbal compositions suffer no error gladly, as when he calls a “mushhead” anyone who would not understand the difference between a preface and a prologue (and continues the dissertation for several more pages, explaining as well what introduction, prolegomenon, foreword, epilogue, author’s note, invocation, and metapreface are). Indeed, if one accepts the word “didactic” in its neutral denotation of “having to do with teaching,” then Gass’s book is nothing if not that. One may not agree with Gass’s conclusions or his politics, but one will definitely know what he thinks.
His language on the page at times seems intended to make the reader marvel at its poetic flow, as if Gass were saying, “this is how it is done.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach; Gass is an accomplished stylist and critic of others’ styles, and, judging from the breadth of the books covered in the volume, he has done the reading and writing to prove it. At times the complexity of a sentence may require a reader to read it more than onceperhaps several timesto make sure that what the reader thought Gass said is what Gass really said, or simply to follow or catch the sense of a long, complex sentence. As a result, Gass’s essays are not “light” reading, nor are they easily and quickly rewarding to a casual reader; they demand thought, rereading, and reflection. Gass’s writing is, in a word, challengingto beliefs, to artistic sensibilities, and to intellect. In these challenges lies a potential dilemma: Should the reader bow to Gass the academic, author, and philosopher and read the essays on their own (that is, Gass’s) terms, necessitating recursion, reference, and reflection? Or will the reader take a stab at a couple of essays and then politely (or not) give up? Gass does not beg people to read his work, and he certainly does not make it easy. His writing stands in opposition to ignorance and shallow reading.
As such, these essays, to the twenty-first century reading eye (and attention span) may...
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