Joshua Cohen's 6 favorite works of criticism
The award-winning novelist recommends works by Janet Malcolm, Jorge Luis Borges, and more
Joshua Cohen, named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, is the author of Moving Kings, Book of Numbers, and a new nonfiction collection, Attention: Dispatches From a Land of Distraction. Below, he recommends six works of criticism.
Note Book by Jeff Nunokawa (Princeton, $30).
It's an idea as obvious as a face, and as inimitable: to turn Facebook into a book book. This recent masterpiece collects social media posts the author wrote across several years, each inspired by his reading and addressed to friends, to strangers, to the self, and to the offline dead. The totality is nothing less than an image of criticism's most hopeful future.
Shakespeare's Montaigne edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Platt (NYRB Classics, $19).
Shakespeare didn't just read Montaigne, he rewrote him for the stage. But Shakespeare relied on a translation of Montaigne by lexicographer and half-criminal John Florio. This book reprints, and interprets, Florio's translations.
Pirkei Avot (Koren, $20).
A stand-alone version of the definitive Jewish statement of ethics, also known as Chapters of the Fathers. Of the umpteen Fathers whose quotations constellate the chapters, Rabbi Tarfon has always been my favorite, and my master: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it."
In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm (NYRB Classics, $16).
This classic is a penetrating case study of three Freud scholars vying for supremacy and for the love of an absent dad. Complications ensue, along with, you guessed it, Freudian complexes. Malcolm's joining of form and content represents one of the only happy couplings I know.
Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges (Penguin, $26).
Lists are notable chiefly for what they exclude, warned Borges, and the idea has stuck with me, though I've never been able to rediscover the source. It may well be in this book — which, though containing only a fraction of Borges' nonfiction, also contains all worlds.
Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev by Maxim Gorky (out of print).
"Criticism" meant something different, and something differently dangerous, in the USSR. But decades after the fall of Communism and socialist realism's repackaging as American PC, we still don't know whether it's appropriate to read writers' lives alongside their work. Gorky's memoir of his betters, his best book, answers this question in the affirmative.