A brief review of Andrew Sullivan’s new essay collection

October 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

I don’t want to write a full review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book, as I just finished a different review for a media outlet, but I want to urge you to read Out on a Limb: Selected Writing: 1989-2021, even if you don’t like Sullivan’s conservatism or religiosity (both are muted in this book). It contains dozens of essays over the 32-year period, arranged in chronological order.  Some are very long, others just a page or two, and I found myself reading all of them over the past several weeks.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Sullivan is a lovely and thoughtful writer, and, although he puts himself on the rightish end of the political spectrum, many of the essays comport well with liberal thinking. He was, for instance, instrumental in helping gay marriage become accepted in America, and his early essays (e.g., “Here comes the groom” from The New Republic) are powerful arguments for that institution. He touted Obama as a possible and potentially good president long before others were doing so, and shows additional prescience in recognizing Trump not only as a possible winner of the Presidency, but later as a probable winner of the Presidency. (He despises Trump.) He also predicted that Joe Biden would be the best Democratic candidate to beat Trump. (Perhaps he’s picking his essays to look prescient, but I doubt it.)

What I like about Sullivan’s writing is that, unlike many other writers, he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong and remains open to correcting his opinions. Ergo his self-flagellating essay, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” (he was an early booster of the war). His case against torture is ironclad (“The abolition of torture”), and many essays will appeal to readers on the grounds of simple humanity (e.g., his memoriam on the death of one of his beagles, “Surprised by Grief”, a title cribbed and modified from C. S. Lewis; or “Still here, so sorry”, his musings on still being alive years after an AIDS diagnosis).

There is a lot, of course, on AIDS and homosexuality, and it’s good to read this stuff from the viewpoint of a gay writer. The bulk of the essays are on politics, which he knows a lot about. I usually find such essays dry but Sullivan is such a good writer that you get the sense of discussing politics with a friend, not being preached to. Like a good scientist, he’s always considering counterarguments to his positions, another thing that makes him likable.

As I said, he’s surprisingly light on religion—it comes up rarely, except for one long and tedious essay on “What is the meaning of Pope Francis?” But after reading that and his other stuff on faith, I’m no closer than ever to understanding why a smart guy like Sullivan believes in things like the literal resurrection of Christ. So it goes.

Here are a few of my favorite essays, which give an idea of his range:

“Here comes the groom”, an epochal essay that really did help move American opinion.

“Quilt”, a touching piece on the AIDS Quilt.

“When plagues end: Notes on the twilight of an epidemic”. About the tapering off of the AIDS epidemic and Sullivan’s remembrance of its worst days.

“What’s so bad about hate?”  A long and absorbing essay on the uses, abuses, and varieties of hatred.

“Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country”: Sullivan’s thoughts on the movie Brokeback Mountain.

“The abolition of torture”: an eloquent argument that any torture is the sign of a totalitarianism and is to be totally rejected as a tool of Americans.

“Why I blog”: a very thoughtful piece that especially resonated with me, as it draws a distinction that those of us understand who write both for publication in the media as well as on a website. They’re very different forms of writing, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I used to be a human being”: A tale of Sullivan’s week at a meditation center completely disconnected from the Internet, combined with an acute and scathing analysis of what absorption in our “devices” has done to us.

“We all live on campus now”. A favorite of mine, which dispels the idea that insane leftist extremism found on colleges campus will not spread to the greater culture because the kids will grow up. (It already has spread, as you know, and is not going away.)

And the two final pieces:

“The unbearable whiteness of the classics”: An anti-Woke critique of the anti-classics classicists, defending the classics and showing that they can be taught alongside the history of racism.

“Two sexes, infinite genders”: A distinction between gender and sex (one that seems to be disappearing) and a touching remembrance of Sullivan’s father.

It’s good to have a book of essays on hand, like Sullivan’s or Orwell’s, to fill in the gaps when you don’t have time to absorb a chunk of a novel. And of course there’s a long-standing literary niche for short non-fictional pieces. Sullivan is a master of them, and although none of us are fans of all his ideas (the religion still bothers me), you come away from this book feeling as if you really know the guy—and like him.

Photograph of Sullivan by Joshua Cogan.

15 thoughts on “A brief review of Andrew Sullivan’s new essay collection

  1. I read Out on a Limb a few weeks ago, and I agree fully with your review, Jerry. (Spookily so. Maybe that’s why I like your website so much!)

    I, too, highly recommend the book.

  2. I have appreciated your writings on Andrew Sullivan today and previously. But why do you recommend and support going to Amazon? Why not recommend buying at independent booksellers and provide a link to them?

  3. This is a book review, not a justification for where to buy the book (Amazon gives the most information quickest). I got my book from the library. And really, am I now expected to conform to making purchases where readers think I should?

  4. Love him or loathe him, Sullivan is one of the finest essayists in the game today, almost certainly the best Anglo-American practitioner of the form since his old sparring partner C. Hitchens left the valley of the living.

      1. This is in Canada. I don’t mind spending $ on books, but this seems excessive. The HB is something like $50.

    1. I once proofread and indexed a book only to discover that the UK Kindle edition was retailing at £106! It was aimed at students and academics and presumably university libraries are supposed to pay these ridiculous prices. There was no justification for the cost – no colour plate illustrations etc, and the e-book incurs no such expenses anyway.

      For the record, it was a good book about what went wrong at the 2009 COP 15 summit in Copenhagen and right at the subsequent COP 16 in Cancún. I fear that the British organisers of the upcoming COP 26 have ignored the lessons and that we’re headed for a Copenhagen-style failure in Glasgow. It would be funny if the future of the planet wasn’t at stake…

        1. Indeed! I just looked up the only other book I’ve indexed (it turns out that my brain is much too small, which will come as no surprise to regular WEIT readers) and it’s the same story. £125 for the hardback (some pretty low-quality black and white photos) and the Kindle edition is a bargain at £42.29!

  5. In regard to one of the woke tenets: “Modern Western societies are built on pervasive “systems of oppression,” particularly race- and gender-based. One would have to add the adverb “uniquely” between “are” and “built”. Or add, as an ancillary tenet: systems of oppression in non-Western cultures
    —from the African slavery that Europeans commercialized to the imperialism of every empire other than those of the West to the continuing subjugation of women in Islamic cultures—are not worth mentioning or thinking about, let alone comparing to Western practices. It is possible that this theorem reflects a
    deeper facet of the woke cast of mind: a lack of interest in anything in history or other cultures EXCEPT whatever can make the West look bad.

  6. I have to say his views aired here recently still seems to me to border on conspiracy theory and to uncharitably ascribe evil motives.

    But I will give it a go. It certainly bears out what I have often said, that the Gay and Lesbian movement was never a Left/Right thing – conservatives were always in the forefront right along with the left and all in between.

    Having just finished “The Return of the God Hypothesis” anything is going to seem sensible by comparison.

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