Monday, September 01, 2014

10 books

The "10 books" meme is spreading like wildfire in my Facebook feed! Really I have done this too many times already, so I am linking to three different ones I've posted here before that capture three different through-lines of my reading life....

First and most fundamentally, my ideal bookshelf!

The ten books that most influenced me intellectually.

Ten non-fiction books that have stayed with me.

Perhaps if I get all my work done today I will write up a 10 books of childhood list....

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The moral imagination

Jonathan Derbyshire interviews David Bromwich for Prospect. It is a very good interview in its own right, but I also like reading these pieces that haven't been media-ified - this is the texture of actual conversation with a complex and interesting mind, not just the cleaned-up pull-quote version!

Best idea ever?

Chocolate lego!


Strong feelings of similarity-with-difference as I read these two fun interviews with John Lanchester! I have had a version of that conversation about eating octopus a number of times now - it's the only thing I don't eat on vaguely ethical grounds (in days of yore I found it extremely delicious, and grilled octopus really is my favorite food that I won't eat!) - it's not so much that it has a brain as that the brain is in the part that you eat....

(I also completely agree about the sublimity of Blood on the Tracks!)

The FT lunches with John Lanchester.

Lanchester's cultural highlights.

(My favorite song from that album.)

Print problems

A great piece by Matt McAdam on why it's a problem that deans love books:
[B]y clinging to the outdated notion that scholarship must be published in print, deans and scholars hurt university presses. They tie the legitimate responsibility of determining and distributing quality scholarship to a costly, inefficient, inflexible, and unsustainable publishing model. By insisting that print is a necessary condition for scholarly quality, deans and scholars make it more difficult for university presses to stay in business, thereby making it more difficult for them to publish print books! At the same time, scholars insist on having their own work published in print while they increasingly engage the work of others online. And deans demand that scholars publish print books while not giving their libraries enough money to buy them. They insist on print while undermining the demand for it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Light reading round-up

I haven't had a huge amount of time for light reading as I am still ploughing through Clarissa! About 70% through, and quota (in the form of notes rather than draft in this case) is piling up nicely* - I am sorry to say that I resolutely ignored various other work-related imperatives until they became so strong that I could no longer postpone them....

Had a useful day Friday sorting out a lot of the remaining stuff for my new lecture course - it is the sort of thing that will take up as much time as you let it, the only way to hold on to real writing time in August is to put this stuff out of mind, though I felt very guilty leaving it so late (it is inconvenient and stressful for the seminar leaders I will be working with!).

Hoping to finish with Clarissa before I return to New York on Wednesday (I have it divided into ten sections for teaching purposes and am following those divisions here too, reading a chunk and then typing up notes while the thoughts are fresh in my mind), but I also still have three more tenure letters that I'd like to get done before school starts (have done most of the work on one, but since it is not the one due this coming Monday, that's not as useful as you might think).

The Swift conference paper is clearly not going to get written this month, but that's OK, have been reading Anthony Grafton on footnotes and thinking about various things to do with Swift and commentary. Can do this after my classes are underway and I have done both of my September triathlons: it makes sense for me to choose races for early fall, as I have much more training time over the summer than during the school year, but it is a pity to have the attention divided between starting school and big races - it will be good when I am over that particular hump!

A couple highlights of recreational reading around the edges:

First of all, Kipling's Kim. It is such a strong source of inspiration for so much contemporary genre fiction (Tim Powers' excellent Declare was the one that most recently brought it to mind, but it's hugely important for Laurie King's Holmes books and crops up in all sorts of other places as well). I must have read it once or twice as a child, but it's not one of the ones I know really well (that would be the Just-So Stories, from early childhood, and then the glorious Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies, which I reread every two years when we visited our English grandparents' house). It is amazingly good, so much so that I think I might need to start rereading a lot of Kipling and Chesterton in lieu of sometimes mediocre recent stuff. Most eloquent and evocative object/image: Kim's "little Survey paint-box of six colour-cakes and three brushes"....

Judy Melinek and T. J. Mitchell, Working Stiff - very good book by a former NY medical examiner about the work she does. I love this stuff, and the book's gripping and worthwhile in any case, but the account of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks is especially interesting - would be worth reading the book for that alone, I think. (I am laughing, this one also called my thoughts back to another favorite book of childhood: Mostly Murder, the autobiography of pathologist Sydney Smith!

A couple other novels worthy of note: Marcus Guillory, Red Now and Laters, which I acquired because of the title and very much enjoyed, especially in its account of childhood in Houston in the 1970s and early 1980s - it is overwritten/lyrical in parts, but I am willing to forgive that when there is so much else to like; and the long-awaited last installment of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, The Magician's Land.

These can really only be described as "fodder": Patrick Lee, The Breach (not sure about this one, a bit too grandiose for me in its schemes, though he is certainly a good storyteller); and Melissa Olson, Dead Spots (nothing wrong with it, an enjoyable read, but I fear it is rather the sort of book that makes me feel I am rotting my brain!).

* Tracking quota August 2014

8/8/2014 2194 words (lost a few?)
8/10/2014 7687 words (through end of ONE)
8/11/2014 reading day
8/12/2014 12628 words (through end of TWO)
8/13/2014 reading day
8/14/2014 18117 (through end of THREE)
8/15/2014 reading day
8/16/2014 20217 (through end of FOUR)
8/17/2014 reading day
8/18/2014 23474 (through end of FIVE)
8/19/2014 26599 (through end of SIX)
8/20/2014 reading day and first half of typing
8/21/2014 31752 (through end of SEVEN)
8/22/2014 LTCM work

Friday, August 22, 2014

Lore packages

Charles Finch on the fiction of Norman Rush. (Via Nick D.) Here's a bit I especially liked, but the whole piece is thought-provoking:
The ideas in Rush’s second novel, Mortals, are as subtle and rich as those in Mating. But there is something slightly diminished in its ultimate effect by comparison; unlike the earlier book, Mortals is written in the third-person, and it is perhaps in this transition that a glimmer of trouble appears. Every mode of narration has its virtues and defects, of course, and there may be readers who find the first-person of Mating claustrophobic. What it offered Rush, however, was concealment—a means of expression for his own fascinating, intercalating, uniquely essayistic voice, which nevertheless, because a reader could ascribe all of its decrees to the narrator, existed naturalistically within the novel.

The free indirect voice offers Rush some shell for this style, but not enough. In Mortals it becomes a minor problem; in Subtle Bodies, very nearly a fatal one. That’s the blemish on Rush’s career, perhaps, an inability to recede behind his characters. The constant interruption of opinion into his work means that he never quite vanishes into the third person and therefore never achieves the fluid multivocalism that gives each character equal weight, what Bakhtin praised as polyphony. Rush’s natural pendant, another white-bearded novelist of lower Africa, J. M. Coetzee, is by contrast exquisitely skillful at self-concealment, at the neutral clarities of third-person fiction. By either method there is some price to pay. In Coetzee’s case it’s a chilliness; in Rush’s, a diminution of realism. Rush’s loss may be the greater.
I must confess I have never read Rush; this essay gives me a great desire, though, to reread some Iris Murdoch!

Strange fruit

Pears that look like babies.

Biography, genius

At the TLS, the ever-brilliant Michael Hofmann on a new biography of Bertold Brecht. I am persuaded that the book is a must-read, but I am not at all convinced it is going to change my mind about Brecht! (Tyler Cowen's thoughts are remarkably similar to my own!) Here is an especially interesting bit:
So we aren’t given Brecht the old unscrupulous automaton, the theatre shouter and “indoor Marxman” (Malcolm Lowry’s phrase, not about Brecht), the arid and grasping authoritarian and hypocrite. Instead we get a wholly fresh and absorbing sense of what it might have been like to be Brecht, from the sickly child to the prematurely old, dismally undiagnosed heart patient. Parker’s book is green, not grey. Certain themes are sounded insistently, implacably and rightly throughout: Brecht “the extravagantly gifted child”, his “extravagant intelligence”, “this hugely gifted boy”, “his extreme talent”. It may sound like a lot, like overkill, even, but it is only just, and anything less would have been remiss. Brecht was a prodigy to set beside Rimbaud and Keats, a superior and controlled and reflexively self- invented being, a “singular sensibility”. Parker is careful not to say that Brecht was brilliant because he was unwell, but unwellness is part of his picture of the man and his genius, as it tends to be part of ours nowadays, no matter the individual.

The way Brecht negotiated his conditions (weak heart, panic attacks, dizzy spells, the twitching and trembling associated with Sydenham’s chorea, renal and urinary tract infections, lack of appetite) was – another one of Parker’s running themes – to pretend all was well, to ration his excesses discreetly after his roaring adolescence and early twenties, and to ask as much of himself as though he had been well. Parker shows how easily Brecht might have become the Late Romantic, private, neurasthenic type of poet he despised; it was what nature had equipped him for, to be a Stefan George, a Gérard de Nerval, a Charles Algernon Swinburne, a poet of Night and Storm and Sickness and Mother. Reading and discipline and mental strength and his own rebellious orientation fixed that. Interest was some where else; originality was somewhere else; autonomy and usefulness were somewhere else. Moreover, emotionalism, the despised “swill of feelings”, simply used him up, leaving nothing, no residue, no achievement. Chopin, Wagner and Dostoevsky were prime instances of unhealthy art; they simply made him ill; Brecht even took his temperature to prove it. He had to run himself carefully, as his life turned into “a gamble played out between weakness and strength”. His “cult of coldness” was actually self-preservation.
Bonus link: my favorite Hofmann review, the devastating takedown of Stefan Zweig! I still haven't read George Prochnik's book, though I have a copy at home - I feel I owe it to Zweig to hear the other side of the story - but I don't think I've ever read a negative review I enjoyed quite so much as this one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Random thoughts

The cumulative effect of Clarissa involves an unabashed sublimity, at least for me, and yet one of the interesting things about the novel is that it is full of stretches of embarrassingly bad writing, especially in the letters of Lovelace. Context for this would be not just the caviling of some of Richardson's contemporaries about his failure to create a plausibly upper-class male rake's voice, but an older critique of similar in something like the record playwright Thomas Shadwell left of Dryden attempting and failing to capture the obscene wittiness of Rochester et al.: supposedly at Windsor one day, while Dryden was working on Marriage-a-la-Mode and spending time with the wits of the court circle, somebody asked how they would spend the afternoon and Dryden said “Let’s Bugger one another now, by God."

Good example of the sort of passage I have in mind - it makes me laugh and cringe, it's amazingly over-the-top in a way that I think is not tonally within Richardson's control or comprehension, though that is of course debatable:
Let me perish, Belford, if I would not forgo the brightest diadem in the world for the pleasure of seeing a twin Lovelace at each charming breast, drawing from it his first sustenance; the pious task continued for one month, and no more!

I now, methinks, behold this most charming of women in this sweet office, pressing with her fine fingers the generous flood into the purple mouths of each eager hunter by turns: her conscious eye now dropped on one, now on the other, with a sigh of maternal tenderness; and then raised up to my delighted eye, full of wishes, for the sake of the pretty varlets, and for her own sake, that I would deign to legitimate; that I would condescend to put on the nuptial fetters. (706)
In other news, the minor woe of the last few days: the amazingly named seabather's eruption!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Time passes

I think I liked Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life better the first time I read it - I occasionally find myself defending him to others, and I do think it's a little unfair that he is so widely loathed when it is possible that we should consider his archness in the light of a failing he cannot help rather than an affectation for which he should be despised (he seems to serve as arch-nemesis for several writers I know)! It is an insubstantial work, in any case, but I have found in it a good epigraph for TTWC (alongside this one perhaps!):
Whatever the merits of Proust's work, even a fervent admirer would be hard pressed to deny one of its awkward features: length. As Proust's brother, Robert, put it, "The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have broken a leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time."

Rival schools of empire

At the Nation, Sam Moyn on David Bromwich's Burkeanism.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The 'switch-on'

An amazing essay by poet and musician Josephine Dickinson about hearing with a cochlear implant (via Shanna C.):
The extent to which the brain compensates for indistinction I discovered by listening to birdsong. The first time I heard a blackbird with my new high-frequency bias, I was stunned by its clarity and beauty, and by the fact that it was so loud. In a healthy ear the arrays of thousands of hair cells operate according to a ‘volleying’ mechanism, taking it in turns to transmit the very fast-moving energy impulses of high-frequency sound. The electrodes of the implant cannot do this. Yet by looking at spectrograms of birdsong, I can see that a large proportion of the sound is within the frequency limits of what I can distinguish, albeit crudely, and that is enough for me to take in and interpret these songs, many of which I have no memory of hearing before.

The missing notes for chapter six

Pretty much as soon as the style book was published, I started receiving emails from readers gently noting that there were no endnotes for chapter six! Alas, as per Alice Boone on the progress of error, somehow this omission eluded all of us as we read proofs.

In any case, I wanted to make sure that the information was available somewhere for searching, and it should be corrected in subsequent printings.

(Now that I have really looked through and pulled this stuff from the manuscript, I have a theory about what happened - note 8 is the anomaly here, it was a parenthetical aside in the manuscript and I dimly recall my editor suggesting that it should be either cut or moved to a note, but this was after I had already submitted my final manuscript and I would have sent changes by email rather than integrating them into the file myself - I suspect that tinkering with that text may have precipitated the larger omission.)

Notes for Chapter Six, "Late Style: The Golden Bowl and Swann's Way," Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

1. Theodor W. Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” in Essays on Music, intro. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002), 565-67.

2. Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 456.

3. Henry James, The Golden Bowl, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell (London and New York: Penguin, 2009), 3.

4. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), 280.

5. Alan Hollinghurst, “The shy, steely Ronald Firbank,” TLS (15 Nov. 2006).

6. Ronald Firbank, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), in Five Novels (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, [1949]), chapter 1, 333-34. The following paragraph reveals that the entity being christened is “a week-old police-dog."

7. Quoted in the introduction to Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin, 2004), xiv.

8. When my brothers and I were small children, our Scottish grandmother used to give us a sort of sachet or envelope labelled “Japanese Water Flowers” full of colored snippets that would magically unfold into blossoms when placed on the surface of a bowl of water; they are most commonly made out of paper, so that there is perhaps something additionally and self-consciously literary about the notion of reading the past from such signs.

9. André Aciman, letter, NYRB 53:6 (6 April 2006), as given at

Closing tabs

I have been remiss in the matter of closing tabs! Partly because I have a draft blog post open that I haven't gotten around to finishing - this is unusual for me, mostly I just whip 'em off, but I am due a correction for a missing chapter's worth of endnotes that vanished from the style book, I pasted in the notes but need to add numbers and check carefully so that I am not piling error upon error. Partly because I am having what is basically an amazing writing and exercise retreat in Cayman, with many posts at my other blog and much typing of quota (it's not draft as such, more notes and thoughts, but it is accumulating at a fine rate - I am at about 18K and if I keep working steadily I should have gone through the whole novel before school starts, which is the idea - sometimes I can keep writing quota for some weeks into the semester, but this September I have two major triathlons and a brand new lecture course with a clutch of seminar leaders to work with, and it is not going to be sensible even to try!).


Rebecca Mead on why it's silly to distinguish rigidly between reading for pleasure and reading for self-improvement, especially in adolescence.

A great interview with Coach Dave and his fiancee Megan, who have been burning up the trails this summer! It's the first time I've worked with a coach for quite a while, and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Twin novelists: an interview with Lev and Austin Grossman.

David Gerrard on the badness of Geoff Dyer's most recent book.