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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical / literary essays


My Unwritten Books

George Steiner

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To purchase My Unwritten Books

Title: My Unwritten Books
Author: George Steiner
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 209 pages
Availability: My Unwritten Books - US
My Unwritten Books - UK
My Unwritten Books - Canada
Les livres que je n'ai pas écrits - France
Meine ungeschriebenen Bücher - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A- : great idea, and covers most of the familiar Steiner-bases

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A 2-3/2008 Nick Tosches
Frankfurter Rundschau . 30/10/2007 Gert Loschütz
The Guardian . 19/1/2008 Blake Morrison
The Indepepndent . 1/2/2008 Bryan Cheyette
Independent on Sunday . 3/2/2008 Mark Bostridge
The LA Times . 3/2/2008 Susan Salter Reynolds
The NY Sun . 16/1/2008 Noah Isenberg
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/2/2008 Ben Marcus
The Observer . 2/2/2008 Peter Conrad
Philadelphia Inquirer A 30/12/2007 Carlin Romano
The Spectator . 20/2/2008 Alberto Manguel
Sunday Times . 6/1/2008 Christopher Hart
TLS . 2/5/2008 David Martin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Steiner has here transformed the vaporous conceptions of his life, the vapors of what never was and never will be, from their aeriform state to a fine and ethereal substantiality. My Unwritten Books is a gathering of shades, an elegant and eloquent gathering of mind, feeling, and autumnal passion. (...) And that is the lovely irony of this unique little book. None of these unwritten books should have been written. They are better here, as they are, untamed and errant phantoms of a brilliance whose emanations no one mortal lifetime could ever accommodate in full." - Nick Tosches, Bookforum

  • "Es macht (wenn es nach all den ihm in den letzten Jahren widerfahrenen Heiligsprechungen erlaubt ist, solche Kategorien einzuführen) Spaß, ihm beim Jonglieren mit Begriffen, beim miteinander in Beziehung setzen und Verknüpfen der unterschiedlichsten Gebiete zuzuschauen." - Gert Loschütz, Frankfurter Rundschau

  • "Ten years on he comes across as more vulnerable still, overcome by late-flowering doubt and a crippling awareness of "the abyss at the heart of love". If he isn't exactly humble (his confessions of failure sometimes sound more like boasts), he remains his own man, and this spikily honest little book exposes more of the man than ever before." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "Steiner does not always get the balance right between such painful revelation and his scholarly subtext. In exploring the "interrelations between eros and language", he recalls rather too many multilingual sexual encounters which disclose the "private parts" of speech. Elsewhere he reprises his welcome Jewish diasporism in response to the nationalism of Israel. There is the best and worst of Steiner here. But even the worst is better than most." - Bryan Cheyette, The Indepepndent

  • "The themes behind Steiner's unwritten books -- language, translation, Jewishness, the Holocaust, the death of God -- reflect, not surprisingly, the major preoccupations of his career. What is perhaps more unexpected is the revelation of his own self-doubt, his admission of failure, and a strikingly appealing note, missing from much of his earlier work, of humility in the presence of his own great gifts." - Mark Bostridge, Independent on Sunday

  • "My Unwritten Books, seven essays on the seven books he has not written, is bravely done. After all, we are talking about failure -- but admitting it takes the kind of confidence born of success. The failures are variously explained, but they can also be thought of as crises of faith." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Whatever personal reasons he cites, however, it seems just as plausible these projects were abandoned because none of them could stand any kind of intellectual scrutiny. (...) Unfortunately, where Mr. Steiner has elsewhere exhibited linguistic subtlety, here the points he makes are crude at best (.....) Mr. Steiner's encyclopedic knowledge, on dazzling display in other work, is merely an impediment here. At times, his efforts to wow reach the level of self-caricature." - Noah Isenberg, The New York Sun

  • "These essays are not imaginary CliffsNotes; they stand alone and reveal Steiner at his most complex: irascible and passionate, erudite and self-absorbed, determined to engage the most difficult cultural problems. (...) Yet Steinerís omnivorous scholarship is too often interrupted by bursts of self-congratulation, or just congratulation (.....) If Steinerís self-admiration is warranted, perhaps he should have left it unwritten along with these books." - Ben Marcus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Why does he want us to read his unwritten ones ? There may be one advantage: Steiner's unwritten books are shorter (...) Occasionally, the cry vented by Steiner's text becomes a shriek. A fine essay on the academic vice of envy begins as an otiose self-accusation." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "My Unwritten Books is not, however, a compendium of wishful thinking. Each chapter is a thoughtful, fact-filled, lucid map of somewhere whose exploration, Steiner tells, he refuses to undertake. Mysteriously, the cartography suffices." - Alberto Manguel, The Spectator

  • "Truth be told, all seven of Steiner's essays merit expansion. (...) So many books, and so many we've lost. George Steiner's splendid My Unwritten Books suggests we need a pro-life movement in the publishing world -- now." - Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer

  • "The suspicion that Steiner may not actually want common readers is confirmed by the prose style. Often you can only guess at his meaning. (...) Although scornful of the obscurities of poststructuralism and deconstruction, Steinerís own writing is little better, suggesting all too vividly a world of comfortably tenured academics talking among themselves, in a language that deliberately excludes the rest of us, and effectively saying nothing anyway. (...) The most appealing and authentic passages are on his love of animals (.....) The pen portrait of his dog Ben is truly lovely, and his description of the way the mere presence of a dog gives a home a perpetual "warm hum", even when itís asleep, is worthy of Jilly Cooper." - Christopher Hart, Sunday Times

  • "Perhaps the angle of his lens is too wide for proper focus. The darting aperçu comes all too easily, as do psychologistic insinuations operating slyly in the middle ground between analysis and taking the very high moral ground. (...) The style, as Steiner says, proclaims the man: scintillating, seductive, "twopence coloured" rather than "penny plain", and not above bulldozing when the nature of the terrain gets in the way." - David Martin, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       In My Unwritten Books George Steiner describes seven book-ideas that never came to fruition, for a variety of reasons. One imagines there are, in fact, many more unwritten books and proposals in the Steiner-drawers, but these seven make for a neat summa of his life and interests, a 'best of' collection, in a way, that allows Steiner to riff on many of his favourite pre-occupations but also to condense them to about thirty pages each. It makes for an interesting collection, even as it raises more questions than it answers.
       Their status as unwritten -- imaginary, if you will -- books allows Steiner more leeway than usual, and so he's in a particularly playful mood. The book is marked by questioning -- not uncertainty, mind you, but the type of scholarly calling-into-question that is meant to lead further. Indeed, he seems more concerned with that than offering answers, as if it's a relief that he doesn't have to fix in final form the definitive determination that completed books would have required. And so one repeatedly finds him apparently certain -- only to immediately turn around and open the question again:

This must be an erroneous shibboleth. But is it ?
        The first unwritten book he describes is a volume for Frank Kermode's 'Modern Masters' series, for which Steiner wanted to write about the scholar behind the mammoth Science and Civilization in China (and much more), Joseph Needham. It's no surprise that Steiner is drawn to the man: "In range, in fruitfulness, Needham stands with Voltaire and Goethe", and Steiner has always had a thing for these prolific, boundary-breaking, connexion-making polymaths. And much of Needham's expertise was in areas that Steiner's -- himself quite far-reaching in his pursuits -- didn't always reach; certainly, Steiner turned to him for his understanding of China -- and, for example, that vexing question why the Chinese, who made many of the great scientific discoveries were unable (or unwilling) to capitalize on them, and why the scientific revolution only came about centuries later, in western Europe.
       Steiner is also fascinated by Science and Civilization in China itself, the type of encyclopaedic and all-consuming work that he himself never wrote but that surely also tempted him. He sees this kind of work as a genre all its own, Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy among the earliest examples. And, in a nice creative stroke, suggests the work that is most comparable to Needham's magnum opus is ... Marcel Proust's multi-volume saga.
       The second essay moves on to envy, including scholarly envy of the highest genius. The example Steiner uses, in the essay entitled 'Invidia', is that of the largely forgotten Cecco d'Ascoli, "a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo" who (along with his works) was burned -- at the same time as he presumably knew Dante's work was on its way to achieving immortality. Steiner's personal experiences -- working beside geniuses at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and describing scenes such as "J.Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand: 'You are so young and already you have done so little.'" -- add a nice touch -- as does the concluding explanation of why he didn't write a full-scale work on the subject: "it came too near the bone."
       In 'The Tongues of Eros' Steiner tackles sex -- and, in particular the interplay of language and sex. Hence the opening lines:
     What is the sexual life of a deaf-mute ? To what incitements and cadence does he or she masturbate ?
       This is perhaps not a question many people have asked themselves, but Steiner makes an interesting case for the connexion between language and sex -- and it's hard not to admire someone to whom it would occur to wonder: "How enriching it might be to have nightmares or wet dreams in, say, Albanian."
       Here the personal perhaps isn't quite as necessary: good for him that he can say: "I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages", but no one needs to know that:
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, my glorious ebony partner hummed at me: "Baby, you haven't seen anything yet."
       Writing about sex is hard, and the mix of theoretical and practical here further muddies the waters -- and makes it hard to read without smirking. Suddenly everything sounds like, at best, a double-entendre: "Every human tongue challenges reality in its own unique manner" ..... Yes, there's definite potential in the subject-matter -- but it would have been a hard book to find the proper tone for.
       In 'Zion' Steiner explores identity-issues, specifically the question of Jewish identity. Steiner has addressed this subject before, and notes again the remarkable success Jews have had in particular fields -- from chess to the sciences. "Some primal force is at work", he's led to think, but he has no real explanations either. Like 'The Tongues of Eros' this is a fairly clearly sketched-out piece, touching on the major issues and questions: the book it might have been in miniature, even if here more is in the form of the questions that need be asked than the answers to them.
       In 'School Terms' Steiner turns to education, the unwritten book a comparative study of different school systems -- something Steiner, who has taught in several different systems and been exposed to others, would have been well-qualified to do. The piece allows him to note the weaknesses and strengths of a variety of systems , and the rapid change in modern education. He's not sure what is most needed, but he expresses his disappointment at falling standards and calls for a basic sort of literacy in the important fields, which he sees as a necessary foundation.
       'Of Man and Beast' looks at man and animals, a connexion he argues is still a very close one. From writing about his family's pet dogs to more unsettling claims such as: "Those who have had sex with an animal are in congress with their own biological and psychosomatic past", he covers a lot of the bases here too. There are interesting questions raised here too, but this is perhaps the one out of the seven that is least missed as a full-fledged book.
       Finally, in 'Begging the Question' he turns to the philosophical again, in particular the question of his politics -- as he notes that he has never been politically active, and has always stayed more or less removed from that sphere.
       My Unwritten Books is a condensed Steiner-collection -- and a great introduction to the man and his many varied thoughts. A life-long teacher it does what he often did best: offer food for thought. It's crammed with ideas, with enough to debate and ponder for many lifetimes, and one of the things he manages is to present it in such a way that every reader can take just as much as they want from it: read it simply for the entertainment value, or underline every other line and discuss each of the many questions with anyone you can get to listen. (The questions and ideas are often so provocative that it shouldn't be a problem finding others to engage in debate with).
       It's the connexions -- Steiner's own ability to bring in literary, philosophical, scientific, mathematical, musical, and many other examples -- that make the book particularly lively. The personal experiences are a nice touch too, though not always: we could have done without the 'glorious ebony partner' or the dogs.
       Enjoyable and very thought-provoking, My Unwritten Books is well worthwhile.

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My Unwritten Books: Reviews: George Steiner: Other works by George Steiner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       George Steiner, born in 1929, is one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. A professor at Cambridge and Geneva, he is the author of numerous books.

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© 2007-2017 the complete review

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