Menand + Conover
by Weston Cutter
It happens: there’s more of one than the other (graham crackers vs. apples, Doritos vs. room in the stomach, books vs. time [more specifically, book reviews to write vs. other things to write]). This isn’t a fair treatment to the two following books, but I keep looking at them sitting here, keep telling myself to review them, and now, well, here we are. For the record, just so I don’t have to write it at the start of each review: I’d read anything written by Louis Menand or Ted Conover, and you should, too. Onward.
I mean seriously, though, have you read this guy? You read American Studies and The Metaphysical Club, right? It’s easy enough to just blase-ly praise Louis Menand—Pulitzer, Harvard faculty, New Yorker staffer—but the guy cooks. In this exceptionally rich time of highfalutin theoretical and ideational nonfiction (David Shields, Ander Monson, the massively great Jake Silverstein—more on him coming soon), it can be (maybe just for me) easy to forget one of the great, great gifts of good nonfiction, which is this: it makes stuff more clear. Simple, right?
See, but it’s not. Whatever you’re into—city planning, jazz drumming, HS chemistry—go ahead and try to think real hard about it and then formulate a discussion about the tenets of it, the ideational constructs that’ve made that field what it is. You there? Tough? This is why we need writers like Menand, because in 158 pages the guy distills and boils down and de-gnarls the monumentally complicated aspects of general education at the college level (lest that sound like an uncomplicated task, take five minutes and try to come up with even a fuzzy roadmap of the issues at play)(I don’t mean to make that sound critical—maybe you’re a Menand, too—but I can’t do with it all the time and scratch paper on earth).
I dig the issue because it’s my line of work, but the great and not great part of post-secondary education in this country is that, no matter your line of work, it’s sort of that Trotsky-ian line: you may not take a great interest in gen ed, but gen ed takes a great interest in you (simple Q that highlights the issue, a la Hirsch: what texts should ever sixteen year old US student be familiar with?). The book should certainly be required reading for every college educator in the country, but honestly, I can think of no one who wouldn’t be well-served by a three hour bout with this book. Seriously, hear that? The couch is calling, and the book’s available everywhere.
Conover’s been glory to me for years because of Newjack and, no, I’m lame and have not read his earlier stuff, though I keep intending to (and let’s note that Conover’s the clearest route I can see to Jonathan Mahler, and Mahler’s maybe the best reason to read the NYTimes Magazine). For all us folks who’ve been waiting for Conover to follow up New Jack, we’ve now been more than justly rewarded for the wait: The Routes of Man is a riveting, complex sprawl of a book, and reading it’s like sitting down to the most interesting meal on earth, one made entirely of ingredients you recognize but which’s configured in a way that’s utterly new, astonishing, enriching.
The structure of the book is uncomplicated: Conover looks at six different routes, and looks at the freight (animal, vegetable, human, forest-felled, mineral, etc.) thereover carried. It’s simple, until you give it a few seconds. The first chapter? Conover traces a brace of mahogany from forests in South America (Peruvian, specifically) to its final destination as elegantly crafted work in an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Just take a second and imagine what goes on in transit such as that.
I can’t imagine anyone not finding the chapter on Kenyan highways most riveting, thought it’s also the one that’s scariest and hardest to read: the highway allows transport of goods but, also, AIDS. It’s elements like that that makes Conover so endlessly valuable: I live along an Iowan highway over which, aside from farmers in pick-up trucks, mostly what’s rolling is live cargo, mostly pork. Would a story about the highways in NW Iowa be riveting?
Well, probably not, honestly, unless the story was from Conover. I’m not joking: the dude can make anything riveting and fascinating and, in all the right ways, his books are things you open and which, as you read, end up opening you. Please, please: read him.