Sunday, May 30, 2010

Born polemical

I am unlikely to read Christopher Hitchens' memoir, but glad to learn this anecdote about an encounter with Margaret Thatcher shortly after her election as Conservative party leader: via Toby Young's review for the Observer:
After a bit of friendly banter about Rhodesia, she tells him to bend over and whacks him on the bottom with a rolled up order-paper. As she walks away, she looks flirtatiously over her shoulder and mouths the words "Naughty boy". "I knew I had met someone rather impressive," he writes.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Memento mori

My beloved cat Blackie died on Monday. He was an affectionate friend and a stalwart companion. He lived with me for almost seventeen years, with the exception of two sabbaticals which he enjoyed in cat heaven a.k.a. my mother's house; I will miss him terribly.

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Blue light on their underside"

At the FT, curator James Maclaine contemplates five favorite species of unusual deep sea fish (site registration required): the stoplight loosejaw, the pelican eel, the black seadevil, the football fish and the Sloane's viperfish...

Sausage rights

Dachshund UN (?!?).

More details and pictures here and here. If I were in Melbourne, that is certainly where I would be next Saturday afternoon at 2pm...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Dwelling in pyramids

Martin Gardner lived life inside his own brain, and was fortunate enough to make a living playing all the time.

I have enjoyed many of Martin Gardner's books over the years, but the one that most profoundly influenced me was Aha! Gotcha. Someone gave me this book when I was young (I suppose I was eleven or twelve?) and it absolutely captivated me, I pored over its pages for many hours and with extraordinary enjoyment - the elegance and economy of its insights were absolutely delightful, and I think of it as being in the same conceptual universe as Sherlock Holmes and the stories of Isaac Asimov, other favorites of that era.

There is little evidence of it in my adult life, but as a child I was very much in love with mathematical things, and in an alternate universe somewhere I am a theoretical mathematician who does most of my work lying in bed and occasionally getting up to make a squiggle on a bit of paper. I had a very wonderful teacher outside of school - his name was Bill Cromley and he ran a sort of summer camp offering lessons in math, remedial work for those who needed it and magical work for those who wanted it for fun.

(It was odd, I later had him as a classroom teacher in high school and there was nothing magical about it at all - I thought even at the time that he should have been teaching younger children, something about drilling trigonometry into teenage minds really deadened his spirit, and he did not enjoy the give-and-take of the classroom.)

But in this funny basement room (was it in a church?) he showed those of us who liked such things some truly magical aspects of numbers and the way they work - I guess I was ten or eleven, I remember the utter delightfulness of realizing that AND and OR could be translated into columns of ones and zeros, and that the two languages were really and truly equivalent - and experimenting with ways of thinking about tetrahedrons and what other sorts of shape one might then be able to work out the volume of - and an ingenious way of doing mental multiplication in your head by visualizing the two numbers as forming the two adjacent sides of a rectangle and then adding the four different bits of it together - in any case, it was a very enjoyable and high-level form of play, and it is pretty much the spirit I hope to capture when I teach.


Caleb and Peter got married!


The story of an abusive psychoanalyst. This is an incredible piece - it is like reading a small and wonderful novel! Via Helen DeWitt.

[Addendum: Wynne Godley's obituary, which perhaps relies a bit too heavily on the LRB piece itself. An amazing line, though: "He also introduced roulette as an entertainment after certain college feasts." It seems to me on the basis of this that he never wrote the promised autobiography - but perhaps the LRB essay stands on its own as a more unusual and striking self-portrait than a full-length book could have done. Another good link: Alan Macfarlane interviews Godley in 2008.]

On euphemism

The word "recovered" in this headline strikes me as odd...

Friday, May 21, 2010

A time of stagnation

From Marina Van Zuylen, Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art:
The feeling of control that accompanies the act of locking oneself up to write, the pride in having unsuspected resources, reinforces the notion that creating has set one in a world apart. It is strengthening, both despite and because of its ability to isolate. When Mondrian or Flaubert discusses the relationship of their straight line or perfect phrase to a sense of ontological security, they are splitting the world between the rigid (with its connotations of self-discipline, rigor, and control) and the arabesque, the overly lyrical I -- all things that might well lead them out of their invulnerable worlds. To these artists, but also to those individuals whose bouts with obsession will traverse this book, there is a real terror involved in the unrestricted, the potentially mutable.
Do not show your passion, but sublimate it into style. We are reminded of Hobbes's proclamation: madness is a matter of "too much appearing passion." It is not the actual emotion itself that is unsettling to Flaubert, but the temptation to be dragged down by it and the sickly need to exhibit it to others. The heart must never speak and the artist must assume a god-like self-sufficiency; it is the only way he will be protected from the danger of others. The same detachment that Flaubert requires of his narrators, he mercilessly exacts from himself. He is willing to renounce all human contact for the price of peace of mind.
The simultaneous cowering from and craving for the void, for a time of stagnation, is a constant in the monomaniacal imagination. Many of the characters in this book are attracted and repelled by free time, drawn to and squelched by obsessive activity. Movement, while it fends off the demons of introspection and provides temporary relief from anxiety, does not satisfy the soul's craving for a higher order; it is a mere temporary solution. Idleness, however, richer in existential possibilities, can breed an intolerable sense of dread.

Bugs Britannica

Folk names for the woodlouse: tiddy-hog, God’s little pig, monkeypede, Billy button.

Gun with occasional music

Lev Grossman on what you say when you're asked whether you write fantasy or literature.

Not really related, but I've been keeping the link open on my browser and perhaps will insert it here, with tongue in cheek: Maddie Chambers' year-long project to build a miniature model of Bag End!

"Every execution is a carnival"

A very lovely and striking piece at the NYRB by Jose Manuel Prieto on translating Osip Mandelstam's "Epigram Against Stalin" from Russian to Spanish (subscriber only).

Not related, but one of my other favorite things in the NYRB recently was Theo Cote's amazing photograph of Lydia Davis and her extraordinary black cat!

A long musing on light reading

As longtime readers of this blog may remember, it was a seminal experience of my life when my mother let me take the day off school to go to a Dick Francis book-signing. I am not a great attender of signings in general (I do not altogether dissent from Brent's observation as to how odd it is that people should value a scribbled-in book more than a pristine copy of the same book!), but when I received an invitation last week from Lee Child's web maven Maggie Griffin to come to the book launch at Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center on Tuesday night and join the party for dinner and a beer (it turned out to be Dom Perignon, though!) afterwards, I really could not resist.

In fact after my last ruminations on the topic I did pre-order 61 Hours; the doorman in my building handed the box to me on Monday night around ten as I came in feeling very fatigued, and so it was an absolute gift to be able to flop down on the couch and devour it.

It is difficult for me to imagine a book I'd rather be reading than the brand new Jack Reacher novel (well, a new novel by Peter Temple would be at the very top of the list, and I was certainly unable to keep my hands off that Diana Wynne Jones book the other week) - there is a short list of writers whose books are especially dear to my heart, let's say, and Lee Child is certainly one of them. It is a delightful book! You know you have come home when Reacher picks up the book's first cup of coffee ("The coffee was an hour old, and it had suffered in terms of taste but gained in terms of strength"); it is a priceless mixture of familiarity and surprise.

One of the things I've always liked about this series is the way it plays around with the variations possible on a set of constraints - the constraints are tight, but it is actually very unusual to see (as one does with this series) the author switching between first- and third-person narration in different books, or successfully integrating the "prequel" mode (and I was happy to learn that there will almost certainly be a "prequel sequel").

By far the most striking thing about the book event itself is that it is perfectly calibrated to audiences. I've been thinking a lot recently about book publicity, more in its online incarnations than concerning the in-person version, but I feel that any author about to undertake a bout of publicity should go and see one of this handful of authors who really know how to pitch and work the crowd. Lee Child is one of the best I've ever seen at this (his writing is nothing like Neil Gaiman's, and they make very different choices about what sorts of project to prioritize, but I think of them as the two clear undoubted masters of the new world in which authors reach readers through the internet and through a sort of personal charisma that can be scaled up very effectively at quite large book events) - his manner and his verbal intelligence are also very well-suited to this sort of event, but it's the format he used that really struck me.

He said that he would offer up six facts about the novel and then turn things over to the audience for questions, and proceeded to do just that - an economical and appealing solution to the problem of what to do at a so-called 'reading' (I did actually 'read' when my first novel came out, but in retrospect it is a mistake, Q&A or some other play-within-constraint-type structure is really the way to go). The repertoire of questions that will be asked is obviously finite, so the answers to those are appealingly sharp, economical and funny; all in all, most interesting and edifying.

(I also note that the questions were much more coherent than the ones I hear at academic talks that are open to the public - abstraction is less likely to lead to readerly clarity than vivid concrete action!)

(Random fact, not one of the initial six: this novel was written in 79 working days - I think I am recalling the number correctly - but the Child doctrine is that unfortunately even if one works on every available day, days like Christmas will necessarily intervene, so that work time must be preciously guarded. There is no substantive rewriting or revising, only polishing; he says that he can tell as early as two or three words into a sentence that things are going wrong, and backtracks rather than going through the inefficient process of writing and then revising/cutting! I am a draft-writer myself, but the sense of the time-frame required to produce an initial draft fits with my sense from Invisible Things, though that then underwent 2 significant further revisions - but then that is what happens if the book is composed over eight months that also include a semester and a half of teaching. There were lots of funny moments/good laughs, but one of the ones I privately most enjoyed was the shudder - I think it is a mixture of awe and shock! - that greeted the revelation that a typical Childean working day begins when he gets up at 11!)

I got my copy inscribed for my nephew Jack (it is my understanding that Reacher is at least in part his namesake!), the youngest person in this picture. I also set to thinking hard about what I can do to get this next novel of mine out there, but even more about what sort of choices I need to make about the books I am writing.

The style book (which should go out shortly to publishers) and the ABCs of the novel book that I'll be working on this year are not novels, but neither are they academic books. I hope that they will both be interesting and intelligent books of interest to anyone who likes to think about how sentences and paragraphs and novels as a whole work. My life would be easier if I just stopped writing novels - but I have been writing a novel, one way or another, since I was about nine years old, and I think it may be a necessary part of my life!

What kind of novels to write, though? That's the tricky thing. I am temperamentally a "try everything once" person rather than a "find a good thing and stick to it." This comes with advantages, but also some significant downsides. With novel-writing in particular it is by far easier to find readers if you start doing a good thing and then keep on doing it.

If I could just choose, I would definitely be writing crime fiction of some sort; it's the genre I've been reading in most faithfully and most extensively for many years. I have absolutely no yen to be a 'literary' novelist and have to play the associated games, it is not appealing to me (if I were writing that sort of book, I would gravitate to the experimental small-press world rather than the higher-prestige end of it, because then you really and truly are pleasing yourself in your writing). I have been and always will be an enthusiastic reader of young-adult fantasy, and to a lesser extent non-fantastical young adult fiction more generally and non-young-adult fantastical fiction - but I don't think it's a good fit for me commercially, when it comes down to it.

The crime fiction community is smart and adult and welcoming, and so many good books are being written (Lee Child was mentioning his peer group - i.e. they were the new kids around the same tie - being Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman - the list speaks for itself); I guess my readerly identity is pretty strongly in crime fiction; and yet, as I have said several times recently, I just don't think I can write good crime novels!

I'm not a minimalist, I can't keep out the copious and wayward other stuff that creeps in, I don't know any criminals or any homicide detectives or any men or women of action, I don't truly have the journalist's skill set/set of interests (you see this differently in Lippman and in Peter Temple, or Sara Paretsky, but it is part of what makes much crime fiction so appealing).

I don't have the puzzle/game-like feel that makes Lee Child's books so successful or that Dick Francis worked so well in his best books. I am too lazy to look up the link, but Francis said in an interview that when he was about to start writing Enquiry, he cast about for what would be the very worst thing that could happen to a jockey, and it seemed to him that it would be losing his license - and you can see that the first sentence of the book is indeed "Yesterday I lost my license." There is an elegance and forcefulness to this sort of approach that I admire immensely but that is not at all congruent with my own temperamental and story-telling strengths!.

I do think that I could write some kind of thriller. Stieg Larsson's books are interesting to me partly because they strike me - I am not saying I could have international success, just that the mode is better suited to my strengths! - as much more the kind of thing I could write. They're a bit baggier and more rambling, they're set in a milieu of journalism and computer hacking and corporate private investigation that is much more what I could successfully research and bring to life, they are stuffed with research and integrate history as well as the present and altogether just give me (more than many other works of my favorite light reading do) the sense that I could pull off something like that.

I was thinking recently, after reading Dorothy Dunnett, that I should try my hand at full-on historical fiction, as it would play so much more to my strengths (I love doing research, I am knowledgeable about the past), but my ardor has slightly cooled for that idea, partly because of how much I enjoyed Tomalin's Pepys biography. Like, might as well write a true book if you are going to delve so deeply into the 1660s....

Anyway, that is quite enough rambling for now. I guess I grudgingly have to admit that yes, I will write more novels, and no, I am still not sure what sort of novel they will be; I am a slow learner in this respect, I have not yet discovered my vocation as a fiction-writer! But I do think that whatever it is, I should partly let my blog tell me; it is the steadiest and most continuous record of my day-to-day thoughts and interests that I have. Might spend some time later this summer looking back through the archive - perhaps it will tell me that I should be writing a high-concept series of thrillers with journalists, scenes set in research labs, Big Pharma scandal and genetic engineering - this is more the sort of thing I feel I can write about convincingly than people beating each other up in a bar!

(I mean, I could have one or two bar fights, but it would be a very poor use of my resources to write a book that was mainly set in that sort of milieu...)

Story nature

The other night I read Jo Walton's Lifelode, and found it lovely. Quite unusual in terms of the form of narration (the model is Rumer Godden, someone I read very extensively when I was young and not at all since then), and extremely compelling. It is a NESFA Press book, and I am not sure I have read one of those before (I am happy to see it is now available from Amazon, as I think I had to order it directly from the press, which I always find less convenient); the introduction by the excellent Sharyn November compares it to Robin McKinley's Deerskin, a favorite book of mine, but to my ears the voice is perhaps slightly more reminiscent of Spindle's End. Anyway, a delightful little novel - Walton is certainly on my short list of favorite writers, as different as her books are from each other they all have that quality that will make me pick them up first and devour them before other available options...

Archives of multiples

Wayne Koestenbaum's Andy Warhol learns that "gay taste tended, in 1950s New York, toward multiplication and archiving":
In the bleak McCarthy era, gay culture paradoxically flourished in the home--safer than police-threatened bars and tearooms. The private apartment--or townhouse--became a Joseph Cornell shadow box, a vitrine, an inside-out Brillo carton; in domiciles, queers amassed artworks, cleansers, masks, records, and receipts, with a curatorial intensity that Warhol would translate into an art of serial and repeated imagery, and into the collections (cookie jars, jewelry, superstars, drawings, cardboard-boxed time capsules) that were his signature, his incarceration, and his bid for immortality.
Bonus link: David Schwartz on Callie Angell, the late curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project.

Strawberry Hill forever

At the TLS, Rosemary Hill on Horace Walpole's creation of Strawberry Hill and its gothick aesthetic.

The whole piece is very much worth reading, but I can't decide if I think this argument about punctuation is brilliant or over-ingenious:
Walpole’s love of display was as great as his love of mystery, and the public could apply for tickets to view Strawberry. What they were allowed to see, a daring mixture of styles and an apparent flouting of the principles of taste, was shocking enough to some. In the Preface to the Description, Walpole prepares the reader for Strawberry’s “heterogeneous” combination of “obsolete architecture . . . French porcelaine, and Greek and Roman Sculptures”, describing it as a mixture that “may be denominated, in some words of Pope, ‘A Gothic Vatican of Greece and Rome’”. Here once again, however, Walpole was playing tricks with the poet’s memory. Pope’s line, from the Dunciad, refers to the meretricious library of Bayes, the laureate of dullness. This collection of worthless volumes is not at all mixed; it is, as the lines read in the original: “A Gothic Vatican! of Greece and Rome / Well purg’d”. Walpole’s interference with the text is telling, for, whether it was Pope or Popery, literature or architecture, what he was concerned with was realizing his own ideas. The removal of Pope’s punctuation had a parallel in the collaging of medieval motifs in his house where Walpole used prints of Gothic tombs as models for his chimneypieces. The choir screen from old St Paul’s Cathedral gave his friend John Chute an idea for fitting out the library, and the exhibition includes Walpole’s copy of William Dugdale’s History of St Paul’s of 1658 with the relevant detail carefully snipped out.
But what if it's not so much Walpole playing tricks with Pope's memory as Walpole's memory playing tricks on him? Pope's couplets do occasionally use enjambment to string a thought across a line break, as in the line quoted, but it is a sort of reversion to the mean when Walpole keeps the ringing and conclusive line-segregated phrase and omits the rest: in other words, it seems to me as likely to be an almost philistine opportunism (or a serendipitous misremembering, as the verb collaging suggests) than something over which Walpole himself would be likely to have had conscious awareness or control.

A wide prevalence of misquotings is a natural byproduct of a culture in which readers are as likely to have access to versions of poems held in their memories as to the books in which they encounter them; here were some of John Haffenden's thoughts a few years ago on William Empson as a notorious misquoter, in the best tradition of Hazlitt and others.

I realize that I have not dipped into Walpole's correspondence since graduate school - time for another look, perhaps...

Bonus eighteenth-century link: at the Nation, Sam Moyn's devastating take-down of Jonathan Israel's A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Closing tabs

Swimming the Hellespont! (FT site registration required; thanks to Ian C.-B. for the link.) I must do this one day....

A lovely piece by novelist Alan Warner at the Observer about what it meant to him, as a boy in the Western Highlands, to get his driver's license. (I am a person without a driver's license, and really I enjoy a life without driving, but triathlon in the end is going to make me have to learn to drive and get comfortable renting a car and driving self and bike out of the city to get to good training areas and/or races; public transportation is not so convenient in this regard, alas.)

I've been thinking quite a bit this past week about the whys and wherefores of book promotion; it is not my metier, but it must be done, and various friends and colleagues have offered thoughtful suggestions as I ponder the impending publication of Invisible Things. Several former students have been especially generous with their time and attention, and Brent contributes a link to Gary Butler's interesting 2007 profile of science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer:
He works seven days a week, and the definition of “work” covers many tasks, including writing/editing, developing personal marketing strategies, and graciously participating in too-long media interviews. Each novel takes a year of his life: three to four months of research (mostly reading, predominantly popular science, philosophy, and history – his favourite part of the process); two to three months for the first draft, writing a fixed target of 2,000 words per day (“it’s the only part I don’t enjoy – like a sculptor making his own clay”); three to four months of revisions, yielding anywhere from four to eight drafts before the book is “abandoned, never finished”; and finally, two months of vigorous promotion.
Slightly to my own amazement, I will be signing ARCs at BEA on Wednesday, May 26 from 3:30-4 at Table 19 (the HarperCollins Children's Books booth is #3340), so if you are there, please do stop by and pick up a copy and say hello.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Venison pasty, pigions, Uncle Robert is dead"

From Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self:
He spaced the lines evenly, with between twenty and thirty to a page. He gave curly ornamentations to the capital letters for the name of the month at the head of each page--very occasionally forgetting it was a new month, so that he had to delete "December" and put in "January." September and October were given in particularly lush capitals, and February's F's always came out looking scratchy with its straight double up-and-down strokes. Some pages have browned to a pale toast colour with the years, but more have remained a fresh, almost chalky white; there are thin, fragile pages, and others that feel downy, almost velvety to the touch. Pepys was a fine calligrapher when he made time to write slowly, as he did for his Diary, and his pages are as beautiful as pieces of embroidery, with their neatly spaced symbols, the curly, the crotchety and the angular, interspersed with longhand for names, place and any other words that took his fancy, on one page a dozen, as many as forty on another. The longhand leaps out at you tantalizingly as you turn the pages, each word suggesting its own stories--Axe-yard, Mr. Downing, Jane, Hinchingb., Deptfd, Whitehall, Monke, Easterday, emerods, venison pasty, pigions, Uncle Robert is dead, Uncle corps, Queen, DY [Duke of York], Robes, papists, Clergy, conventicles, tumults, subsidys, Justice, Sessions, Sr WP, gentleman, yellow plume, petty coate, drawers, summer, amours--small packets of meaning surrounded by the elegant, impenetrable shorthand.


In the modern version of the university library, with on-line renewals a matter of ease rather than the physical inconvenience of lugging a huge bag of books back in to the physical place of the library itself, it is common to think of library books as being in one's possession for a matter of years (five years, to be more precise - at Columbia one is able to renew for up to 10 semesters online before needing to bring the books in in person to "reset" the borrowing period!).

But a spell out of town prompts purging of the home library collection - I am going to keep some library books in my office, but mostly I must get rid of 'em all for now...

Thus the leftover phenomenon - it is like eating things out of the fridge, they may have been very good in the first place but there is a sense of duty in their later consumption.

I became mesmerized the other evening, though, as I reread Richard Altick's The English Common Reader. My Columbia colleague Gerald Cloud mentioned it in a discussion earlier this year, and it reminded me that I wanted to revisit it - I think I last read it (or perhaps "dipped into it" is the apter phrase?) as an undergraduate researching the forms of serial publication adopted and developed by Dickens.

It really is a great read! I couldn't put it down - the point about the strange convergence of utilitarian and evangelical anti-fiction movements in the nineteenth century is extremely well taken - but here are a few bits I particularly enjoyed, the first one just for fun and for the pleasures of regional spelling and the second because it picks up on my previous post.

An opponent of Edinburgh 18th-century lending-library pioneer Allen Ramsay's practices:
"... this profannes is come to a great hight, all the villanous profane and obscene books and playes . . . are gote doun from London by Allen Ramsay, and lent out, for an easy price, to young boyes, servant weemin of the better sort, and gentlemen, and vice and obscenity dreadfully propagated. Ramsay has a booke in his shope wherein all the names of those that borrou his playes and bookes, for two pence a night, or some such rate, are sett doun; and by these, wickedness of all kins are dreadfully propagat among the youth of all sorts."
And here is William Cobbett's description (as given by his nineteenth-century biographer) of seeing a copy of A Tale of a Tub in a bookseller's window at Richmond (for 3d.) and purchasing it and reading it behind a haystack at Kew Gardens:
The book was so different from any thing that I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought about supper or bed. When I could see no longer, I put my little book in my pocket, and tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when I started to Kew, reading my little book.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ether, ethics, anesthetics

Lots of things recently have been conspiring to make me want to reread T.S. Eliot, in whose writings I was absolutely steeped as a teenager but who I have only briefly revisited since; aside from more casual prompts, I am contemplating a future class on the battle of the ancients and moderns, to be built around Swift's Tale of a Tub but taking in everything from Hamlet and Montaigne and Descartes up to David Markson's Reader's Block. (In my office the other day after an unusual and interesting oral exam I was rereading Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, which I think laziness would induce me to teach instead of the Cantos.) "The Waste Land" is crucial here, of course...

Anyway, a very appealing piece at the TLS by Eric Griffiths on the latest volume of Eliot's letters. Here is a good bit:
These letters are awash with complaints, mostly nervous – “neuralgia”, “neuritis”, “nerve-storms” – but also, among others, hemicranial migraine, anaemia, toothache, trouble with “glands”, malnutrition and “suppressed influenza”. Husband and wife shadowed each other through an intent, valetudinarian tango, one shuffling in retreat when the other strode forward (“I had influenza just after Christmas and I was scarcely out of bed before Vivien suddenly rushed into bed and refused to get up any more”, to Charles Haigh-Wood, July 1925). While they were associates in dismay, they might listen to the roster of each other’s ailments with sympathy, participation even, but at any time they could go out of tune with one another and start hearing the tales of woe as wheedling, extortion or connivance. They became third parties to their own experience, reciprocally suspicious, as Eliot’s brother suspected Vivien (“she unconsciously encourages her breakdowns”), as Eliot in 1926 suspected John Donne: “this deliberate over-stimulation, exploitation of the nerves – for such it is – has in it, to me, something unscrupulous”. What struck her as the unstable straining of their lives for effect – “life is so feverish and yet so dreary at the same time” (1918) – came across to him bearing the force of an artistic convention like revenge tragedy, with its routines, its precarious “mixture of tedious discourse and sudden reality” (1927), ambivalently powerful either to flatten out or throw into high relief the interactions which it frames.

"A mere verbal artifice"

The original Daylight Savings Bill.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Miracle on 115th St.

It was as though the gods had answered my prayers - I learned this morning that the Columbia EcoReps were accepting donations of all sorts today on College Walk (1 block from my apartment), including BOOKS! The underlying organization is Goodwill, so I was even able to get a tax receipt. I left off a bag of clothes and shoes (mostly injury-producing running shoes!), which saved me the trouble of taking it to the Cathedral, and 2 large loads of books. Now officially 124 books lighter...

Monday, May 10, 2010

A snippet

from The Possessed, about a recurring nightmare that began to plague Elif Batuman during a stressful homestay in Samarkand:
I had applied for a grant to go to Russia on a homestay, and the household I got assigned to was a family of penguins in Antarctica. "But penguins don't even have a language!" I protested. In fact, those penguins did have a language, with two branches, one epic-narrative and one lyric-folkloric. I was jerked awake by the pounding of my own heart.


The Possessed made me think about an interesting workshop-style class I'd like to teach, which would be an undergraduate seminar for students who wanted to find out non-academic ways of writing seriously about literature. The syllabus would include some essays from this book, Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant - and what else? I have never read Nicholson Baker's U and I, but that might be a candidate - a few of Hazlitt's essays about the Romantic poets - perhaps an Eminent Victorian and some other critical essays (an essay or two by Richard Holmes?), I'd definitely like it to be not just all contemporary...

Students would have their own project - in order to be admitted to the seminar, they would have to offer at least speculatively the name of a writer with whom they have an intense enough relationship that they would be willing to pursue a larger project of this obsessive and personal biography-oriented sort. There would be short writing assignments every two or three weeks, and some workshop time in class, culminating in a 5,000-7,000 word essay at the end of the semester.

(Another book I have been meaning to read is Lawrence's book about Hardy. Not talking literary biography here so much as a personal and essayistic form of criticism that seems to be having a resurgence these days.)

Miscellany redux

I was lucky enough the other night to read two books of utter captivating charm. Both are strongly recommended!

They came in a box from Amazon, ordered by me (unlike many of the books which come my way from publicists and publishers - some of these are delightful too, but some of them are not at all what I would ever read...).

I had an Amazon hiatus earlier this year, in an attempt to adopt habits of frugality (John Waters: "Being rich is not about how much money you have or how many homes you own; it's the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it" [!]), but it did not really stick, I am trying to get a higher proportion of things from the library but there are occasional brand-new books that I really cannot get from the university library system and that I must have....

In this case, it was Diana Wynne Jones's latest book, Enchanted Glass, which is so very much exactly the sort of book I most like to read that I was almost ready to weep when I finished it - but fortunately what awaited was Elif Batuman's extraordinarily appealing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

The Samarkand essays are particularly moving and funny (the descriptions of her two teachers there are especially well-written), but really there is something on almost every page that made me laugh out loud - a thoughtful and moving and hilariously amusing book that for reasons I cannot quite explain (something about the diction and also the argument about the relationship between life and literature?) reminded me of my favorite novel of all time, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows.

I am in a sense the perfect audience for this book - I too was bit by the Russia bug long ago, only in my case the thing I found enchanting in elementary Russian language classes was the nature and range of the answers one is allowed to give to the question "How are you doing?" (Kak dela?) The cheeriest permissible is "Not bad," but really all the words in the textbook range from "Pretty awful" to "Absolutely ghastly"! (I paraphrase.) Elif's book is really a delight from start to finish - it will definitely go on my notional and/or actual best-of list at the end of the year.

The books I want to bring to Cayman

may be too heavy to carry in one trip, especially since I will also be traveling with a bicycle and many months' worth of clothes/gear...

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Often horizontal

I love this WSJ piece about Lee Child's principles of apartment living! I am much on the same scheme - I would definitely live somewhere like that if it were financially feasible - but of course one needs a cluttered office in order to get anything done... (Link courtesy of Sarah.)

I am moving one baby step closer towards the clutter-free lifestyle myself, as my background activity for these weeks is getting my apartment ready to hand over to subletters in preparation to relocating for some months to Cayman. I have a huge box of books to get rid of - this is more of a Facebook-type question, but my local public library has now set a limit of 10 books for donation (per pop, but I cannot be going over there every day with a little bag of books!) - New Yorkers, where can I easily donate? Preferably somewhere that will come and pick them up, or else that is near to Columbia - a taxi to Housingworks is certainly an option, but I live far away from there...

(The new Jack Reacher novel is due to be published on May 18. If I were a perfectly self-disciplined person, I would pre-order it and save it to read on the flight to Cayman on the 27th - but on the other hand, a free copy may come my way before that, and it seems unlikely that I would be able to resist it for those intervening days - I would definitely have to leave it in the box, it would be all over once I actually had the naked book in my hands!)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Light reading miscellany

Slightly procrastinating on getting out for my long run, so will instead do the roundup on recent reading. (Have to log 'em so I can return 'em to the library!)

Belatedly realized that actually there is an earlier Inspector Winter book by Ake Edwardson, Death Angels, only translated into English after the later ones. Quite good, but returning to the earlier installment in a series gives the sense of decreased subtlety due to the character development that has in the meantime happened in subsequent installments.

James Thompson's Snow Angels. Quite striking, and yet also wildly implausible!

Gladys Mitchell's The Rising of the Moon, left for me by a visitor. Billed by Edmund Crispin (an old favorite of mine) as "One of the dozen best crime novels that I know" - certainly I would not endorse that statement, but I found it worth my while - curious and interesting narrative voice, at any rate.

Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin. Very good indeed, but I stalled on it because it is perhaps bleaker than I really want even in my crime fiction reading...

Deon Meyer's Blood Safari, really the best of this bunch I'd say (at least in terms of immediate reading satisfaction - Fallada, as I have suggested, is a bit more complicated) - I am really blown away by Meyer's books, how come I didn't read 'em sooner?!?

Finally an odd one out - it arrived on my doorstep from FSG and I pounced upon it immediately. It is a physically lovely book (a particularly attractive dust-jacket, texturally as well as visually!) and I found the essays all very compelling - it is John Waters' Role Models. I especially enjoyed rereading last year's Huffington Post essay about his friendship with Leslie Van Houten, but it's a high-quality collection throughout (I think my other favorite was "Outsider Porn," but the essays on Johnny Mathis and Little Richard are stand-outs as well).

Finally, on a related note, Tony Barrell profiles the founder of Taschen Books in last week's Sunday Times.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Swimwear, 1996

At the Guardian, a very lovely piece by Robert Macfarlane about serving as his friend Roger Deakin's literary executor (I blogged about Deakin's Waterlog here). The archive has found a home at the University of East Anglia, in "23 linear metres of files and a 54-page catalogue":
I read the catalogue with trepidation, anxious at the thought of seeing Roger's life reduced to a data-set. But it turned out to be a wonderful document: an accidental epic prose-poem of his life, or a dendrological cross-section of his mind. File RD/TW/5/1/7, for instance, contains entries for: "Calvados; bristlecone pines; dachas; diving; jungle boys and land girls; pixies; protestors; skylarks; timber frame houses" – along with about 70 others: a zany haberdashery of Roger's interests. Cryptic entries abound: "The Oriental Rat Flea" or "Nudged by Languid Mullet". File RD/WLOG/1/1/2 contains "Complete MS of Waterlog with corrections. (With a strong fishy smell)".

Orchid noir

Alternate-universe Ludlum title: The Cypripedium Committee.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


My big news for this year is that I have received a true honor.

The rubric for the Mark Van Doren Award is that it is bestowed on a CU faculty member for "humanity, devotion to truth and inspiring leadership" by a committee of Columbia College undergraduates. I will endeavor to live up to it - in the meantime, here are the remarks I made at the ceremony this evening:

It is very difficult for me to imagine a more meaningful honor – meaningful to me, personally – than the Mark Van Doren Teaching Award.

I came to Columbia ten years ago as an assistant professor, and I must confess that I immediately found that my hugest and most helpful pool of colleagues was to be found not among the ranks of my fellow faculty but in the classroom. My students were responsive to my excitement about the material I was teaching and more than willing to be seduced by the relatively recondite pleasures of eighteenth-century British literature.

Most of all, I felt that we shared a sense of the excitement of the enterprise on which we were all embarked: a belief that the stakes were high, and that what happened in the classroom each day really mattered, not because of professional futures and the need to apply to graduate schools and get jobs and so forth (though I’m not knocking those things either) but because learning things – and learning how to find out the things one doesn’t yet know – and learning how to think about things is for some of us almost a spiritual vocation, one for which it’s worth submitting to a stringent discipline in the short term for the rewards those habits of thought, once they have been successfully cultivated, will pay out to us in the future.

A collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays was published a few years ago with the striking title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. That phrase is actually the title of a 1915 essay by John Erskine, one of the pioneers of Columbia’s core curriculum, an educator and a theorist of education. (Erskine received his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia and taught here for almost three decades. An aside: I looked up his biography online and was laughing to myself as I read these two sentences: “Although he was a gifted teacher, Erskine seems to have lacked a traditional scholarly disposition. His flamboyance, eccentricities, and literary ambitions set him apart from most of his more staid colleagues at the College.”)

“Intelligent” here doesn’t mean smart or clever so much as it means thoughtful, and I would revise that phrase to read “the moral obligation to think clearly.” Some people have a natural gift for thinking clearly, but it is a talent one can work for as well as having it simply handed to one as birthright.

That is always the underlying goal of what I’m doing in my classes. I would certainly like my students to learn about the battle of the ancients and the moderns as it coalesced around Swift’s Tale of a Tub, or about the forms of presentation of the self that we see being developed in Restoration comedies like The Country Wife or The Man of Mode, or about the lightning-rod role that Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France played during the 1790s. All of these are interesting and important moments in literary and cultural history that case some light on aspects of our own culture as well.

But it is more important to me that the students I teach continue to learn and stretch their abilities to recognize and work towards comprehending things as yet unknown to them, things that may in many cases be important and difficult and even almost inscrutable.

I am happy to spend half an hour in class working through a single sentence or paragraph of prose – obviously not just any prose, it’s going to have to be something really significant – one of those dense rich paragraphs you find in Richardson’s Clarissa or Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments or for that matter Austen or Henry James or Proust. It is tempting to rush to broad thematic generalizations about a work or an author, but how can you answer a big question about what something means if you can’t parse the meanings of the words in one enigmatic sentence? It takes a willingness to puzzle over small things – and often to admit that one doesn’t understand some particular turn of phrase or twist of argument – to earn the right to answer the bigger and more glamorous questions.

The joy of puzzling meaning out of an intricate sentence is something I never grow tired of. My students will perhaps laugh when I say this – I have been known to mention it now and again! –but when I was a little kid, like many children I was fascinated by tales of magical adventure. I had a particular love for stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, stories that take many different incarnations, from the redactions of Roger Lancelyn Green to the chronicles of Malory and Mary Stewart’s Merlin books and the lovely upside-down versions of the stories in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I yearned to perform heroic tasks and live in a magical world where everything would be larger and richer and more colorful than ordinary life.

I realize it doesn’t look particularly glamorous from the outside, but I am very lucky to have found something surprisingly like that magical and rich and colorful life – in the classrooms of Hamilton and Kent and Philosophy. I walk into the classroom and everything is heightened for me – the language on the page before us comes alive, and the exchange of thoughts and the playful back-and-forth between the people sitting in that room are at best absolutely electrifying.

I use the word “playful” deliberately, because in the end what I most cherish about my life of reading and writing is the sense I have, while conducting it, of life's taking place in a very high-level and stimulating and challenging and utterly enjoyable game, something better and more rewarding but just as adrenaline-filled as any other sort of adventure one might have, whether real or virtual. It is a pleasure and a privilege, then, to invite my students to join that game – an unusually meaningful game that can be played, whether as a professional or just as a serious amateur, both in classrooms and out of them for the rest of our lives.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Earwig heaven

In the New York Times Book Review, Philip Hoare reviews Hugh Raffles' Insectopedia:
Raffles’s approach is almost perversely eclectic. His alphabetical entries range in subject matter from the personal disgust he feels when he discovers a cockroach sharing the shower in his Manhattan apartment to epic journeys into Asia and Africa and observing cricket-betting in Shanghai and locust-eating in Niger. His essays may take up 20 pages or a mere two paragraphs. But the most satisfying ones illuminate his subject via potted biographies of men and women who are passionate about insects.

In “Chernobyl,” for instance, Raffles offers a cameo of Cornelia Hesse-­Honegger, a contemporary artist dedicated to creating near-perfect watercolors of insects deformed by nuclear fallout. This is sci-fi stuff: flies with legs growing out of their eyes, the kind of mutations that in any other animal would elicit our horrified response, yet which, because they occur in such small creatures, seem almost excusable because almost invisible. In the act of depicting them so exactingly, Hesse-Honegger, whose own child, we are told in an upsetting aside, was born with a club foot, “discovers that the insect is deformed in ways she hadn’t noticed before.”
There is an extraordinary set of pictures of Chernobyl at the Independent this week, by the way, commemorating the 24th anniversary of the catastrophe.

The sow of feeling

At the Guardian, Andrew O'Hagan on stories of talking animals.

(Annoyingly his new novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, which sounds utterly delightful, is not published in the US until December. Another new book I very much covet is Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky, which doesn't seem to have a US edition at all - hmmm, might have to order some books from England, Trapido I think I cannot wait for...)


The smallest horse in the world?


My friend Jordan Ellenberg has a good piece in the Washington Post about the census and statistical sampling.