My Unwritten Books

One of the last grand European men (or women) of letters, George Steiner seems positively out of historical time. He writes with the dandy flair of an eighteenth-century stylist and with the inflection of personal experience, Montaigne-like, without descending into the confessional (which he loathes). In this set of seven essays, each lays out a feline argument for a particular book that Steiner ultimately decided not to take on. His apologies for book-length studies of the quixotic sinologist Joseph Needham and the forgotten Cecco d?Ascoli — a vanquished rival of Dante — are moving historical essays-cum-exercises in self-critique. Elsewhere, Steiner turns to his two great themes-language and Judaism — to explore the relation of language and sexuality (“The Tongues of Eros” gives new meaning to the phrase oral sex), his vexed relationship to Zionism, his proposals for a new sense of literacy that acknowledges the archaisms of the classical education he received, and his admittedly irrational attachment to dogs. In “Begging the Question,” the last essay in the collection, Steiner notes the paradox of dwelling in the personal — treasuring private and solitary moments of writing, reading, and thinking — and the necessary self-betrayal of publication. “The adult believer seeks to be alone with his God. As I strive to be with His sovereign absence. Already I have said, I have failed to say, too much.”