How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

When Daniel Mendelsohn was 13 years old, he read two Mary Renault novels about Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, and with that became enthralled with the ancient world. “I became a classicist because of Alexander the Great?the romantic blend of the youthful hero, that Odyssean yearning, strange rites, and panoramic moments — all spiced with a dash of polymorphous perversity which all the characters seemed to take in stride — were too alluring to resist. From that moment on all I wanted was to know more about the Greeks,” he recounts in “Alexander, the Movie!,” one of 30 essays in his new collection, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Mendelsohn, whose critical essays appear frequently in the New York Review of Books, describes this book as “a collection of judgments,” since critics, by definition, judge everything they review. “ word that you might not have suspected is even remotely related to ‘critic’ — crisis, which in Greek means a separating, a power of distinguishing; a judgment, a means of judging; a trial. For what is a crisis, if not an event that forces us to distinguish between the crucial and the trivial, forces us to reveal our priorities, to apply the most rigorous criteria and judge things?” In this collection, Mendelsohn uses his classical knowledge to judge works in film, theater, fiction and poetry — works as disparate as Philip Roth’s Everyman and Oliver Stone’s aforementioned biopic, which Mendelsohn skewers. “The reason it’s exhausting, and ultimately boring, to sit through Alexander ?is that while it dutifully represents certain events from Alexander’s childhood to his death, there’s no drama — no narrative arc, no shaping of events into a good story. They’re just being ticked off a list.”