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Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

3.29  ·  Rating details ·  936 ratings  ·  178 reviews

The New York Times film critic shows why we need criticism now more than ever

Few could explain, let alone seek out, a career in criticism. Yet what A.O. Scott shows in Better Living Through Criticism is that we are, in fact, all critics: because critical thinking informs almost every aspect of artistic creation, of civil action, of interpersonal life. With penetrating

Kindle Edition, 283 pages
Published February 9th 2016 by Penguin Press
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Average rating 3.29  · 
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 ·  936 ratings  ·  178 reviews

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Paul Bryant
May 03, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: litcrit

I read this for some hours until I toppled sideways slowly and crumpled to the floor, where they found me still breathing, but only just. I write this from a private room, tubes going into various parts. They say I will make a full recovery. They say it was a good thing I didn’t make it past page 215. There’s a woman in the next room been there for three weeks now, she read the whole thing. She hasn't said a word yet. Her family say they will be consulting their lawyers.

But I don’t think A O Sc
lark benobi
Reading Better Living Through Criticism gave me exactly the same cramped and unpleasant feeling that I got from reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion: I wanted serious inquiry and instead felt pummeled and bullied into a corner by poorly argued dogma.

At times Scott begins his argument about the uses of criticism with a false axiomatic principle--usually a belief that I don't ascribe to, but that Scott says I do ("everyone knows that critics are failed artists, and let me tell you why you're
Stephanie Sun
I am predisposed to like any book that references Teju Cole's Open City, Philip Larkin, All About Eve, and the snark vs. smarm debate with intelligence and insight, but the delight of this book is that Scott takes both his voice and argument to places that I didn't expect. Even while retreading, a gleefulness animates his prose and rhetoric and makes his general enterprise feel novel.

I laughed out loud dozens of times, sometimes out of surprise (the self-interviews are hilarious), sometimes out
Kimberly Dawn
Apr 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So much of this book has resonated with me, of which I have highlighted so much. This is one I want to purchase and own for reference, as I’m sure I will return to it often!
Feb 01, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Better Living Through Criticism and a Strawberry Enema. ~~ NYTs AO Scott is the worst writer and most unbearable film critic squirting his juvenile "thoughts" on the market today. The ultimate in b.s. and boring pretention. Sniff his title ! Why not Better Homes & Gardens ? In sum, he is unreadable. ...more
Apr 02, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A.O. Scott is kind of a big deal. He's a film critic for the New York Times and has been at it long enough to be a recognizable name in the business. And so I assumed something along the lines of Stephen King's On Writing, a practical guide of sorts framed by personal anecdotes and a lifetime of experience. Instead it feels like a Philosophy of Criticism 101 class.

Freed from the shackles of having to review Tyler Perry's latest, or yet another Jurassic movie, he throws on the smoking jacket and
Allen Adams

The nature of the critic is to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. Love them or hate them, critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas.

Some choose to do this by way of unrelenting pessimism, focusing on the negative aspects of a piece of work in order to exert a kind of creative
Jana Light
Feb 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Here I am, writing a critical review about a book about criticism. And someone could (if so inclined and so bored) write a critical review about my critical review about a book about criticism. This Sisyphean effort to find the final word on any piece of human ingenuity or creativity is why Scott writes this book in the first place -- criticism, he argues, is the second-born twin of our inherent human condition, entering the world mere minutes after the first-born of the creative act. It is both ...more
Jason Pettus
This book of philosophical essays by New York Times movie critic AO Scott was hugely disappointing, and not even worth a full write-up at my main arts center's blog. For while I'm a big fan of Scott's insightful essays for the newspaper, and was hoping that in this book he was going to go into more detail about how he goes about the business of actually writing them, it's instead one of those books where he traipses across the entire human history of critical thought and then says, "Look at this ...more
Really a 2.5. A survey of the philosophy of criticism. But I was left cold deciphering what he thinks about his profession. Criticism is thinking? Criticism is art? Is it? Yes? No? So many???? So abstract. To be fair, I don't mind abstraction, but I felt the argument (ironically enough) was weak. Hedge, duck, etc.
Apr 27, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Two weeks ago, I read until page 117. I haven't picked up the book since, and I haven't been tempted to. I'm left with two main impressions: first, there are occasional moments of real insight. Some come at the end of meandering paragraphs, and they feel like asides. A very few feel like deliberate arguments Scott makes. Here's a good one:
It may seem as if I am enclosing art (along with criticism) in a familiar corral of self-reference, an airless theoretical space in which poets write to, about
Cody Sexton
Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose
Jan 21, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read the pre-release of this book with great interest; given the nature of this blog. An absolution, designed to simultaneously prove his "bona fides" to criticize shitty movies like the Avengers as corporate schlock, while also demonstrating that criticism is a worthy and worthwhile endeavor, Scott's book largely succeeds. [Author's Note:This review is nerdy]

AO, you shall find no argument here with this critic (seeking better living). Scott's philosophical treatise on the nature and necessit
Sep 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: The curious, the sarcastic and the charmed
Recommended to Mina by: The Economist
Why do we still need critics?

That is the question. Well, because we will need to try something new, and we won't know where to start.

We live with relativism, pluralism, Yelp, IMDb and you, darling Goodreads. Some will make the argument that critics are obsolete since no one can know what will actually work for you. They say some other things, too. Here's the answer I got:

If you want more of what you like, the argument holds: you can choose yourself, try recommendation engines, ask your frie
Matt Lieberman
Critics have it rough right now. Those at major old media institutions are seeing their employers scrambling for revenue, aggregators are diluting their individual influence, and artists of all mediums continue to skewer them, especially when they get lambasted by the critical establishment. As a blogger with a Lilliputian viewer count (especially when you take away the Russian referral spambots) who generally just doesn't review books I dislike, I'm largely shielded from/oblivious to such probl ...more
Taylor P
Erudite and meticulous, Better Living Through Criticism would make an excellent textbook for the opening weeks of an undergraduate course on the history of criticism. Scott's work succeeds as a primer on the views on the art and science of criticism expounded by Pope and Arnold and Wordsworth that is eventually drawn forward to the present day and the role the critic can play in the age of digital media. But where it falters is as a general interest nonfiction text in its own right. It's dry, it ...more
Mar 09, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
To be fair I didn't finish it so I'm not sure how I'm allowed to rate it. But it's due back at the library (today!) and quite frankly I haven't picked it up for close to a week. I was going along okay with it. It made me think a bit and I liked that. But I did do that "hmmm, how many pages have I got to go?" thing a little too often. I kept going onto the other book I've got going and I kept "meaning" to finish up A.O.'s tome. Soon. Yeah right.

It's not that I didn't find the ideas interesting. S
Alex Greenberger
One of my favorite things about A.O. Scott's film reviews is that they're so unpretentious. You can read his thoughts on some obscure Romanian film, and it'll still make sense, whether you even knew the Romanian New Wave was a thing before you started the review or not. This book is sadly not quite that. There's a lot of long-winded explanations of Plato, Henry James, Immanuel Kant, and other tired literary sources. This is a very short book (just 270 pages), but, because of Scott's detours, it' ...more
Graeme Roberts
Jun 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Having finished reading "Better Living Through Criticism" a few minutes ago, I am ready to start again, partly to savor every nuance, and partly to write a fair review. It touches on so many questions that I have asked myself over the years, and brings elegant resolution to a few of them, but, most importantly, it points out ways to think about them. It will never be a blockbuster, thankfully, but will always be a masterpiece.
Feb 12, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
For the man who mistook Marie Antoinette for the French Revolution I give him the pitchfork and then the axe.
David Dinaburg
Apr 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is an intention that I don’t quite grasp denoted by the subtitle How to think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. As I begin to write about Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, I’m looking at a blank page—completely blank, eschewing my standard cheat-sheet of transcription that jump-starts my fingers—because I am not going to use any pull-quotes this time. At least, I intend not to, though after having finished writing and returned here ...more
Sean Wicks
How is this for irony, rating a book that is about criticism.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott dissects the art, the act and the overall being of a critic and why they exist at all. One could say we are all critics as we consume culture and veer towards what we like and veer away from things we don't.

Scott seems to be battling himself in these pages, always questioning why this job exists in the first place but makes a very solid case as to why a critic does what they do. I give this only 3 stars
Stephen Faulstich
Dec 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit of a drag in chapters, AO appears trying to work out for himself what his role as a critic is and its value. Failing towards relativism, the references and hand wringing are for the most part stimulating and provide good guides to the groundwork of his philosophy. Took me quite a while to finish, but a worthy read for those interested in the role of the critic, much more so than those interested in film.
Oct 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Do you review things? For fun or profit?

This is an interesting insight into why we criticise as we do. It can get a little circular 'whatever critics do is criticism', but move beyond that to differentiate what critics do compared to rotten tomatoes or other aggregators. And our unsteady relationship with art. What do we add to the world?

While it didn't change my world, it allowed me to consider what the hell I'm doing reviewing books etc. Enjoyable read.
Dan Weiskopf
[Crossposted here from]

There is a minor genre of books bemoaning the state of contemporary criticism. According to most of them, the “crisis” in criticism is internal or self-inflicted: it comes from critics who have lost interest in making judgments, or perhaps who only know how to make the wrong kinds of judgments. A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism is a departure from this narrative, but a vexing one. As a guide to understanding the material
Jen McDermott
This was an enjoyable read, mainly for the artistic examples and opinions on them A. O. Scott imparts but I often felt like I was at a very pretentious dinner party that I hadn't done the homework for.
Mar 03, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016-read

That I am trying to write a review of a book about criticism is not lost on me. There were parts of this that I really enjoyed (there are sections written in the form of a question and answer session) and parts of it that I enjoyed less than others. I tend to agree that well written criticism is a thing that society needs.

Still the needle that always remains hard to thread, as someone who watches a lot of stuff, and reads a lot of stuff, is that people are always less thrilled by long descripti
Aug 03, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
For all his commentary on how essential argument is to criticism, the point of each essay is not communicated well (this could be a byproduct of the abstraction of most of the essays or a byproduct of the author's inherent unwillingness to make definitive statements). This became especially obvious to me in the dialogue chapters (in which the author imagines a dialogue with a critical version of himself) where he would make an assertion (e.g., that his theory of taste is "grounded in spontaneous ...more
Oct 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism-essays
Because he’s a master of the mot juste and crafts such fine sentences, because of his intellectual benevolence and equitable reviews, A.O. Scott’s criticism rises to the level of literary art in my view. This book is no exception. As a fan of his work I was intrigued to read him grappling with abstractions about the very nature of that work, by analyzing diverse pieces such as Philip Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’, Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’ and the Pixar flick ‘Ratatouille’. Though the book does seem t ...more
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A. O. Scott joined The New York Times as a film critic in January 2000. Previously, Mr. Scott was a Sunday book reviewer for Newsday and a frequent contributor to Slate, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. He has served on the editorial staffs of Lingua Franca and The New York Review of Books. In addition to his film-reviewing duties, Mr. Scott often writes for the Times Mag ...more

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