Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Book Review: In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

A few hundred years ago, Dante Alighieri wrote a few books that have survived through hundreds of years. Today, Dante’s Divine Comedy is studied by school children and hailed as one of the greatest works of all time. There are no known copies of anything that the poet himself actually wrote with his own hand, everything that has survived were completed books copied out by scribes and elaborately decorated in the tradition of the times.

Now a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy has been found – or should I say, the original has been found. This is a copy written alternately on parchment and paper with editing marks made throughout, and the known words of these works written out through all the scratching. If it turns out to be authentic, it is a treasure worth more than any other in the world. What price can be put on Dante’s own words, in his own handwriting, and on the original words of the Comedy before it was forced into the rigid structure of poetry?

The story centers around Nick, the author-turned-literary-character, who is aging and dying of age and the complications of diabetes. As he reminisces about his life, he also pursues the Dante document, along with the trigger-happy Louis, and works toward authenticating it. The story line jumps around from chapter to chapter, alternately following Nick, some associate in crime or other (such as Louis and Joe Black), various Vatican personnel, and Dante himself.

The blurb on the inside of the cover of this book hooked me. It spoke of a story of suspense, mystery, thrills, and ties to the distant past. I have always loved history, and books based on history – however loosely – have always gotten my attention. Unfortunately, the difference between what the inside cover promised and what the book actually held were like night and day.

Sure, the story the inside cover tells about is in there…the events surrounding the Dante manuscript…but it is a very bare-bones story line that has been stretched out over nearly 400 pages. How did they stretch it out, you ask? By interminable stretches of musings on life, philosophy, and all manner of other things that are neither interesting nor terribly relevant to the story. Every once in a while these stretches of pretty-sounding nothing are broken up by bits of the story itself, or interesting little side lines such as a three-page letter to the author’s publisher.

It’s really a pity that the story ended up being such a dud, because the writing style itself ended up being fairly intriguing. Before I knew just how bad the story would be, the style kept me reading; it has a strange cadence to it that was a bit annoying at first, but slowly pulled me in with its rhythm. As a writer, this intriguing writing style was the only redeeming aspect of the book for me because it gave me exposure to a style of writing completely different from anything I’d thus far been exposed to.

Overall, this book was extremely over-burdensome and boring. The author did spend a bit of time criticizing Dante’s works, as well as the works of other well-known authors, so maybe he was trying to make a point about pretty words not making a book? More likely this book is a victim of the lack of an editor. The author goes on at length about how the best editors are the ones who don’t edit at all…which might explain how an editor would allow this book to make it to the publishing stage. In my own opinion, the best editors are those who can find writers that do not need to be edited, a quality our dear Mr. Tosches obviously does not possess as his book would have benefitted greatly from an unbiased look at the book. No doubt such an editor would have informed Mr. Tosches that his 20-page short story simply can’t be expanded to 400 pages, and any attempt to do so would be utter folly and would result in a completely bored audience who will never give a second look to any of his works.

If you’re looking for a good book for a weekend read or with which to kick back and relax, definitely look elsewhere. Writers may find some interest in the writing style, though I found no value in the substance of the book itself except possibly as evening reading, because it will do wonders in helping someone go to sleep.

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