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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

     

A Temple of Texts

by
William H. Gass


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Temple of Texts



Title: A Temple of Texts
Author: William H. Gass
Genre: Essays
Written: 2006
Length: 418 pages
Availability: A Temple of Texts - US
A Temple of Texts - UK
A Temple of Texts - Canada
A Temple of Texts - India
  • Collects previously published material, including book reviews and introductions to book

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Our Assessment:

A- : spirited literary defense

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 26/3/2006 Scott Timberg
The NY Sun . 15/2/2006 Adam Kirsch
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2006 Thomas Hove
San Francisco Chronicle . 7/5/2006 Kenneth Baker
The Washington Post . 19/2/2006 Michael Dirda


  From the Reviews:
  • "A Temple of Texts (...) shows a great mind that's been tending the same vineyard too long. (...) What undercuts this volume is that it is essentially defensive. For every classic extolled or overlooked novelist exhumed, there's a knock at pop culture." - Scott Timberg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "A Temple of Texts is a beaker of bile, and Mr.Gass knows the pessimist's great satisfaction of always being proved right. (...) Still, the point of a rant, for a writer like Mr.Gass, is less to convince the reader than to dazzle him with rhetorical excess." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "These essays prove that even the moribund discourse of critical appreciation can still achieve greatness in the hands of a master practitioner." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "How can an essayist take so long to arrive at his point ? And why does his point so often turn out to resemble a multiple-target warhead ? Why do the 400-odd-pages of his latest collection, A Temple of Texts, read like 600 ? (...) He repeatedly thrusts that material into the foreground with puns and paradoxes, whiplash changes in rhythm and a leapfrogging of sound and sense. Anyone who does not enjoy seeing thought rematerialized will not enjoy much of A Temple of Texts." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "No one is better than William H. Gass at communicating the sublime and rapturous excitement of reading. (...) Occasionally, Gass's relentless Technicolor leaves his page somewhat blurry to the casual, hurried reader, so just slow down. (...) A Temple of Texts provides the most seductive introduction to Gass's world of words, if only because it includes an annotated list of his favorite books. (...) In some essays Gass can scarcely subdue his anger at the enemies of art and civilization. The cowboy jingoist and the fundamentally religious won't find his views to their taste, nor will those who worship at the altar of the Internet or sacrifice to the American idols of pop culture" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Temple of Texts collects a variety of William Gass' writings on literature from the past quarter of a century (though most of the pieces are relatively recent). There are numerous book-introductions and forewords, and several reviews -- all generally quite in-depth --, as well as a variety of other pieces with a literary focus. What marks them all is an incredible enthusiasm for the literary, and a fascination (and deep knowledge) of both the traditional and the experimental. Gass proves himself again very much the bookish writer, and a reading writer, repeatedly emphasising the necessity of familiarity with the old to create the new.
       The first three pieces specifically address -- as the title of one of them has it --: "Influence". The title-piece is a compendium of "fifty literary pillars", previously published as a pamphlet of "fifty works that I was prepared to say had influenced my work." Naturally -- and to his dismay -- :

this list was immediately taken to be a roll call of "best books," an activity I have no sympathy for, and certainly did not apply in this case, because not all great achievements are influential.
       Indeed, Gass' approach is clearly the more interesting and revealing one -- at least as it applies to him and his work (but then again, how many people are familiar with his work ?). In taking reading as the personal experience it mainly is, the idea of influence pervades much of this book: even where Gass is introducing a text to an audience, in a foreword or review, he often sees it as part of a lineage of texts. Of course, several of these titles -- most notably Alasdair Gray's The Book of Prefaces and Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy -- specifically lend themselves to this approach, but even elsewhere it is noticeable.
       Because of the breadth and depth of his reading, many of Gass' pieces are a roller-coaster ride of reference and allusion, generally to good and informative (if also slightly overwhelming) effect. His review of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel begins with Socrates' nose, Gass catching the newest translator (Andrew Brown) 'correcting' Rabelais' version (making a nez pointu into a "snub nose") and ingeniously then combining a comparison of translations and approaches with a reading of the book itself.
       The mix of pieces on grand classics and some smaller, more recent work (Ernesto Sábato's On Heroes and Tombs, John Hawkes' Humors of Blood & Skin, Robert Coover's The Public Burning) makes for a slightly skewed collection, but Gass has something of interest to say about them all. Often there's a personal touch -- an encounter with Canetti, in a review of The Tongue Set Free, or his experience of being mistaken for William Gaddis (in 'William Gaddis and his Goddamn Books') -- which he handles quite well (though the references to 'Jack' Barth and 'Jack' Hawkes prove mildly irritating).
       Rainer Maria Rilke is one of Gass' major influences ("I became a Rilke junkie. I cannot let many days pass without having a fix", he admits), and he crops up repeatedly. Among the more ambitious pieces is 'Rilke and the Requiem', a creative introduction/appreciation/survey.
       Several of the pieces are general defenses of the literary, most notably 'A Defense of the Book', in which he makes his heartfelt case for the library and the book. He offers a variety of explanations and reasons for being a book-fan, including:
     Because books are like bicycles: You travel under your own power and proceed at your own pace., your riding is silent and will not pollute, no one is endangered by your journey -- not frightened, maimed, or killed -- and the exercise is good for you.
       A Temple of Texts is written by one who both venerates and appreciates texts (and also has the critical faculties not to be entirely blind to their defects), and it makes for a spirited defense of literary tradition -- whereby Gass sees that tradition very much also in the modern, with literature still very much a field that is alive and in which much good and interesting work is (or can be) done. It's a marvelous collection of often very creative pieces on important (and a few lesser) works, as well as more general essays, and though much might be familiar from when it was first published (in magazines, or as book introductions), -- and though it is a bit of a hodgepodge -- it's nice to have it all collected, and it makes for a very worthwhile collection.

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Links:

A Temple of Texts: Reviews: William H. Gass:
  • Interview in The Paris Review (1977)
  • Interview in Bomb (1995)
  • Interview in The Believer (2005)
  • Interview with Pif Magazine (2000)
  • Interview with Arthur M. Saltzman, from the Review of Contemporary Fiction (1991)
  • William H. Gass on the St. Louis Walk of Fame (We're still not sure if it is an elaborate joke or yet another symbol of a world gone mad)
Other books by William Gass under Review: Other books under review that might be of Interest:

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About the Author:

       American author William H. Gass was born in 1924. He taught at Washington University and has written several works of fiction and non-fiction.

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© 2006-2013 the complete review

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