A large segment of the American reading public has the peculiar obsession to "get inside" somebody--anybody--to see "what makes 'em tick." This urge has sent thousands of readers to book stores in order to buy monodies on everyone from a nondescript called something-or-other to a precocious French adolescent. The more personal, the more "revealing," the more embarassing such books are, the better readers like them. Needless to say, this obsession has not gone unsatisfied within recent memory. In view of such a spectacle, it can hardly discredit a reader to approach somewhat gingerly Orville Prescott's The Five Dollar Gold Piece: "The Development of a Point of View."
Prescott, the Times book-reviewer, obviously delights in recalling his past life. Fortunately, his recollections make pleasant, not embarrassing, reading. They are charming without being oppressively "cute"; nostalgic without being sentimental. But from the first, the question continually in the reader's mind is, "Why is he telling about himself?" To be sure, Prescott is an interesting and an intelligent man, a well-known figure in an eminent profession. But such attributes, no matter how admirable, do not seem of quite sufficient magnitude to necessitate 150 pages of "anecdotal autobiography." This feeling continues even as the reader becomes aware that most of the book's charm is the result of an utter lack of intensity and a very small amount of worldly relevance.
Evidently Prescott thought it was necessary to give this backdrop to his "point of view." However a reader may feel about the autobiographical material, when Prescott talks about his job, The Five Dollar Gold Piece gains a good deal of stature. When one thinks that men of Prescott's profession are the most important link between literature and a people increasingly prone to sit in front of their television sets, the beliefs and opinions of such men become crucially significant.
It is reassuring to find that he has a well-developed distaste for banality, stupidity, and sensationalism. It is almost equally reassuring to know that he is completely intolerant of only these same qualities. Prescott states his reviewing credo as follows:
"The critic's first duty is to his readers. His primary function is to tell them what they want to know about the book in question, to give them enough information and enough opinion so that they can decide whether they wish to read it. In performing this service as best he can, the critic hopes that he can stand up and be counted on the side of the best in writing (according to his feeble lights) and for the best in life itself (according to his fallible judgement)."
In passages such as this a reader can realize the difference between the academic library critic, who is at odds with the whole reading world, and the commercial critic, who tries to be friends with at least part of it. For doing what he does, Prescott can be forgiven much of his public musing on his past.