Saturday, December 17, 2005

Fifteen things about books

1. My favorite novel is Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. My other favorite novel is James Baldwin's Just Above My Head.

2. My favorite nineteenth-century English novelists are Austen and Dickens.

3. In first grade I went to a fairly horrible school (I had read every book in the classroom within the first few days of school in September; I was constantly in the nurse’s office with psychosomatic stomach-aches; I was treated as a kind of a prodigy and the evil teacher used to drag me down the hall to her sister’s third-grade classroom and have me read out loud to the third-graders as a freak of nature). However I still remember how excited I was when a pair of Published Authors visited the school; their names were Jane Flory and Carolyn Croll, and I am almost certain that the two books I bought (with money wheedled from my mother) were The Golden Venture and We'll Have a Friend For Lunch. (Both of which seemed a little babyish to me but this was entirely made up for by how exciting it was that I'd met the people who actually wrote them. In the gym! At my school! And they signed the book for me!)

4. When I was four or five, my grandmother was so worried about my obsessive reading habit that she thought my mother should take me to the doctor.

5. When I’m sick, I read a lot of novels, some of which are then strongly associated with that feverish hallucinatory state of having a bad cold. Examples: fourth or fifth grade, a really evil cold, lying in bed eating oranges and potato chips and devouring Robert Heinlein's Friday, a mass-market paperback from the public library whose extremely trashy cover featured the title character in a partially unzipped jumpsuit (the Wikipedia entry gives that cover and points out that though she is depicted as white, Heinlein describes Friday as dark-skinned early in the book); my second or third year in my current job at Columbia, another really evil cold, staggering to the public library as the illness was coming on so that I wouldn’t be stranded without anything to read, then devouring Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife (which I had found on one of the young-adult carousels upstairs at the newly renovated Morningside Branch) and going slightly crazy that I didn’t have the book that came before it.

6. When I was in seventh grade, my mother let me take the day off school to go to a Dick Francis book signing (The Danger, 1983).

7. Some times and places (especially ones that were strange, disorienting or otherwise unsettled) are most vividly recalled to me by way of a book I discovered at the same time: I remember reading Caryl Phillips' Crossing the River during my first few weeks in New Haven in late summer 1994, alone in a new apartment and eagerly but also anxiously waiting for grad school to start, with only my brand-new public library membership (getting a library card is always the first thing I do in a new place) to tide me over till school began; or absolutely immersing myself in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus during my first Christmas vacation back at my parents’ house after going away to college. I’d read it earlier in the semester and fallen completely in love with it, and I spent several days of that holiday obsessively reading back through it (in the middle of the night, of course) and typing up a set of notes on one of those 1980s-style Brother word-processors. (Let us just say now—anyone reading this who knew me at the time will back me up on this—that I was a completely insane seventeen-year-old, insane enough that I was widely known as Crazy Jenny to differentiate me from my roommate Jenny Gibbs, and that if you imagine me reading Deleuze and listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico and wearing black lipstick and generally behaving like an utterly lunatic seventeen-year-old you will understand why I so fervently say that being in my thirties is infinitely preferable to any earlier stage of life. I have no nostalgia whatsoever for college, partly because I got to keep all the good parts—the friends, the books, the music, the nocturnal lifestyle, the campus setting—and ditch all of the awful parts—having to be seventeen, eighteen, nineteen and twenty; not having any money or a room to myself; eating dining-hall food.)

8. Since I’m constitutionally reclusive, I eat roughly 95% of all meals by myself, and I really can’t eat without reading at the same time: even if I’m starving, I have to dig out something to read first.

9. When I was sixteen, I had a boyfriend who I still sometimes jokingly describe as the great love of my life. For Christmas that year (it was 1987) he gave me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanceas a present. After he was murdered in 1998, his father gave me Anton’s own copy of the book to remember him by (it was the original version of this edition), plus a small wire model of a motorcycle. Anton's friends made a memorial website for him; Anton was also the person who introduced me to the novels of Robert Ludlum (he was a passionate fan).

10. My junior year of high school I spent the month of January (we all got the month off for an independent “junior project”) writing an (incomplete) faux-Jacobean play, inspired partly by my obsession with Webster et al. but also written in the spirit of The Crying of Lot 49 and a lovely remark in the early pages of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I don't have the book with me, but the Stein passage goes along the lines of "When Gertrude Stein was eight years old she decided to write an Elizabethan tragedy. She wrote the first stage direction, it said 'Enter courtiers, making witty remarks.' Then she couldn't think of any witty remarks so she went and had supper instead." (My courtiers didn’t make witty remarks either.)

(My advisor for this project was one of the best teachers I have ever had; her name was Deborah Dempsey and she is the person who taught me to become a serious reader of poetry [the school had spring elective seminars in a program called Essentially English, and I remember taking Deborah's class on--I'm not sure this is exactly right--Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop the spring I was thirteen and on Yeats, Eliot and Auden the next year when I was fourteen]. The other thing I always remember her saying was about journalism: she said that as a young person who was a good writer, she was always being told by well-intentioned adults that she should become a journalist, but that you shouldn’t become a journalist because of good writing--though journalists are often excellent writers as well--but because you are driven by curiosity and an obsessive desire to find things out.)

11. The book I read several years ago that inspired me with a sense of fury that nobody had told me to read it before, since it is so much exactly the kind of thing I love and need to read in order to work out the things I think about in my academic writing: John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man.

12. My favorite Austen novel as a child: Pride and Prejudice. My favorite Austen novel as a college student: Sense and Sensibility. My favorite Austen novel as a graduate student: Mansfield Park. My favorite Austen novel as an assistant professor: Emma. (The underlying logic of the preferences: childhood is aligned with the fairy-tale symmetries of Pride and Prejudice; adolescence with the novel of unhappiness and miserably unrequited love and general emotional disarray; graduate school with the potent abjectness of the dependent relative Fanny Price; assistant-professordom with a propensity for well-intentioned meddling on behalf of others (in my case, more oriented towards professional than romantic match-making) which makes me far more forgiving of Emma than I used to be.

13. Books I would love to have written and that seem to me to share fundamental affinities with the books I actually write: Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer; Robin McKinley’s Sunshine; Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age; Sissela Bok’s Lying; the complete novels of Dick Francis.

14. Books I love but could not imagine having written myself: Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing; Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude; Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.

15. Essay I have recently been tempted to describe and/or quote to friends: Adam Phillips, "Sameness is All," in Promises, Promises. This is Phillips on a male teenage patient who fantasizes about having a girlfriend who will be his clone: “The fantasy of the clone girlfriend--not exactly a rarity--was for this boy an all-purpose magical solution. A way of preempting what you do about, or with, the parts of yourself that have nothing 'in common' with an object of desire. What is of interest is that the (narcissistic) solution of creating absolute sameness--the clone--unconsciously kills desire. The fantasy of cloning a girlfriend is a fantasy of not needing a girlfriend. The exact replication of the self merely replicates the problem."


  1. What a great list! I hadn't heard of the John Passmore--sounds interesting.

    JP (not John Passmore)

  2. PS good analysis of why MP appeals more in grad. school than any other time in life--though I think I'd have felt great sympathy with FP as an adolescent as well. I'm happy to say that I think I've outgrown FP. and now sympathize with Mary Crawford far more than I used to. But I still think MP is my favourite--structurally it's so dense and exquisite, and I still love the darkness of its voice and tone.

  3. Oh, Julie, you must read John Passmore, it is the most amazing book! The chapter on "genetic perfectibility" is one of the most brilliant and interesting things I have ever read (my other big rec. on that is an excellent essay by Victor Hilts in a collection edited by Everett Mendelson). Do PLEASE read that book!

    Mansfield Park still really is my favorite, despite my new appreciation for Emma (well, I always loved that book, I just didn't rate it quite so high as I do now). I was wondering as I wrote this post whether I would ever decide that Persuasion was my favorite, and I thought not; it is brilliant, of course (especially in technical terms, there are things Austen does there with point of view that are UNBELIEVABLE), but I can't quite see it having the same sway over me...