The Brothers Judd website can be found at www.brothersjudd.com.
Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. is a San Jose-based journalist who writes on a variety of topics, especially technology, design, and home electronics for numerous magazines. Additionally, he covers technology stocks for National Review Online's financial section.
Voracious Reader Turns Reviewer
“I think we develop relationships with certain books,” Orrin Judd says, “that some authors can transport us beyond ourselves (or into ourselves?) and help us to temporarily forget our cares, or clarify our thoughts, or let us enjoy watching someone else fight the battles we face every day and hopefully show us how to win them ourselves.”
Anyone stumbling across their sprawling website (www.brothersjudd.com)—and over 20,000 people have, since it went up in 1998— will find over a thousand reviews on books ranging from Alexander Hamilton, American to North Dallas Forty to Slouching Towards Bethlehem to The Winter of Our Discontent. These statistics are even more amazing because the site was put up by two men, Orrin Judd, age 40 who writes the content, and his brother Stephen, 37, who does the Web design and Internet heavy lifting.
“Eschewing any false humility”, Orrin says, “I think we have the best book site on the web. Even someone who disagreed with every word I’ve ever written could use the links at our site to find out more about a book, author or topic. We’re very nearly unique in that regard; most other sites don’t have links because they’re afraid you won’t make it back to their site.”
So who are the Brothers Judd and what makes people make it back to their site? They are two family men living in New Hampshire. Stephen is a Local Area Network Manager at the University of New Hampshire and Orrin works for a business geographics company. They each have two kids, and Orrin has a third on the way.
In the summer of 1998, Stephen was finishing his doctoral studies at the University of New Hampshire, and had room available on a Web server, so he put up a home page, featuring content by the two brothers. Prior to that, he was stationed in Bosnia, as an officer in the Army Reserves. Orrin says, “I sent him boxes of books to read during his rather considerable down time.” The two brothers thought that since Orrin was such a voracious reader, it would be fun for him to recommend books as content for the site.
At about the same time The Modern Library had just come out with their 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, and since Orrin had already read many of them, he decided to read them all and then review them. He says he was perplexed by some of the Modern Library’s choices. “I was particularly bothered by them putting Ulysses by James Joyce at the top of the list and by the inclusion of Finnegan’s Wake. As I reviewed the books from that list I was struck by how many of the books were neither enjoyable nor edifying. It really seemed to me that to make a list of the Top 100 a book should be at least one of those things, preferably both.”
Judd critiques books “on the basis of whether they contain messages that could help us to understand the human condition and hopefully leave us a little bit wiser than before we read them.”
As a result of Orrin’s critiques, eventually the Brothers Judd’s site began to take on a definite flavor: a firm grounding in Western Culture, Judeo-Christian ethics, and American conservative values. “I don’t necessarily want an author to share my precise viewpoint,” Orrin says, “but I do expect them to engage issues like good and evil and the struggle for freedom and Man’s relationship with God in serious ways.”
Adventures with Great Books
To this day, Orrin writes all the reviews on the site, although he encourages people to respond to them, and posts “any coherent response we receive, including a hilarious one where a young woman wrote a high school paper just ripping my negative review of Snow Falling on Cedars.” Judd says that many kids use the reviews on the site to help with their schoolwork. “I’ve earned a number of vicarious A’s and B’s over the past few years.”
How does Judd choose what books to read? Some come from publishers and publicity firms who send books for review and the resultant publicity. He also uses C-Span’s weekly Booknotes series and lists such as Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer winners, and Oprah’s book list, “and I’ll read just about any book that I hear good things about.”
Of course, for many people, choosing what to read isn’t all that hard. It’s finding the time to read that’s the challenge. How does Judd do it? “I read while the kids are napping. I read on the exercise bike at work, about a half-hour a day. And I read when I get home from work at night. I also listen to audio books at work (unabridged, of course). It probably averages out to about 200 pages of actual reading a day (over three or four hours).”
As a child, Judd devoured comic books and old pulp magazines, such as Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Tarzan), as well as the books of C.S. Lewis, and Alfred Duggan. J.R.R. Tolkien was a childhood favorite that continues to this day. (“I’ve read Lord of the Rings almost every year since I was a kid”). Today, Judd says his favorite authors also include Alexander Dumas, Henryk Siekiewicz (author of Quo Vadis?), and James Clavell. “And I think George Orwell is just amazing.”
Once he’s completed a book that he feels is worthy of review (good or bad), Judd begins to assemble his review, usually beginning with a summary of the plot of a novel or the overall themes from a work of non-fiction, and some quotes from the work, so that people can get a sense of an author’s style. “Then I try to write an essay that will spin out at least one idea from the book, preferably an unusual idea or one that might not have occurred to other readers, maybe not even to the author. I hope to leave anyone who reads the review with something to think about, some thought that will nag at them as they read the book I’m reviewing or any other book.”
Judd then chooses a collection of relevant links to complement (and often dispute) his review. Finally, he assigns each book a letter grade. (And sometimes multiple grades, for books such as the controversial Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris, which Judd gave an A/F grade—A for excellence as a novel, and F for ineptness as a biography. For Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate, he gave an “A to F” score, depending upon the age of the reader.)
As the reviews piled up, Judd has increasingly made an effort to demonstrate the struggle between freedom versus security, two conflicting ideas that he thinks ultimately define the human condition.
Orrin says this theme dates back to the story of the Fall of Man. “Adam and Eve had perfect security in the Garden of Eden; their every want was provided for by God. Yet, they weren’t free because this was not an existence that they had freely chosen. And so they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and comprehended Good and Evil and, though utterly unprepared for the burden, took upon themselves the necessity for choosing between the two.”
Ever since then, Judd says, there has been a struggle within and between us over whether we would be better off returning to a secure environment where those difficult choices are taken away from us, or whether our destiny is to accept freedom and the moral quandaries that it brings, as we struggle to make ourselves worthy of God.
A Conservative Who Respects Liberals
Judd believes that much of the animosity between the Left and the Right, as well as between Fundamentalists and non-literalist believers comes from the failure to see why the other side has chosen one or the other of these ideals. “I come down strongly on the side of freedom, but it has helped me immeasurably to understand people who insist that the Bible be read literally or who favor big government to realize that what they really are after is the comfort, the security, that will come from surrendering freedom, from putting all the difficult decisions that freedom brings into the hands of another.”
Very heady stuff to filter a book through, yet Judd has a soft spot for books that are “either totally enjoyable, even if seemingly trivial (say, the novels of James Clavell).” He’ll also give a favorable review to books that intelligently address some of those big issues, “even if they’re not always right (say, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History). And obviously, there are many books that combine both.”
Judd says he also makes an effort to read those who continued to celebrate conservative ideas “at the very time that statism and relativism were triumphing. Folks like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Albert Jay Nock, the Agrarians (Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren & company), Evelyn Waugh, Orwell, Russell Kirk, and so on… It’s remarkable to me that these men had the fortitude to buck the tide of their times, and gratifying to me to see that they have been vindicated.”
Of course, the vindication of those pioneering conservatives and classical liberals didn’t come easy. The Brothers Judd were college students during the turning point—when voters escaped “the malaise days” of Jimmy Carter (as the first President Bush described them) for Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Orrin says, “It was like seeing the sun again after weeks of rain.”
So with that sort of conservative background, are there liberal authors Orrin respects? Judd says that one of the best books he read in 2001 was Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy. Perlstein writes for leftist publications like The Nation and The Village Voice, but Judd felt that “he brought an openness of mind and a generosity of heart to the subject that led to a very fair book. I think those qualities are far more important than political affiliation. I don’t much enjoy reading conservative authors who are blinded by ideology either.”
Judd also enjoyed Jim Sleeper’s Liberal Racism, because “the writer is trying to come to grips with an aspect of the Left that isn’t working. And David Denby’s Great Books re-examined the value of the Western Canon. I think books like these are very interesting, even if I don’t agree with everything the authors have to say.”