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Authors: John Updike

Picked-Up Pieces

BOOK: Picked-Up Pieces
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Picked-Up Pieces
is a work of nonfiction.

2012 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition

Copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975
by John Updike

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1966.

Owing to limitations of space, all permissions to reprint previously published material may be found on
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eISBN: 978-0-679-64586-3

Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © DEA /A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images



, ten years ago, of
Assorted Prose
, most of my pieces of non-fictional prose have been book reviews. And these were written mostly for
The New Yorker
. It has not been easy, I dare say, for the editors of “the kindest magazine in the world” (as Nabokov describes its pseudonym
The Beau and the Butterfly
) to locate books that might fall within my nebulous competence. When,
1960, I gratuitously volunteered to be a critic, humorous verse and theology were the only areas where a data-density map of my brain would have shown even a faint darkening. In this latter area my information appeared out-of-the-ordinary primarily because the ordinary, in those bad old materialist days, before the Beatles spiritualized us all, was nil. Out of deference to my curious hobby, Christianity, I was permitted to treat, at suitably anxious length, of Karl Barth (in the earlier collection) and (in this) of Kierkegaard. For a time, indeed, there was some danger of my becoming a kind of
ad hominem
Religious Department; those slim, worthy-looking volumes by Tillich and Heidegger that keep cluttering a book editor’s desk—what better disposal than to send them off to Updike for a “note”? The section “Religious Notes” remembers this epoch, a time of faith on all sides.

An aspiring American writer myself, I clearly could not be trusted to clip the tender new shoots of my competitors. The esoteric fiction of Europe, however, was an ocean removed from envy’s blight, and my practitioner’s technical side was glad to investigate imported gadgetry. Borges, Queneau, Pinget, van Ostaijen, Cortázar—I am happy thus to have made their acquaintance, and made note of their lessons. Sure enough, when an American (Kosinski, Piercy) or an Englishman (Ayrton,
Collier) got mixed into my periodic dose of the avant garde, a brusquer assurance and a chummy impatience did creep into my tone, which when dealing with translated works assumed the even omnivorous rumble of a grist mill.

More lately, the Fates that spin
The New Yorker
’s “Books” Department have taken to testing my iron digestion with books about Brazilian Indians and body cells. Evidently I can read anything in English and muster up an opinion about it. I am not sure, however, the stunt is good for me. Among these reviews I am proudest of—though what I feel for my utmost favorites is still a step-emotion to the parent’s pride taken in the feeblest tyke of a story or poem—those most voluntary: essays of celebration and promulgation moved by a prior enthusiasm (Kierkegaard, Borges, Proust, Fuchs) or assignments that provoked me to read more, or think deeper, than was strictly called for (the pieces on Camus, Hamsun, Hemingway, Joyce, and Africans seem such). Apologies, if any, would be tendered to those authors, like Grass and Gombrowicz, who came to me coated with a muffling murk of missed nuances—dusty plaster replicas of statues whose pure marble glowed in an inaccessible museum. But even when the visibility was poorest I tried to give each book the benefit of a code of reviewing drawn up inwardly when I embarked on this craft, or (“a man should have a trade,” my father used to insist) trade.

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers
themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

BOOK: Picked-Up Pieces
11.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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