Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Library-book countdown

Desperate situations, desperate remedies: I did some extreme triage, now there are only six or seven more library books at home that I feel I really must read before I leave next Thursday. I was able to rule out many, many others (it's a huge stack that I must somehow get back to the library) on the grounds of (a) unattractive font or page layout (b) boring-looking insides (c) bad writing (d) checked out with three or four others by an author unfamiliar to me in a fit of enthusiasm but reading one book was enough to let me know I didn't much want to read more (e) mood changed since I thought I wanted it or (the only cheery reason on the list) (f) it being something I want enough to be willing to buy when I'm at home again (ex.: Geoff Ryman's Air).

I whiled away the evening with Wendy Lesser's Nothing Remains the Same : Rereading and Remembering, which I found enjoyable but not entirely satisfactory. I read Lesser's book The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters a few years ago and loved it (pre-blog, no link), but didn't find this collection quite so satisfying. It's a real mix, a handful of excellent essays but the quality of the others is variable (Lesser is an intelligent and thoughtful writer with an appealing expansive intelligence & yet opinionated enough to give some salt to it, it's never bad, but some of the material is a bit plodding).

Part of the problem, perhaps, is with the premise. It's too free-floating and vague (actually I find it rather perverse that Lesser approaches rereading as such a novelty, I reread books all the time & found her perhaps too startled with the insights of rereading--it came down too often to an argument about her greater appreciation from an older vantage point of books whose nuance or power she may have failed to apprehend at a younger age); it never reaches the power and coherence of the book I can never praise enough (I wish I had written it myself), Francis Spufford's truly enthralling The Child That Books Built which also involves a premise of rereading, or of Anne Fadiman's essays on reading.

On the other hand, while her prose style isn't really as evocative as theirs, Lesser has something going for her that Spufford & Fadiman don't, which is that she has spent her entire adult life practicing the art of criticism, and the best points here show her really getting traction on various books by using those skills. The piece I enjoyed the most is an early one called "Adolescence" about Lesser's two favorite books at age thirteen, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim; that's pretty much exactly what I was reading and loving at that age, and her appreciation for Dodie Smith in this particular is enough to send me into a frenzy that I don't have that novel (which I must have read at least ten times) here right now to reread again.

I like the points when the act of rereading prompts questions or puzzles: in an essay on rereading Anna Karenina and Middlemarch, for instance, Lesser finds herself surprised by the fact that neither book seems life-transforming in the ways it seemed on a first reading. The fact of this being true for both books helps Lesser begin "to realize I had a problem--the good kind of problem, I hope, the kind that is susceptible to inquiry and analysis, perhaps even yielding a solution. Possibly it will sound more enticing if I call it a mystery, or a riddle. At any rate, the question that lies behind the problem or riddle, baldly put, is: Why am I now so unsympathetic to these ywo young women, Anna and Dorothea, whose fates once meant so much to me?" I can't say I really sympathize with this--though I like George Eliot very much I have always found Dorothea very annoying--but it's well-put, if a bit wordy, and shows Lesser's strength as a critic (honest, perceptive, the kind of person you would like to enter into a long conversation with about books).

There are other bits I like a lot too (especially her reflections on having had Christopher Ricks as a teacher, and some wry thoughts on her present-day self having now come to agree with Ricks's rather disparaging comments on the thesis she once wrote on Orwell). But the essays suffer, in a sense, from the seriousness of their goals; Lesser's talking about works like Don Quixote or Shakespeare's late plays or Wordsworth's Immortality Ode or Paradise Lost but she's not really equipped for the heavy lifting (in other words--and I do not mean this at all rudely, it is just an observation--the critics she most admires are Empson, Orwell, Trilling, Ricks etc. and she's a very good and smart reader of literature, each of these essays has something to offer, but it does her no shame to say that she falls considerably short of those guys' standard).

I think she's much better, then, once she gets onto the contemporary stuff: the essay on Ian McEwan is very interesting and quite subtle in its orientation towards his fiction, and the final essay on Vertigo is excellent (& richest when it turns into a meditation on the lost San Francisco of Lesser's own childhood).

One final note: the other book Lesser had me dying to read is John Buchan's The Three Hostages. I must get and read this as soon as possible!

1 comment:

  1. Jenny,

    Two questions:

    1) How many books do you read a month?
    (an ungodly amount I assume)

    2) Are you the type who reads when you're not "reading"?

    I'm not making fun. I'm jealous.