NPR’s Maureen Corrigan coos:
What Are Intellectuals Good For? has been published in a beautiful paperback edition by the tiny Pressed Wafer. No one could expect it to be a stealth bestseller. But if you’re at all interested in 20th century thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Dwight Macdonald, William F. Buckley, Ellen Willis and Christopher Lasch to name a few, and in the larger question of whether the world would be poorer if they’d never written a word, then you’ll find Scialabba’s ruminations here invigorating. In fact, just reading Scialabba’s collection will make you feel smartereven if it’s not clear if that kind of smarts has any direct social utility.Scott McLemee, who wrote the introduction, elsewhere has written:
It bears mentioning that reflections do not follow the protocols of any particular academic discipline. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard (Class of 1969) and has read his way through a canon or two; but his thinking is not, as the saying now goes, professionalized. He is a writer who works at Harvardbut not in the way that statement would normally suggest.Though not an intellectual, I am as fond of a good story (which Scialabba’s biography is) and elegant and rigorous prose as the next fellow. And like Mr. Scialabba, I am especially fond of quotations, citations, and epigrams in what are puzzlingly (to me) entitled commonplace books. Scialabba has assembled one, which is both a small treasure chest of wit and graceful truisms and, in some way, telling about its creator.
More pertinent to understanding what drives him as a writer, I think, are certain facts about his background that the reader glimpses in various brief references throughout his essays. The son of working-class Italian-American parents, he was once a member of the ascetic and conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei. In adolescence, he thought he might have a religious vocation. The critical intelligence of his critical writings is now unmistakably secular and modernist. He shows no sign of nostalgia for the faith now lost to him. But the extreme dislocation implied in leaving one life for another gives an additional resonance to the title of his collection of essays [The Divided Mind, Scialabba first essay collection].
Interviewer: To what do you attribute your success as a writer?Nicely done.
Wilson: To the use of the periodic sentence.
Interviewer: Surely that is not the whole story.
Wilson: And to my use of the colon and the semi-colon. Writing so long for the New Yorker may have led me a little to overdo the comma.
Interviewer: What else?
Wilson: My invariable habit of writing in pencil on those legal-size yellow padsthe kind that are ruled with blue lines. I believe that composing on the typewriter has probably done more than anything else to deteriorate English prose.
From An Interview with Edmund Wilson (1962)