old school criticism

P.549Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:

Both these excellent books — Christopher de Hamel’s “Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts” and Jorge Carrión’s “Bookshops” — reinvigorate an old-fashioned form of criticism, sometimes summed up by the phrase “the adventures of a soul among masterpieces.”

During the middle part of the 20th century, humanist scholarship in many disciplines modeled itself on the sciences, rejecting anything that smacked of the personal, subjective and essayistic. To art scholars, traditional connoisseurship was deemed overly impressionistic; in literary study, New Critics — under the banner of “the poem itself” — banished the biographical in favor of intensive verbal analysis; among historians, the Annales school shied away from narrative and fine writing, as practiced by a Gibbon or Michelet, to emphasize data, data, data.

No one would deny the crucial value of technical, “just the facts, ma’am” approaches, but they can seem more than a little arid to anyone not already passionate about a subject. Certainly, casual readers gravitate to scholarly books that combine knowledge and authority with a winning style and a vivid sense of the author’s personality. De Hamel and Carrión each show how this can be done supremely well.

more here.