Sunday, December 29, 2013

Invisible libraries

Minor resurgence of lung ailment is making me take the day off exercise, but the good thing about that and the gradual winding-down of holiday family obligations is that I am finally having a much-needed day at home cleaning up the floods of paper that accumulate over the course of the semester. Will probably post a stern to-do list later: it is not interesting, but it provides accountability....

(I am also due an end-of-year reading roundup which I hope to put together in the next couple of days.)

I read a funny book a couple weeks ago, a good recommendation from Brian Berger. It is George Steiner's My Unwritten Books, a title and a concept I wish I had thought of myself (I suppose I can revisit it if I get an opportunity late in my career!). I found a couple of the essays not very interesting, "School Terms" disturbingly elitist and judgment-oriented and "The Tongues of Eros" - about what it is like to have sex in different languages - so grotesquely embarrassing that I could read it only with a kind of appalled horror.

But "Chinoiserie," on Joseph Needham (his wildly wide-ranging history of embryology was one of my favorites of all the books I encountered while reading for the breeding book), is an excellent opener, and I thought "Invidia" was absolutely brilliant and striking, rather like Adam Phillips at his very best.

Here is a bit:
What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante is, as it were, in the neighborhood? To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch? "How can I be if another is?" asks Goethe. Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand: "You are so young and already you have done so little."
Also of interest: at the FT, Emma Jacobs on the life of ghostwriting (site registration required).

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