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Do we need a European Review of Books?
The Editors
15 January 2021
published in Issue Zero – Opuscule


Crisis! Krisis! Kryzys! Kρίση, etc.

Constant talk of crisis does curious things to one’s sense of time and history, to one’s perception of what is cause and what is symptom. It becomes impossible to tell them apart. Is Brexit a cause or a symptom? Yes. Is COVID-19 a cause or a symptom? Yes. The term « crisis » is a powerful semantic tool. It also lulls language into platitude. Hence the renaissance of European platitudes through which we are living: Europe is…, Europe wants…Europe needs…. European « crises » generate the predictable wish for a different history, for a hypothetical, counterfactual Europe founded on culture rather than coal and steel. « If I were to do it again from scratch, » Jean Monnet, a founder of the European Union, supposedly said in the ’70s, « I would start with culture. » Well, who wouldn’t?

It’s hard not to fall into the trap of making « culture » another platitude. We know this because we think there is a need for a European Review of Books. Consider that title. You hear it and might think, sure, that should exist! Maybe you think it exists already: there are other reviews of books, after all, and you don’t keep up with them either. Maybe it sounds like a bromide. But let’s read that title again.

Books? Crises come and go but you can always throw a book at someone. The ERB we have in mind will be game for everything else, too—art, film, ideas, jokes (The European Review of Untranslatable Jokes)—but it holds books aloft because books make wisdom permanent like nothing else can. We can live in books, and books will outlive us.

Review? To view, and view again. The review is all too often reduced to decoration, entertainment, tip—a sad miniature of the humanities in public life. How dreadful are « 3 stars », or 4, or even 5! The scale itself is a mediocrity. Opinion, meanwhile, is the default mode in which European scholars speak to « the public ». It’s a straitjacket. Scholars step out from a domain of expertise in order to opine in a newspaper (what other option do they have?) and they return to the silo when the opining is done. Intellectuals don the mantle of opinion, too, but usually the opinion itself matters less than the performance of intellect. Most opinions would seem to channel authority, but they really only submit. Opinion cannot transcend.

The lively essay—antidote to the opinion, enemy of the platitude—is the mode to which a European Review of Books must gravitate. A good essay is never a straitjacket; it is a work of intellect and art, of authority and adventure. It revels and elevates. A good essay is something you want to read twice, maybe even in two languages. (More on that in a moment.) You want to read it again in the future, which is a way of saying that there is a future.

European? « European » magazines have come and gone: sober or surreal attempts to conjure a common culture. LIBER: Revue européenne des livres (1989) was a literary supplement carried by four national newspapers but aimed above the nation and the metropole. The Latin Liber meant both « book » and « free », and the supplements spoke in quadrilingual unison. During the Cold War, certain European magazines were funded, with cunning largesse, by the CIA. (Magazine-makers have no such luxury now.) Earlier in the 20th century, modernist magazines made and mangled something called « Europe », from the staid La Revue européenne to the absurd Jedermann sein eigner Fussball, as national borders were drawn and redrawn. One could push the genealogy further back, through the European Magazine & London Review of 1782 (Brexit notwithstanding), to a seventeenth-century fountainhead: Pierre Bayle’s Nouvelles de la république des lettres

Stirring leaps of faith! Or folly. And a poignant archive to browse now, during yet another dissolution, or seeming dissolution, of Europe. But we aren’t the European Union Review of Books, whatever that would mean: we aren’t founded on coal and steel. Europe, for us, is neither nostalgia nor telos. The Europe we would love is not dying because it has never existed.

Or it has never been given vivid form. A European Review of Books will need to try things out, to assay, to experiment: with language, with space, with design. But the endeavor is possible now in a way that it was not before, because we can seize a linguistic paradox: the unprecedented ubiquity of English can animate the multilingual. The ERB’s answer to the old Babylonian confusion is a strategic bilingualism: pieces written in Greek or Arabic or Italian or Polish or Dutch—or, or, or—will be available in English and in the original. English is everywhere, after all: a global English, a post-American English, a low common denominator. But ubiquitous English might also let us reach beyond, al di là di, ötesinde, jenseits—to conjure a magazine that can be read aloud in more than one voice.

« The European Review of Books », then, is the name of a magazine—a thing you can open or scroll—but it is also an incantation. For there are a thousand Europes, and we are already living in them: the common Europe, the migrant’s Europe, the tourist’s Europe, the refugee’s Europe, the postcolonial Europe, the denizen’s Europe, the Europe with euros and the Europe without euros, the Europe of Eurovision, the pre-national Europe, the post-national Europe, perhaps the post-European Europe.