Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: The Thing Itself

The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity
Richard Todd
Philosophy, culture

[DISCLAIMER: I have never met Richard Todd, but we have acquaintances in common. He's taught at my alma mater, and in consequence has spent a good deal of time in my home town and its surrounds.]

In some previous reviews dealing with books about art, I've taken the authors to task for not really engaging with a central question. Namely: why does it make a difference--if it does--to know whether a picture is an "authentic" Raphael or Rembrandt or da Vinci? The picture is the same in either case. It doesn't become more or less beautiful depending on who actually painted it.

And yet there is, at least, an immense practical significance, measured in the grossest of uncompromising terms: money. Change the attribution from "Renoir" to "School of Renoir," and you've cost the owner of the painting millions of dollars--if, that is, your attribution itself is believed to be authentic.

In The Thing Itself, Richard Todd meditates on this and similar questions. What does it mean, for example, to "be true to yourself"? Is it even sensible to accuse someone of not being true to herself? Most of us have the sense, to take another example, that celebrities' lives are in some sense not real ... whatever that means. Similarly, some places are genuine places; some are genuine imitations or evocations of places (think of Plimoth Plantation, or Colonial Williamsburg); some are so obviously fake as to constitute a different kind of realness (Las Vegas, Disneyland); and some are just not truly places at all (Nashua, New Hampshire, where I now reside).

This is interesting territory to explore. By the middle of The Thing Itself, it becomes clear that Todd has no other intention than to explore it for exploration's sake, meandering musingly up whatever byways take his fancy. The book itself is authentic in after the fashion of an old farmhouse, built by many hands: here an ell of memoir, there a wing of cultural criticism, upstairs a long hallway lined with philosophico-literary references (only a few of which I've read). Todd certainly doesn't have any interest in coming to anything so plebeian, so reductionist, as a conclusion.

This course is undeniably self-indulgent. What saves it from bathos is that Richard Todd is a really, really good writer--not high-falutin', but eloquent, and sometimes funny, and always terribly honest. (And occasionally pretentious, but even Homer nods.) As non-fiction prose, this book is worth comparison with Tracy Kidder (with whom Todd co-wrote an outstanding book) or John McPhee. It differs, I think, in that it's very much in the humanist literary tradition--I'm thinking particularly of Montaigne's Essays. Unlike Kidder or McPhee, you will not learn a great many facts in The Thing Itself; instead, to read it is to be exposed to Richard Todd's thoughts.

It pleases me, then, to be able to say that I bought The Thing Itself in a place that Todd probably knows, and hopefully approves of. The Montague Book Mill rejoices in the wholly accurate motto "Books you don't need in a place you can't find." It inveigles itself across two floors of an 1842 grist mill, along a riverbank in rural Massachusetts. At any given time you can go there and find people sitting in the comfortable mismatched chairs, reading. It is undeniably authentic.

The only book that comes to mind as a companion to The Thing Itself is Jeremy Campbell's The Liar's Tale, which I read several years ago. However, some of the books Richard Todd refers to sound pretty intriguing. Who knew, for example, that there is a book by Deborah Cohen entitled The British and Their Possessions?


  1. Replies
    1. "An effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous."

      In this case, the danger arises because Todd tends to write in thoughtful, elevated language about things that are in themselves trivial.