Thursday, March 27, 2014

Geoff Dyer's stroke

As noted elsewhere, the most amazing thing was that he filed his New Republic copy.

Works on paper

At the TLS, Leah Price reviews an alluring book on paper.

The class

I am teaching this semester is one of the strangest, easiest and most purely pleasurable teaching experiences I have ever had! Today we were reading the amazing pair of narratives by Johnson and Boswell, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.

Johnson's narrative is studded with amazing formulations (“If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland”), but this observation of Johnson's about aphorism - mediated through Boswell - also especially caught my eye:
Besides, I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.

Survival mode

It's that time of the school year - I'm barely keeping my head above water! A taxing week, and tomorrow still has a number of demands, but I am hoping to spend the weekend doing little other than exercising, reading novels & generally lounging around the apartment with cats.

(Five more weeks and the semester is over. But they are five weeks mightily packed with things that must be done....)

Far behind on the light reading log. Too frazzled to post, frankly! But here is a go (I have had a lot of time on trains):

Juliet Macur, Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong (readable, some interesting bits, but I have perhaps already read too much of this story in other places - Tyler Hamilton is more psychologically revealing, this one is better on the money side).

Rain prequel Graveyard of Memories and an omnibus edition of Barry Eisler's first three John Rain thrillers, All the Rain: Part One. I'd read the middle one of those three before (memorable opening assassination scene in weight room!), they are not quite my cup of tea but eminently readable.

Seanan McGuire, Midnight Blue-Light Special: An Incryptid Novel. I do not know how she manages to write so much fiction at such a high level of quality - only problem is that as soon as you finish one of her books you are hungry for the next one.

Charles Stross, Equoid: A Laundry Novella. The original conceit does not get old, and this is a very funny little installment.

Imogen Robertson, Circle of Shadows (mixed feelings about the genre of the historical mystery, but this series is very good).

Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam. Pretty weak, alas - it's partly just that the railway isn't an institution in the way that the post office or the mint is, so that it is inferior on that ground alone to Making Money and Going Postal - there is also a misty-eyed belief in progress that I have a hard time stomaching. Worth reading for old times' sake.

Daniel Price, The Flight of the Silvers. This book is amazing - first thing since FRINGE finished that has really scratched that itch, a superb recommendation from Michael Trask who responded to my Facebook plea last week. Alas, there is never enough perfect light reading in the world - I want the next installment of this one NOW!

(Ditto volume 3 of Knausgaard, which I might have to order in hard copy from the Book Depository since I am not sure I can wait till it appears in the US....)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ASECS bound

Heading to Williamsburg on the train tomorrow for the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. I am on an interesting panel called "How to Read an Eighteenth-Century Page" - this is my page (borrowed from ECCO - need to get in to office early this morning to make a better handout/scan from the reproduction of the 1729 Dunciad Variorum!):
My father had to go into hospital last week in Philadelphia, and is still there (hopefully he'll get out early next week). I was there briefly over the weekend to visit, but am feeling very guilty for not being on-site to help out with stuff. It is the nature of the school year that March and April are particularly demanding - I will hope to be able to go down when he's released and settle him back in at home....

Flat white

Peter Doyle's suburban noir.

Paring down

Mike Watt's thirteen all-time top LPs.

Great books

At the New York Times, thoughtful pieces by Pankaj Mishra and Daniel Mendelsohn on how Harold Bloom's Western Canon book might have been received today.

"This is what God put me on earth to do, to bring Benjamin to America"

At the Chronicle, Eric Banks on the life and afterlife of Walter Benjamin. A great piece to read (Lindsay Waters is an intellectual hero!) - a reminder of how contingent the survival and dissemination of someone's work may be.

Have been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be an academic insider/gatekeeper (this has been much on my mind over the past week - also reported here). And from another standpoint, the lack of clear correlation between brilliance and success in a fairly remorseless pipeline....

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The role cold plays

I would like to see this someday for myself. I might have to read the book....

Signal boost

The middle of my day was brightened by an extremely interesting discussion by Bruce Holsinger of his medieval thriller A Burnable Book. He will be speaking this evening at 7pm at Book Culture (details here) - go and see him speak if you can!

(I only know Bruce slightly in person, but I always think of him as a kindred spirit, insofar as we share a love for literary scholarship, reading and writing fiction and endurance sport....)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Anole toe clipping. Someone should write an essay about simple numeric codes and their use by animal researchers - I am also fascinated by the bead systems used for creatures like these. I suppose a photo essay is really what would be in order, or a tumblr - anybody?!?

"I must now insert myself into the story"

A fascinating essay by Peter Brooks at the NYRB on the life of Paul de Man (it is among other things a devastating takedown of the new biography, but that's by no means all).

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The observation of our observing

Alberto Manguel in the NYT on the aftermath of his stroke last year and what it showed him about language and thought:
If thought, as I believe, forms itself in the mind by means of words, then, in the first fraction of a second, when the thought is sparked, the words that instantaneously cluster around it, like barnacles, are not clearly distinguishable to the mind’s eye: They constitute the thought only in potential, a shape underwater, present but not fully detailed. When a thought emerges in the language of the speaker (and each language produces particular thoughts that can be only imperfectly translated), the mind selects the most adequate words in that specific language, to allow the thought to become intelligible, as if the words were metal shavings gathering around the magnet of thought.
I am eternally grateful to Manguel because although I do not think it is the perfect book about reading, The History of Reading is sufficiently like the book I myself would write on the topic that it has saved me the trouble of doing so myself! (Have been having various exciting thoughts on what books I might want to write next, only I know that sharing them often lessens the impulse to write them, so will keep it all to myself until things are a bit further advanced.)

Another good brain bit in the NYT, in case you didn't see it: Ron Suskin on how Disney provided a language for his autistic son.

The real thing

Gary Panter on the New York Public Library.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


My old friend Farai Chideya writes an evocative piece for the Washington Post about being black at Harvard in the late 1980s. This is the Harvard I remember - I especially remember the Drag Night performance in which Farai and roommates, as the Village People, disconcerted MCs who had imagined they were only going to need awards for solo performers (with strong bias towards M-to-F!).

Ideology paves the way

Quote for the day, a bit of Gramsci I'm teaching alongside Johnson's plan for and preface to the Dictionary in seminar this afternoon:
The bayonets of Napoleon's armies found their road already smoothed by an invisible army of books and pamphlets that had swarmed out of Paris from the first half of the eighteenth century and had prepared both men and institutions for the necessary renewal.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Midweek brain fog

I feel that I am operating at only about 60% functionality due to fatigue - it is not good! My Friday meeting this week is canceled, which gives me a bit of a breather (usually I have a Wednesday morning deadline for initial round of reading and reports), but on the other hand I have to write up some thoughts for my other committee by late morning today, if I can pull myself together sufficiently. Hoping to fit in a run at some point, but it has been a disastrous winter for exercise, and it's not quite as warm today as I had hoped....

No Exit at the Pearl was thoroughly enjoyable (tasty dinner afterwards at Ktchn - it is bizarre that there should be a restaurant of that ilk on that block, times have changed!).

Two funny things later today: first of all, at three some people are coming to my apartment to film interview footage for Aaron Brookner's documentary about his uncle Howard Brookner, a documentary filmmaker and admirer of William Burroughs; Brookner did not live in my actual apartment while he was at Columbia in the 70s, but it was one with similar layout in the same building, and the notion is that it can be used to capture the flavor of life here at that time.

Then at 6:15 it's the Rape of the Lock reading! Hmmm, must not forget to prepare a few introductory remarks - I am speaking briefly beforehand then reading the opening stretch of lines.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Closing tabs

Busy week, somehow. And excessively cold! My lungs are ready for spring.

I enjoyed many of the pieces in MFA vs. NYC, but Alexander Chee's essay was by far my favorite. Leslie Jamison's account of the book is good (via Chloe S.) - I have a review of Jamison's forthcoming essay collection in the next Bookforum, the book's a must-read if you are interested in the contemporary essay or the question of pain, female or otherwise.

Other light reading around the edges: two absolutely delightful young-adult fantasy novels by Sarah Rees Brennan, Unspoken and Untold. These books are perfectly to my taste (they would make a very good television series also) - only I have to wait until September for the next installment!

Stage Kiss at Playwrights Horizons is one of the funniest plays I have seen for a long time - especially in the first half, I was actually laughing uncontrollably out loud. (It was a matinee, so no outright feasting afterwards, but we did have a piece of pie at the diner next door - cherry for me, apple for G.) Between that and Antony and Cleopatra, it was a good weekend for theatergoing. Seeing No Exit tonight at the Pearl; 7pm curtain + short play = more realistic than serious mid-evening theatergoing for a school night.

Closing tabs:

Andrew Solomon on having the demons of depression exorcised - literally.

The inimitable Cintra Wilson watches the Oscars.

Excited about blurbs accumulating for my style book - official publication date is June, but I should have some copies by the end of May.

Last but not least, trilobite! (Time to reread Richard Fortey's book, I think.)

Republics of letters

At Public Books, Simon During on why we should stop defending the humanities (I have to say, I'm completely with him on this - I wish I had written this piece myself, as it beautifully articulates many of the thoughts I regularly have when I read "plight of the humanities" pieces!):
The key consequence of seeing the humanities as a world alongside other broadly similar worlds is that the limits of their defensibility becomes apparent, and sermonizing over them becomes harder. If people stopped watching and playing sports, how much would it matter? The question is unanswerable since we can’t imagine a society continuous with ours but lacking sports, even though one such is, I suppose, possible. We do not have the means to adjudicate between that imaginary sportless society and our own actual sports-obsessed society. The same is true for the humanities. If the humanities were to disappear, new social and cultural configurations would then exist. Would this be a loss or gain? There is no way of telling, partly because we can’t picture what a society and culture that follow from ours but lack the humanities would be like at the requisite level of detail, and partly because, even if we could imagine such a society, our judgment between a society with the humanities and one without them couldn’t appeal to the standards like ours that are embedded in the humanities themselves. The humanities would be gone: that’s it.

Of course, those of us in the humanities who love and breathe them, whose institutional (but not just institutional) lives are formed in relation to them, who would like more people to join them and so become more like us, to think and feel and talk like us, who may even find the “meaning of life” articulated from within them, find the prospect of their fading insupportable, heartrending, unimaginable. But that offers no substantive public reason to maintain them, just as it turned out in the end to be no reason to maintain all the more or less similar worlds that have disappeared over the centuries, before and after modernity: the worlds of the aristocratic honor code; the world of older humanisms and the “republic of letters”; the worlds of industrial working-class solidarity; the world of Scholasticism and the trivium; the worlds of old Anglican rural, parochial, and liturgical life, and so on.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Kinga-prusha mall

Daniel Nester on the fading of the Philadelphia accent in the movies.

(Have just sent my reader's report to the press. I am not really and truly usually working at 11pm on a Saturday night, but I was so tired that I slept the day away and didn't really start getting traction on the last part of the manuscript until early evening!)

Closing tabs

I have been increasingly conscious, in recent years, of the sense that I am leading exactly the life I should be, and how fortunate I am in that - I like all the things in my life very much, the only problem is that there are too many of them! Today I am basically so tired that all I can do is lie in bed (I am trying to finish reading a book manuscript I need to write a reader's report on this weekend, working in bed is contraindicated from a sleep hygiene point-of-view but sometimes it is the only way to get anything done).

(I always think that if I were a mathematician, I would often be working in bed with my eyes closed!)

Flew back from Cayman Wednesday evening, got my first set of shots at the new allergy doctor Thursday morning, taught Thomas Jefferson Thursday afternoon, had my demanding Friday-morning meeting and then after nap and regrouping met G. at the Public Theater in the evening for a grippingly watchable Anthony and Cleopatra (not a perfect production, slightly too many disparate elements that don't quite gel, but you can't take your eyes off it - I really loved it) and dinner afterwards at the very nice newish restaurant there.

At that point it was after midnight and frigidly cold, but it proved impossible to get a cab, so I walked G. home via Greene St. and then headed across town on foot to the 1 train. Got home around 1:15, but it takes a couple hours for me to wind down after that and go to sleep - got to sleep finally around 3:30am, didn't wake up till 1pm, and went back to bed after some breakfast - I had unrealistic hopes for exercise today, but really I just have to dig in and get this work done, tomorrow will offer some opportunities too....

I finished rereading the last of the four Arthur books by Mary Stewart; as I dimly remembered, the fourth is much less good than the first three (she has various narrative and story conundrums to deal with, and the result is that she's working in a sort of chronicle mode, very readable but much less deeply satisfying than the first-person narration of the main trilogy).

I really like having a multi-volume sequence of novels to read or reread - might ponder what from the archives could be revisited over the next two weeks as I attempt to survive the workload between now and spring break.

(I will get a few days breather then, but unfortunately can't go and see B., as I have to go to Colonial Williamsburg at the end of the week for my eighteenth-century studies conference, grrrr... not looking forward to the eight-hour train ride each way, and am sorry to say that I am mean-spiritedly intent on skipping the masquerade ball - it is simply beyond what I can face, and I am thinking I will have a happy introvert's dinner instead at home alone in my hotel room with a book!)

Closing tabs:

At the LRB, Adam Mars-Jones on Beckett's "Not I."

Elaine Scarry's voice in the wilderness.

10 reasons to celebrate The Roots' Things Fall Apart on its fifteenth anniversary. (This is really one of my favorite albums, in fact I am feeling a strong desire to listen to it right now!)

The elusive role of dance in modernism.

Nobody said that then!

You can't see Bitcoins. (Via BoingBoing.)

The culling of zoo animals.

Finally, an excerpt from Juliet Macur's forthcoming book on Lance Armstrong - I'm keen to read this one, it will be published Tuesday. Am currently dug in on the to-me-curiously-not-relevant-though-still-interesting MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction.