Thomas McGonigle in the Los Angeles Times:
John Armstrong knows he has an uphill battle in making a case for his subject, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The author even begins his book, “Love, Life, Goethe,” with the Dublin building-site joke he heard as a youth about how to say the German writer and philosopher’s name. “A new construction worker is a bit confused and asks: ‘Joist? Girder? What’s the difference?’ The foreman patiently explains: ‘Joist wrote Ulysses, Girder wrote Faust. ‘ ”
That brings us no closer to the correct pronunciation, but no matter. You know the name; you probably know that he wrote “Faust” and you might even know that he wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Italian Journey.” More likely, though, Goethe — whom James Joyce regarded as being in the great writers’ “Holy Trinity” along with Dante and Shakespeare — is one of those classic writers you didn’t get around to in college, let alone high school.
Armstrong argues in this fine and useful book that Goethe was not only a literary genius but also someone who explored the human yearning for happiness in an imperfect world. Although it’s wise to heed Mississippi writer Walker Percy’s admonition that a self-help tract works only while one is reading it, Armstrong has written the perfect volume to read in early January as you break nearly every New Year’s resolution.