Waiting for the Barbarians


Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture


Over the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets & Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen and passion”—on a wide range of subjects, from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag’s Journals. Trained as a classicist, author of two internationally best-selling memoirs, Mendelsohn moves easily from penetrating considerations of the ways in which the classics continue to make themselves felt in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men.

Also gathered here are essays devoted to the art of fiction, from Jonathan Littell’s Holocaust blockbuster The Kindly Ones to forgotten gems like the novels of Theodor Fontane. In a final section, “Private Lives,” prefaced by Mendelsohn’s New Yorker essay on fake memoirs, he considers the lives and work of writers as disparate as Leo Lerman, Noël Coward, and Jonathan Franzen. Waiting for the Barbarians once again demonstrates that Mendelsohn’s “sweep as a cultural critic is as impressive as his depth.”


“Hold tight to your convictions while reading Daniel Mendelsohn lest you absorb his own. You’ll want to. They’re always more deeply considered, generous in spirit, fresher and funnier than yours. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Mendelsohn just might be our most irresistible literary critic…Cheerfully pessimistic though he may be, he is never an alarmist…He practices a civilized, soothing form of criticism, his intellect an alembic that purifies, restores calm and historical context…This constitutional temperance gives his prose its legato rhythms, the languorous judgments; he might be a cat toying with his prey. And much of the fun of reading Mendelsohn is his sense of play, his irreverence and unpredictability, his frank emotional responses…He forces the [essay] form in directions Francis Bacon never imagined.”

The New York Times Book Review

“[Waiting for the Barbarians] makes it clear Mendelsohn is now, and has been for some time, the finest critic alive…[The essays] proceed from an unparalleled understanding of the Greek and Roman roots of storytelling, which he braids into reviews with a subtlety and patience that is beautiful to behold. Most impressively, he performs this deeper reading across many different art forms…It is a supremely entertaining book. To read it is to sit next a fabulous dinner guest whose comments contain a devastating truth.”

The Toronto Star

“His panoptic gaze takes everything in….He is a scrumptious stylist…He writes better movie criticism than most movie critics, better theatre criticism than most theatre critics and better literary criticism than just about anyone…practically every sentence of this book [is] an eye-opener.”

The Guardian (UK)

Mendelsohn’s work is absolutely vital in both senses of the word—it breaths with an exciting intelligence often absent in similar but stodgier writing, and it should be required reading for anyone interested in dissecting culture, or who simply find themselves thinking about the complex flaws of an almost-good movie a week after leaving the cinema. In the book, his scope includes both the high- and middlebrow. Subjects range from the classics and the poetry of Rimbaud to James Cameron’s Avatar and Julie Taymor’s disastrous staging of Spider-Man on Broadway. Mendelsohn also has a laudable contrarian streak, which he displays in a brilliant essay that might give the reader reason to rethink some of the reflexive praise heaped on AMC’s Mad Men. Taken together, the collection offers a sort of defense of the modern age of culture. If a true-blue classicist can engage with the current zeitgeist using the full weight of his intellect and without an iota of demoralization, than the rest of us have no excuse.

The Daily Beast

“A throwback…to the glorious public intellectuals of former days such as Dwight Macdonald and Robert Warshow…Such collections can seem scattered or dated; but “Waiting for the Barbarians” adds up to more than the sum of its parts, evidencing an impressive range, depth and nobility of mind…Mendelsohn is a trained classics scholar, from which much of his intellectual authority still derives: witness his brilliantly illuminating, lucid essays on Homer, Sappho, Herodotus and Horace. He writes about pop culture with equal enthusiasm…He has taken on [Susan Sontag’s] mission as cultural omnivore, but not her obscurantism. He notes “the presence of an underlying conflict: Sontag the natural analyst against Sontag the struggling sensualist.” The same might be said for Mendelsohn, although equilibrium seems his ultimate goal, and well within reach. He is already both classicist and mensch.”

The San Francisco Chronicle

“Wide-ranging and absorbing, this new collection of essays from Mendelsohn is a joy from start to finish. Mendelsohn is a critic who consistently takes his subjects seriously, be they TV shows (Mad Men), 3-D blockbusters (Avatar), or the poems of Rimbaud…Along with perceptive essays on Anne Carson, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, and more, the collection adds up to a wonderfully eclectic set of musings on the state of contemporary culture and the enduring riches of classical literature.”

Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

Another top-notch collection of previously published criticism from Mendelsohn…[A] long-range perspective distinguishes Mendelsohn’s criticism from that of less erudite and measured peers. The opening section, “Spectacles,” ranges from Avatar to Mad Men with refreshing matter-of-factness, pinpointing the cultural significance of commercial forms of art without over- or understating their merits…He is equally acute and balanced on the memoir craze, the pleasures of Leo Lerman’s journals and “the fundamental failure of genuine good humor” in Jonathan Franzen’s work…often his insight is key: Susan Sontag’s affinity with French classicism, for example, or ultra-sophisticate Noël Coward’s grounding in “the stolid values of the decidedly unsophisticated lower-middle-class.” Incisive, reflective and unfailingly stimulating.”

Kirkus Reviews