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Nonfiction in Brief

MAZES Essays by Hugh Kenner (North Point Press: $22.95; 320 pp.)

June 25, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

Hugh Kenner, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University and author of many books including "The Pound Era" and "Joyce's Voices," has gathered a group of reviews, essays and obituaries published in a wide variety of magazines over a period of approximately 20 years. Some subjects he treats are very small--commas in the right place, for example, or the meaning of the astonishing fact that Henry James employed just 665 different words in "The Ambassadors" (Kenner appears to have actually counted them). Others are large, like King Kong.

However immense or minuscule the topic, Kenner manages to treat it as an astonishing pile of detail, much of which is interesting, but the cumulative effect of which is frequently stunning in its bulk. The reader is reminded of the high school lesson that the measure of a good essay is whether it conveys a single idea well. The single idea Kenner conveys in each piece is usually original and interesting, but one's endurance is severely tested en route. One is equally reminded of Sherlock Holmes' admonition that the mind is like a small room and one must be careful to bring into it only such information as will be of use.

Minutely crafted, the essays sometimes give the impression of grand contrivance rather than thoughtful expression. The titles are often precious: Classics by the Pound (Pound by the Kilo might have done just as well); Colonial Lexicon (on the Oxford English Dictionary); Rectitude and Certainty, on the semiotics of art criticism (what else could such a title possibly signify?); Miltonic Monkey (on King Kong, whose Miltonian ancestry seems rather contrived); McLuhan Redux (this certainly sounds like the medium standing in for the message); and The Irony About Irony.

Much of the information Kenner is so careful to assemble, however, is vastly entertaining. For the 1933 production of King Kong--which cost less than one-fiftieth of the 1970s production--the bill for sound effects came to a mere $450, including $10 for the squawk of a pterodactyl. Kenner has a keen ear for verbal foibles like that of former President Reagan, who on January 20, 1983, said: "We inherited a mess, but we're turning it around." And a keen eye for the printed error: The caption under a picture of Jules Verne in the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (vol. 10, page 401) apparently identifies the French author of classic adventure tales as " 'Auriparus flaviceps' (in Texas, the yellow-headed titmouse), photo courtesy National Audubon Society."

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