2007 Reading Goals
Posted at the new location.
the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
Posted at the new location.
Today we have Emerson's take on English Literature. English here does not mean the language, but the country. And following along with his other essays in English Traits, he does not hesitate to name the good, the bad, or the ugly.
What made English lit great, and you will notice the past tense here which we will get to later, according to Emerson are English traits he has expounded on in various guises already. The English are a common sense, practical people who "delight in strong earthy expression" and whose "muse loves the farmyard, the lane and market." The English have "accurate perceptions" that take "hold of things by the right end." They are materialist--just the facts--but when materialism meets the "exalted sphere of the intellect" we are graced with the genius that is Shakespeare and Milton.
Emerson sees two lines of thought through English literature. The first, Platonic, Emerson sees as "the poetic tendency." The mind of the Platonist loves analogy, is aware of resemblances, and climbs "on the staircase of unity." In the Platonic tradition reside the greats, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon. The Golden Age of English literature Emerson marks as 1575-1625. Since then it's been on a downhill slide into the second line of thought which Emerson blames on Locke.
Lockean thought, the "so-called scientific," is "poisonous." It is facts, facts, facts and nothing but facts. It is mean, infertile, and does not employ "high speculation." It keeps the English from generalizing and from the universal. Nothing poetic will ever come out of Lockean thought and Emerson even finds fault with its science:
The science is false by not being poetic. It isolates the reptile or mollusk it assumes to explain; whilst reptile or mollusk only exists in system, in relation. The poet only sees it as an inevitable step in the path of the Creator. But, in England, one hermit finds this fact, and another finds that, and lives and dies ignorant of its value.Emerson admits to there being exceptions, but these are few and English science, but especially its literature, is in sad straits. I understand his argument and like to think that there is more balance these days, at least in some of the arts and sciences. In others there is still, definitely, a bit of a divorce but I don't think it is across the board.
While the constructive talent seems dwarfed and superficial, the criticism is often in the noblest tone and suggests the presence of invisible gods.That's like going to a party at the White House or the UN and saying "at least the food was good." Ah Emerson, you gotta love him in spite of his prickliness.
Time for me to get on the reading year in review bandwagon. I would have done it sooner but I was waiting to see what other books I'd finish. So far I have finished 54 this year but should be making that 55 as I am less than 100 pages from finishing volume 2 of Proust. The mid 50s is my annual average, only once have I ever gone over 60 and that was just after I finished college and didn't have a job for four months. When I look forward to the day I will be able to retire, I dream of regularly reading 60+ books a year. Until then I will just have to make do.
Of those 55 books this year:
Number of Re-Reads: 5
Male Authors: 34
Female Authors: 18
Books by Male and Female Authors: 2
Of the Fiction:
Fantasy/science fiction: 8
Short Stories: 5
Adult Picture Books: 1
Of the Nonfiction:
Books about Books and Reading (includes some memoir and essays): 5
Favorite Fiction read in 2006 (in no particular order):
I was going to show some self-restraint. I was going to hold onto my book gift cards from Christmas until next year. I imagined even so long as the middle of January. So much for that idea. What was I thinking? The following books should arrive on my porch by January 2nd, courtesy of my sister's and parent's book card generosity:
Margaret Atwood. Does just the mention of her name make you swoon like it does me? Next to Virginia Woolf, Atwood is my favorite prose writer. She has a dry sense of humor and the ability to choose just the right word. I also love that she takes risks. No one can accuse her of writing the same book over and over again. I finished reading Moral Disorder this afternoon. Would you be surprised if I said I loved it? The book's main character is Nell and she is carried back and forth through time in each of the short stories which read more like chapters of a novel with long breaks in between than short stories. We start with "Bad News" and Nell and her husband in the present talking about an unnamed war. It is obvious what war they are talking about especially when Atwood writes things like this
The leaders of the leading countries, as they're called, those aren't really leading any more, they're flailing around; you can see it in their eyes, white-rimmed like the eyes of panic-stricken cattle.From "Bad News" we move back in time to "The Art of Serving and Cooking" when Nell is eleven and her mother unexpectedly pregnant. From here the stories go on a forward trajectory, though within each one there are flashbacks of memory and moments when Nell, the narrator most of the time, speaks from the present to comment on events of the past. The stories end first with one about Nell's ailing father and then one about her ailing mother, the parents that Nell throughout has loved and hated and been estranged from and now has made her peace with. One of my favorite stories is "My Last Duchess" which takes place when Nell is in high school studying for the exams that will determine if she can go to college (what do they call these in Canada?). Atwood weaves in study of Browning's poem with Nell's life and boyfriend worries. What I enjoy most about the story is the way she captures what it is like being in high school:
The dropouts, as we called them, had left as early as they could, but not before they'd tortured us with taunts of "brainer," "brown nose," "show-off," and "suckup," and had jeered relentlessly at anyone who actually did homework. They'd left us with an ambiguous opinion of ourselves. "Think you're so smart," they'd sneered, and we had thought we were smart, smarter than them at any rate; but we didn't altogether approve of our smartness. It was like having an extra hand: an advantage for opening doors, but freakish despite that.And then there is "The Other Place" in which Nell has finished college and is moving around, unable to settle down, trying to misbehave but unable to because her parents keep talking to her inside of her head, sending her thought waves like "Why are you living in this dump?" and "Wear less black!" And there is a moment that I have not decided yet whether Proust would agree or disagree:
I see it in retrospect, indulgently, from the point I've reached now. But how else could I see it? We can't really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do, it's as tourists.Maybe when I reach the end of Proust I will be able to come to a conclusion. Moral Disorder is also rather autobiographical at times and reminds me in places of Surfacing. As to the title itself, one of the stories is called "Moral Disorder," but it also applies to the whole book as Nell moves through her life, making choices right and wrong, good and bad and coming to terms with the consequences. I wouldn't call this Atwood's best book, but it certainly is solid and frequently sparkling with genius.
Okay, so I've set up a blog at wordpress. I am not able to tinker with the template unless I fork over some cash. I'd prefer the post font to be bigger and I'd like the color to be more burgundy than red (I do have other color options like blue, bright green, orange, and purple) but it isn't bad. What do you all think? (In case you can't tell, I'm a bit ambivalent. I can't decide, Blogger or Wordpress.) Back later with something bookish.
The problem with reading a book about the history of western philosophy is that one encounters authors/philosophers that one has heard about but never read. I am now faced with the decision to either make it a point to read them or consign them to the bin of "books I'd like to read if I were immortal." The difficulty with tossing them into the bin, of course, is that I know I will lose out. I know that these books are fundamental, and from time to time are major players in both classic and contemporary fiction. I have begun a list on the back leaves of The Passion of the Western Mind, whose author is good enough to have included an historical timeline in an appendix so that I may list these things in order. So far the list is relatively short, but I have only just now gotten up to Socrates and I can sense a list waiting to go wild a mile away. So far the list reads thusly:
Today has not turned out to be a very festive day. We had to take our cat to the emergency vet because he hadn't eaten since yesterday afternoon and he was having trouble breathing. The little cold he had last week turned into a whopper of an upper respiratory infection in the blink of an eye. He's spending the night at the hospital hooked up to an IV. We'll know more in the morning. We are trying to be optimistic, but he is 16 and diabetic and we can't help but worry that this might be it. I'll be back tomorrow with something bookish and I hope some good news.
This week Emerson writes about English Universities and Religion. I didn't like either of these chapters very much. Emerson has lost his humor and light and hearty tone that he began English Traits with and I am not quite sure what the point of these two chapters is. But maybe I will find something interesting as I try to write about them. Emerson has great admiration for English universities, in particular Cambridge and Oxford, which, by this chapter, you'd think were the only universities in England. Emerson spent some time at Oxford in his travels and it made an impression on him. He describes Oxford as "redolent of age and authority," a veritable "Greek factory," turning out men knowledgeable in Greek language, Greek learning, Latin, and math. The students of Harvard and Yale do not compare well in Emerson's eyes. Not only do the American university students lack the "polished manners" instilled in English universities, but through "diet and rough exercise," the English hold the advantage in "vigor and color and general habit" as well. Plus, the English read better and write better because they have available to them libraries with all the best books in them. Oxford is not perfect, however. Emerson saw evidence of misspent revenues, and "gross favoritism," and notes that many of the chairs and fellowships are "made beds of ease." Nonetheless, if an American student were to attend Oxford, he should count himself blessed. As far as religion goes, Emerson states that "no people at the present day can be explained by their national religion." That doesn't keep him from trying though. Emerson feels that Christianity civilized England, that the English Church was effective in "humanizing the people in cheering and refining men, feeding, healing, and educating." And Emerson notes that "the stability of the English nation is passionately enlisted in its [the Church's] support." However, there is always a however with Emerson, the Church in England no longer really means anything and "the religion of England is part of good-breeding." The English are "neither transcendentalists nor Christians." The national church is nothing but an ornament. After he spends eight pages of detailing the national religion, what it has done, what it has not done, and what it is at the time of Emerson's visit, he wiggles back to his opening line and tries in one page to convince us that the national religion is not the true religion of England. Rather, the true religion of England does not dwell in a church, it is something more intangible yet all permeating: "the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil." This is the "divine secret" of English religion that has existed from the days of Alfred to the present and will go on into the future. I am not entirely convinced, but then I don't know much about religion in England either. I am back where I began, having found nothing particularly interesting or insightful in either of these chapters. I am, however, beginning to harbor suspicions about Emerson, his obvious anglophilic feelings, and the delivering of these lectures to American audiences. I can see Emerson walking a very fine line, praising the English in everything, but careful, always, to find a flaw. Wouldn't want to make the Americans mad, they are the ones, after all, amongst whom Emerson makes his living. Next week's Emerson: English Literature
Happy first day of winter to everyone! My Bookman and I are celebrating the Winter Solstice today because of work schedules and all that. It snowed yesterday, not a lot but enough to cover the ground and shovel the sidewalk. It couldn't have been more perfectly planned. We'll be bundling up and taking a walk later which will thrill the dog. He loves walking in the snow. Today also means an extra special yummy dinner. The menu:
I finished listening to The Gunslinger a few days ago. I enjoyed it, but as many of you said, it is not as good as the rest. That was quickly evident when I began listening to The Drawing of the Three the other night. Lobstrosities and finger and toe amputation. Yikes! There was certainly no gradual building of story to begin this one. There was a sort of prologue in which The Gunslinger was Explained. My Bookman informs me there were years between the first and second book, so I can understand a re-cap, but this prologue went a bit to far Explaining. It went over themes and major plot twists from the first book and who Roland, the Gunslinger himself, is and what his quest is and why. Too much information. Maybe it wouldn't have bothered me if the first book wasn't fresh in my mind. The one bit of information that was useful is that the Gunslinger is inspired by Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. It has been ages since I read the poem, so I'll have to refresh my memory on it and see if it adds any nuances to the story. In other reading, Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just is currently arguing that the idea that looking at something beautiful, especially a person, harms the thing being looked at is hogwash. I'm having difficulty following all of the ins and outs of her argument so I think I will have to back track on it a bit. Virginia Woolf's diary brought me to tears. I have read various accounts of Woolf's mental illness and never been satisfied with them. There always seemed to be something missing, something unsaid. But Woolf has now obligingly filled me in on what it was like. She wrote in her diary on September 15, 1926:
Oh its beginning its coming--the horror--physically like a painful wave swelling the heart--tossing me up. I'm unhappy unhappy! Down--God, I wish I were dead. Pause. But why am I feeling this? Let me watch the wave rise. I watch. Vanessa. Children. Failure. Yes; I detect that. Failure failure. (The wave rises). Oh they laughed at my taste in green paint! Wave crashes. I wish I were dead! I've only a few years to live I hope. I can't face this horror any more--(this is the wave spreading out over me).She goes on another two paragraphs and ends the entry:
Does everyone go through this state? Why have I so little control? It is not creditable, nor lovable. It is the cause of much waste & pain in my life.What amazes me is the immediacy and precision of her description, and that she also manages to distance herself as an observer so she can describe it. In book news, you may have heard the title of the final Harry Potter book has been announced: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. No word on the publication date. Syntax of Things has gotten together a list of underrated writers. Writer's names were submitted by bloggers. I am sad to say I know very few of the writers on the list. On the bright side, I now have a long list of "new" writers and books to investigate. And finally, at the Guardian, a list of smelly books. Topping the list is Proust!
I got this meme from Sylvia who gave me the letter "P"
I finished reading J.C. Hallman's book The Devil is a Gentleman. I've mentioned it a couple of times. Now that I am done I can say with certainty I enjoyed the book greatly. Since it was gifted me by Ella before she moved to Dubai, I must say another thank you to her. What I liked was not just getting a glimpse into so many different religions, though that is the main fascination. The writing is also a pleasure. Hallman does not write from an objective expert's position. He includes himself and his feelings and reactions to the different people in the book. He is unsettled and a little scared the night he spends in the Satanist's house. He is moved during the Wicca ceremony and the services of the Monks at New Skete brought tears to his eyes. But at the same time Hallman is in the book, the book is not the religious groups according to him. He approaches each one with an open mind, participates in their ceremonies, never laughs at them, and is generally curious. And always present is William James. Here is a sample from the Wicca chapter:
I had seen the way in which the old idol of hypothesis verification was its own over-belief, the way it had divvied all of us up into a babble of scientific cants and lingos, had made us fanatics blind even to our own fanaticism, unhappy and seeking, desperate to try anything that tasted like truth. America itself was the sick soul, a divided consciousness, a bifurcated society struggling to climb free of its cold womb. How could you tell another what would ring true to the hot place of their consciousness? Not long after he returned from delivering Varieties in Scotland, James wrote in a letter, "But I am intensely an individualist, and believe that as a practical problem for the individual, the religion he stands by must be the one which he finds best for him, even though there were other better individuals, and their religion better for them."Hallman uses James as a way to discuss the various groups. Are the groups healthy? Are they really religions? What would James say? As we go from group to group and between chapters, we are led through William James's life and the development of his thinking. No need to have read James before, but I must warn you, if you read this book, you will want to read James by the time you are done. James created the philosophy of Pragmatism and believed in the importance of pluralism. He thought pluralism made people more forgiving, and that
once one believed in the possibility of many truths the fruits of religion were made available to everyone. Too much singularity, in either truth or a Christian God or a Hegelian Absolute, lent itself to fragmentation and division.I think Brother Marc, one of the Monks at New Skete has it right, and not just about dogs either:
I think individuals have become alienated from the matrix of earth and nature that we naturally arise from. We're living an artificially divided, fragmented life. As individuals, like grains of sand, rubbing against one another, but not really becoming a part of one another. And when we meet up with dogs, who totally accept us just the way we are, we like this because this is what a human being should be able to have from society. We've lost that. We should be able to come to our village, to our extended family, and no matter how good or bad we are, be totally accepted. We don't have that anymore.One of the things that James discovered, and Hallman reaffirms, is that the healthy religions, no matter how strange they may seem, whether they are waiting for aliens, reverencing trees, or drawing down the moon, provide a place where we can be accepted for who we are and maybe, for a little while at least, cease being irritating grains of sand and become part of one another.
I'm feeling rather challenge challenged of late. So many good ones like the Winter Classics Challenge, the Chunkster Challenge, and of course, the one I am in the middle of and not doing well on, the From the Stacks Challenge. As you can see from my sidebar, I have only crossed off one of the five books on my Stacks Challenge list. I am reading On Beauty and Being Just, but even though it is a slim book, it is slow going and I wouldn't want it any other way. I started reading Moral Disorder recently and considered starting the others too as if reading them all at once would make them go faster or make more time materialize out of pure necessity. I have read three stories in the Atwood book and it is taking all my willpower to resist tossing everything else aside so I can wallow in the glory that is Margaret. I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up doing this anyway, wallowing that is, it is just a matter of time. I meant well when I signed up for the challenge, but I don't think I will actually manage to complete it. At least it doesn't look like it from my current vantage point. Maybe the time off I have over the holidays will change all that. But I am tempted by the other two challenges. I already plan on reading 13 classics in 2007, surely I can scrunch five of them into January and February? I don't think I'm going to be able to. Thinking about it makes me feel anxious, especially since there are new books waiting in a box to be opened on Solstice this Friday. And the Chunkster, piece of cake! I plan on reading a couple of them next year, but I want to try and finish the big brick affectionately titled Clarissa that I began over a year ago and haven't picked up since, um, since June? July? Been so long I can't remember. I do know I left Clarissa still trying to resist Lovelace and Lovelace still trying to get Clarissa to marry him so I'm not worried about being lost. I need to get the book off my little bedside shelf. Just looking at it makes me tired. When I finally manage to finish it, I will feel very accomplished. So I guess what I am saying is that I am already too challenged with my own regularly scheduled reading to be able to join up with the great creative challenges. I am enjoying reading the lists of those who are planning on participating. And I will enjoy following everyone's progress. But I will be lucky if I manage to read all the books piled on the edge of my desk by the end of next year. Maybe I should write to Santa and ask him for three extra reading hours a day like Litlove did. I've been soooo good this year he couldn't possibly refuse.
This week Emerson writes about English Wealth and Aristocracy. Where some of his previous lecture/chapters have been rather casual and humorous, in these two Emerson becomes more, well, Emersonian. He reverts to his old tricks of talking up how great something is, gets you excited and buying in on it or angry about how he could be so blind to other factors, and then he rips off his disguise with an implied, "fooled you!" (or, if you are a Simpsons fan, an ironic Nelson, "Ha! Ha!") and reveals how what he just said is not as perfect and wonderful as he had led you to believe. This is his M.O. in both the essays. In wealth he begins on a familiar refrain of praising the wealth of the English. But this time he takes it farther by talking about attitudes toward wealth:
There is no country in which so absolute a homage is paid to wealth. In America there is a touch of shame when a man exhibits the evidences of large property, as if after all it needed apology. But the Englishman has pure pride in his wealth, and esteems it a final certificate. A coarse logic rules throughout all English souls--if you have merit, can you not show it by your good clothes and coach and horses?It is a disgrace to be born poor, and if you can't take care of yourself, it is your own fault. To their already existing wealth the English have accumulated even more by the advent of the machine and the industrial revolution. Now manufacturers can have machines do the work of thousands of unruly workers, producing more at a fraction of the cost. This has added to the wealth of not only the proprietary classes, but creates an intelligent middle class that proves the match of the land-owner: "the mill buys out the castle." The English are so rich because they are a "constitutionally fertile and creative people." But look out for the servants. The "machine unmans the user" and the incessant repetition of the same work robs people of their strength, intelligence and versatility so you end up with a large number of poor and ruined people who end up sucking up the solvency of the upper classes. Emerson says England has made an effort at compensation by returning part of the nation's wealth to schools and libraries and museums, "but the antidotes are frightfully inadequate, and the evil requires a deeper cure, which time and a simpler social organization must supply." As for the aristocracy, who doesn't want a title and wealth? The people are loyal and the nobility flatter their fancy. "Every man who becomes rich buys land and does what he can to fortify the nobility, into which he hopes to rise." Emerson praises the nobility for they are the warring class and have led the country to war and created the foundation for the wealth of the nation. They have built great estates, exude good manners, give to charities, gather and protect works of art from all over the world. They are poets and scientists, explorers, and great thinkers. But many of them have now grown fat, idle and corrupt. They have lost their fortunes in gaming, racing and drinking. Once great names have pawned all their silver (and we know already how much the English love their silver) and great lords now hide themselves while tours are given of his estate for money. And now, at last, in the industrial revolution, the advantages that were once confined to the nobility are available to a growing middle class. "Who now will work and dare, shall rule," is the new code and every day a "multitude of English" are "confronting the peers on a footing of equality, and outstripping them, as often, in the race of honor and influence." As an American I have heard much about the English class system and it is always disparaging. We operate here as though there is no such thing as class and pat ourselves on the backs. All a person needs is to work hard and the American Dream can be reality. For quite a lot of people this is a lie. More often than not, if you are born poor you die poor. And these days the middle class seems on the verge of collapse with declining wages and growing personal debt. We are like the English Emerson describes, a people who support the rich (tax cuts for the wealthy, repeal of the "death" tax) because we hope to be rich someday too. So we build football stadiums for multi-millionaires and close public libraries because there is no money. We give businesses property-tax breaks and make up the difference by taxing homeowners even more. Class is the elephant in the room nobody wants to address. But as Emerson said, look out for the servants. Next week's Emerson: English Universities and Religion
Histories of western philosophy always seem to start with Plato (even when they're talking Socrates almost everything we know about him came from Plato) and that is where The Passion of the Western Mind starts too. The books don't start with Plato because we don't know anything before that, but because, apparently, Plato represents a big shift in thought up to that time. Prior to Plato philosophic thinking was pretty much based on the gods. When you wanted to talk about mind, you'd talk about Athena. If sexuality was the topic, you talked about Aphrodite. The concepts were the gods. Plato makes a shift. While he still uses the gods and the language associated with them, he insists that the concepts, the Forms, Ideas, Archetypes, are not the gods, but exist in their own right, separate from the gods. This is huge. It's like the separation of church and state, only it's the separation of gods and ideas. Plato uses Idea, Form and Archetype interchangeably. Plato's use of Archetype is not Jungian or symbolic, it is an actual thing. For convenience, I'm going to use Form here. What is a Form? Forms "possess a quality of being, a degree of reality, that is superior to that of the concrete world." They are not abstractions made up from generalizing particulars. A Form is a fundamental, an essence. The world is informed by Forms, but while Forms manifest themselves in time they are also timeless. For instance, Truth is a Form. When we say something is true, in Plato's thinking something is as true as the extent to which Truth is present in it. Same goes for Beauty or Good or Evil. A Form is absolute. Plato believed absolutes were necessary to keep the world from sliding into relativism. Because Forms are absolute, they are also universal. The universal transcends the particular and is immortal and unchanging. As a result, Plato believed that sensory knowledge could not be trusted. Sensory knowledge is subjective and thus has no foundation in the absolute. Forms can also be viewed from the perspective of being and becoming. Form is being because being is. All else is becoming because it is always in flux. Plato also loved math. To him, math is a graphic demonstration of Form. Plato understood the physical world "to be organized in accordance with the mathematical Ideas of number and geometry." I completely disagree with Plato, but what I find interesting is how much of Plato we still find in the world. Well over 2,000 years later, we are still arguing with him.
I was going to write a post today about Plato and Forms and Ideas and Archetypes and make a comparison between Plato's Idea of Beauty and Elaine Scarry's ideas on beauty, but I got sidetracked. Scarry writes for several pages about Matisse and palm trees in his paintings. Frankly this was tedious. She analyzes the paintings but there are no pictures of the paintings only not very well executed rough pencil sketches that tell me nothing about what the painting looks like. On a whim I decided to look up the paintings and I found more than I bargained for. First, I found the origin of On Beauty and Being Just was as Tanner Lectures on Human Values and you can read Scarry's On Beauty lectures online. I also found Professor Brown's Philosophy of Beauty class notes at the University of Maryland. He was kind enough to include the Matisse paintings in the notes. It appears Scarry was one of the main texts, but there were others and I look forward to spending some time looking over the notes after I finish reading the book. Most surprising, however, is a Wikipedia article on Zadie Smiths' book On Beauty that notes Smith's book takes its title from Elaine Scarry's essay On Beauty and Being Just. All I ever heard about Smith's book was how it was modeled after Howard's End, I heard nothing about the Scarry connection. Howard's End is on my 2007 reading plan and you bet your biffy I'll be reading Zadie Smith's book now too. Have I mentioned lately how much I love the internet? I have to say that I feel much better about Scarry's take on the truth, beauty; beauty truth thing I was having problems with last time. At the end of the essay "On Beauty and Being Wrong" which I had not reached yet, she specifically says that truth and beauty do not have a 1 to 1 relationship. they are not identical, but they are "allied":
It is not that a poem or a painting or a palm tree or a person is "true," but rather that it ignites the desire for truth by giving us, with an electric brightness shared by almost no other uninvited, freely arriving perceptual event, the experience, as well, of error. [...] It creates, without itself fulfilling, the aspiration for enduring certitude.I can go along with that. One more Scarry quote:
No matter how long beautiful things endure, they cannot out-endure our longing for them.That strikes me as being very Proustian. As for Plato, he'll have to wait until tomorrow.
I've been ambling my way through Virginia Woolf's diary for a couple of years now. I am reading volume three at the moment (when I say amble, I mean amble). I hadn't picked it up in a few months but a recent post of Sandra's about how much she is loving volume one reminded me what I am missing. So I picked it up again. When I read the diary, I like to read an entry or two before bed. The other night I read the entry dated July 25, 1926. The whole six page entry, quite long for Woolf, is about her and Leonard having tea with Thomas Hardy and his wife. It was a "good tea" with all the accessories and choice pastries. Woolf describes Hardy as "a little puffy cheeked cheerful old man." They talked about all the kinds of things smart writers talk about at tea which means writing and other writers. The best part is that someone like Virginia Woolf gets star-struck. She asks Hardy the question that readers ask of great writers. It can be asked straight like Cipriano tried with Margaret Atwood recently. Or, like Woolf, you can think you're being sly and try it like this:
I wanted him to say one word about his writing before we left & cd only ask wh. of his books he wd. have chosen, if like me, he had had to choose one to read in the train.Hardy asked her what book she brought, Woolf told him. Hardy asked her if it held her interest. Woolf, "stammered that I could not stop reading it, which was true, but sounded wrong." And Hardy avoided a return to the question by changing the subject to talking about giving someone a wedding present. I wonder what Woolf answered when fans asked her the same thing? The book Woolf chose for the train was The Mayor of Casterbridge. She wanted very badly to ask Hardy to sign it but was too embarrassed to say anything until Mrs. Hardy told Mr. Hardy that he should give Virginia one of his books. He didn't have any to give her so signed the one she brought and spelled Woolf "Wolff." When she saw it she felt bad for Hardy because she new it must have caused him some anxiety when had taken the book away to sign at his desk. It is stories like this that make Woolf's diaries so fun to read.
Can I just say how much Blogger has been driving me nuttier than usual lately? And I haven't even converted to the beta version! I am wondering if I should put up with it anymore? I am thinking about moving locations and even registering my own domain name. I am considering Word Press. Somanybooks.com and .net are already taken so I would devise a variation. But is it worth it? After three years at this current address, is it dumb to move to a different one? What does the wisdom of the blogosphere say about this? Thanks.
Sometimes books take such an unexpected turn. Like the other night I was pedaling away on my stationary bike listening to The Gunslinger. Things have been going along at a steady pace and I am enjoying it. But I'm thinking, gosh this is such a boy-book, so unemotional and when Roland does have any emotion he is either confused or surprised by it. Then there is the book's reader, Frank Muller, who helps the story along in a gravelly, Clint Eastwood make-my day voice. It is actually a pleasant voice, strangely soothing, and sometimes I find myself sort of zoning out. But then I got to the part about David. And Roland challenging Court so he could become an apprentice gunslinger. I'm not going to say anything more than that so I don't ruin it for someone who hasn't read the book. Those of you who have read it will know what I'm talking about. The thing is, this was so unexpected so upsetting that I suddenly found myself pedaling and crying. I thought I was crying quietly but obviously not because my dog had to come make sure I was okay which of course made me cry more. I had planned on riding until the end of the disc but stopped at the end of the scene and had just managed to pull myself together when my husband came by to see how things were going. Then I started crying all over again when I started telling him what happened. Lucky for me he's read the book so I didn't have to say much before he knew. Yup, those unexpected turns. They don't always involve tears. Sometimes they give me this weird feeling in my stomach like when you're on an airplane and hit a pocket of dead air and the plane suddenly just drops. I hate that on airplanes but it's great in books. Other times the unexpected turn makes me feel jittery and I start shaking like my dog does when he knows we are going for a walk or like I had a coffee IV drip. By now I hope you are thinking of unexpected turns in books you've read and how they made you feel. Please share. But be careful not to give anything away.
We still haven't given in and opened the boxes from Barnes and Noble. I even had a coworker who offered to assist. I was for it, but my Bookman said we should just leave it since Solstice is now less than two weeks away. I mostly don't think about the boxes, but yesterday I had a little pang when I saw the New York Times was reviewing the Leonard Woolf bio. I didn't read the review. I couldn't, not only because it would make me want to rip open the boxes but also because I don't want anyone to ruin my pleasant anticipation by saying the book is extraordinarily good, or worse, bad. Since we have been so well-behaved and have not been able to fondle the non-holiday books that are with the holiday books, we raided the clearance shelves at Half-Price Books. Oh what fun, and guilt-free too since the books are only $1 each. Here is the stack I brought home:
More on Emerson and his study of English Traits. This week we have Character and Cockayne. Emerson begins the chapter on character by addressing the reputed moroseness of the English by declaring "I do not know that they have sadder brows than their neighbors of northern climates." What a comfort. The English aren't really morose per se, it's the French who "have spent their wit on the solemnity of their neighbors" who spread that misconception. The partying French just don't understand that the English are simply "proud and private" people who are not as "easily amused" and willing to waste their time on "frivolous games" like the French are. Even in comparison with Americans, Emerson finds the English "cheerful and contented." The English have a lot going for them and Emerson waxes rhapsodic about it:
Whether a happier tribe or mixture of tribes, the air, or what circumstance that mixed for them the golden mean of temperament--here exists the best stock in the world, broad-fronted, broad-bottomed, best for depth, range and equability; men of aplomb and reserves, great range and many moods, strong instincts, yet apt for culture; war-class and well as clerks; earls and tradesmen; wise minority as well as foolish majority; abysmal temperament, hiding wells of wrath, and glooms on which no sunshine settles, alternated with a common sense and humanity which hold them fast to every piece of cheerful duty; making this temperament a sea to which all storms are superficial; a race to which their fortunes flow, as if they alone had the elastic organization at once fine and robust enough for dominion; as if the burly inexpressive, now mute and contumacious, now fierce and sharp-tongued dragon, which once made the island light with his fiery breath, had bequeathed his ferocity to his conqueror.Emerson has used horses and mastiffs to describe the English and now we get dragons too. At least they are all beasts that have qualities of nobility, pride and power. The Cockayne chapter is sort of strange. I tried to find something definite about what Cockayne is and discovered it is a fairly common surname, a genetic condition characterized by short stature, premature aging, and light sensitivity, and a pretty little hamlet and ridge in North Yorkshire. None of these really explain why Emerson titles the chapter the way he did and mentions a "Mr. Cockayne" because it becomes quickly clear that he is not talking about a specific person. He describes a type that he spends the chapter expressing a grave dislike for. The type is, in part, described thus:
He is intensely patriotic, for his country is so small. His confidence in the power and performance of his nation makes him provokingly incurious about other nations. He dislikes foreigners.And the highest praise he can give something is to say that it is "so English." This person will "force his island by-laws down the throat of great counties, like India, China, Canada, Australia." It is a nature that is "rank and aggressive." The only positive Emerson can come up with is to suggest that behind this nationalism is a tendency to refuse to hide personal defects and to act as though "a bald, or a red, or a green head, or bow legs, or a scar, or mark, or paunch, or a squeaking or a raven voice" is "modish and becoming" and suits one well. Not having to worry about hiding one's foibles, the English move full speed ahead, exploring, discovering, creating. But lest his American audience snigger and begin to think themselves superior, Emerson makes clear that the country of America is named after a thief. Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle-dealer in Seville. In 1499 he signed on to an expedition as boatswain's mate. They never sailed, but somehow he "managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name." Emerson's history is not correct, but I'll forgive him because the error is well-intended. Next Week's Emerson: English Wealth and Aristocracy
I've always been a bit grumpy about the whole "truth is beauty, beauty is truth" thing. I can understand the first part about truth being beautiful, because it is, though I don't usually think of it in those terms on a day-to-day basis. But how could beauty be true? I'm not so dumb that I don't know that beauty can be used to hide a lot of ugliness and even lies. And there are things that are not beautiful that are true (but because they are true they are beautiful?). I've never been comfortable declaring it a balanced equation. On Beauty, however, is helping me think about it in a different way:
The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction--to locate what is true.She's talking about the kind of beauty that makes you stop and stare, that you can't not stare at, the kind, if you are like me, that makes you hungry, makes you want to absorb the beauty into your body and the only way you can think to do that is to eat it. But because you can't actually eat a painting or a person your stomach growls and you, I, end up needing to eat something, preferably sweet and rich, to try to satisfy the hunger. That's the kind of beauty I understand Scarry to be talking about. While I can't say I have ever struggled to locate what is true because I saw something beautiful, I begin to understand a little better what the truth and beauty equation is about. On another note, I've finally decided to start my philosophy project. If you are wondering what the heck I'm talking about I am not surprised. Well over a year ago, because of reading Montaigne and now Emerson, I decided I was going to do some reading in philosophy to try and have a better understanding of the big thoughts and the people who thought them. I bought a book, The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, and I've been trying to figure out when would be a good time to embark of this project. Maybe after I'm done reading Emerson. But after Emerson I really want to read Thoreau. But after Thoreau I want to read...you get the picture. So I picked up the Tarnas book last night and read all the introductory stuff where Tarnas lays out his purpose and the whys and wherefores of the book. The book is meant for people who don't have a philosophy background, which is good. But he got a little preachy when he talked about why it is important to know the history of western thought and how one should approach reading the book. He encourages a "sympathetic metaphysical imagination," reminding us that people from long ago had some ideas that we might think pretty crazy. I'm a little worried that he thought it important to say that. Anyone with a half-way decent education understands that people used to think the earth was flat or you could turn lead into gold or witches could cause hail storms. I am hoping Tarnas doesn't feel it necessary to do much hand holding. If he does and I simply can't bear it, I have Bertrand Russell on stand-by.
First, I must apologize for my obvious inability to communicate in yesterday's post. I was trying to say that blogging/writing this week has been like pulling teeth, nothing has been coming out easy. But then I thought back to when I was 17 and had my wisdom teeth pulled out and how that wasn't such a hard thing after all. So I corrected myself but did it badly since now you all think I had my teeth out recently! Thank you for your concern. I and my teeth are doing just fine. The photo is actually of my wisdom teeth. It sort of looks like five teeth but there are only four, one of them was broken on extraction. As I was slipping away into oblivion the oral surgeon asked me if I wanted to keep the teeth. Sure! I said. And I still have them. They sit in their little tooth box on a shelf above my desk. Is that gross? I always thought that since they were wisdom teeth, and I could use all the wisdom I could get, there was no harm in keeping them. Now, on to books! I began reading a new poetry book last night. This Sharpening by Ellen Doré Watson. I've never read any of her poetry before. The book showed up several months ago from Tupelo Press. According to the book flap, Watson has quite the curriculum vitae. Maybe I should not have read her bio before I started the poetry because I expected to be wowed. I read the first poem a couple of times and still didn't understand it. I read it out loud to my husband and his response was, "Huh?" I read the second and third poems and pretty much understood them but only on an intellectual level. When I read poetry I like to feel it in my body. I'm a bit disappointed. Watson is turning out to be one of those poets that is very cerebral while writing about things that are at times very personal to her, people she knows, experiences she's had. But because I am not making an emotional connection with most of it not many of the poems I've read leave me with anything other than a hope that maybe I will like the next poem. And I have liked some of them, I don't want you to think the poems are bad. I really like the poem "Interrogative":
What was it you thought would fly in the window? Was panic a confession, wakefulness a miner's light under the blanket? Do I need more ways to say love won't ever-- nope nope nope--be fractured by infractions? How is your math coming along and what is an algorithm? Will you forgive me if I die from my own stupidity? Should I wait to tell you maybe I do those things to make sure I die first? Do you know I snitch candy from your stash? Where in heaven did you get the phrase sacre bleu? Did you have any idea, when you told me, how huge and startling a gift it is that you trace the lines of my face in the dark before sleep?I like this one because I can feel the relationship, imagine it as one of those long marriages. The kids are grown and there is a lot of water under the bridge, but there is love there too. This one is the only poem from the dozen or so I have read that I like in its entirety. There are others with lines that are striking, like "Cupped Palms"
Some days the words I weigh in cupped palms turn to ash, and what I really need is someone to tell me the truth about trees.I have no idea what those lines mean, but I like them. In spite of the rocky start, I will keep reading this book, hoping that somewhere along the line I might start to understand what she means. For now, a few glimmers and sparkles are enough.
This is one of those weeks when writing feels like pulling teeth. Okay, I'm being over dramatic a tiny bit. I've had my wisdom teeth pulled and they knocked me out and when I woke up I was high as a kite. Not an altogether unpleasant experience. What I'm getting at is that the thoughts and the words have not exactly been flowing. It's been more like a long slog through thick mud or walking upstream, or trying to stay upright when the ocean waves are bigger and stronger than usual. Work, that's what it is. Not a bad thing necessarily, just different than the usual. Tonight's work is chit chat on The Devil is a Gentleman. I'm about halfway through now and my desire to read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience as well as his other work grows with every page. Hallman is doing a fantastic job of integrating James's ideas and his biography into this book about modern day fringe religions. I find religion a fascinating subject anyway, but fringe religions are even more so. I already mentioned the Unarians. My sister informed me today that she was in El Cajon visiting our parents this past weekend and she and my mom drove by the Unarian headquarters and the mannequin wasn't in the window anymore. I hope she was just taken out for a cleaning and will soon return. After so many decades in the window, they can't ditch her now. From the Unarians I moved on to a chapter on Druids to discover that the oldest continuing Druid organization in the US, The Reformed Druids of North America, began right here in Minnesota at Carleton College in 1963. The college is just south of the Twin Cities metropolitan area and while I have never been there I know people who went to school there. I don't know anyone here who are official Druids, but back in California I went to college for a year at Humboldt State University. A beautiful school filled with a different kind of people. I loved it there (what does that say about me?) but for various reasons, transfered to a different school. Anyway, Humboldt, surrounded by redwoods, inspired druidic leanings in the students there and no one thought twice about it. Among the students there were also witches and warlocks and a few Satanists too. They were nothing like the Satanists in The Devil is a Gentleman though. For the people I knew is was mostly a statement indicating their disaffection with the world. The Satanists Hallman visits take themselves seriously but also manage to make fun of it all too. There are no animal sacrifices or blood or anything really weird going on. They are all pretty normal people who know how to use fear and style to their advantage. As one member put it:
But it's not just dressing in black, [...] We're here, we're putting forth an image of being confident Satanists. But when I go to work I dress in a way that will have an effect on the people I interact with, and I come across as a person who's competent in what they're doing. Satanism is being in control of your environment through every tool at your disposal.The guy who founded the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, is no longer alive, but he has an adolescent son, Satan Xerxes, who is being homeschooled by his mother. Satan, who goes by Xerxes, is by Hallman's account a pretty normal, bright kid. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you about every chapter. If you want to know about the Christian Wrestling Federation, you'll have to read the book for yourself. Right now,the chapter I am on is about the Scientologists who are, in my opinion, more frightening than the Satanists could ever be.
These last few days I've not been doing much book reading. Instead I've been engrossed in reading the latest edition of Bookforum. This is an extremely dangerous magazine and should be read with care. I've already turned down a bunch of pages and I haven't even read all the articles yet! Some of the more interesting tidbits I've found are a review of the movie of Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation. The book is fantastic, thought-provoking, stomach churning, and nonfiction. The movie is, according to the reviewer, very good, thought-provoking, stomach churning, and fiction. The thinking on the turn to fiction was more people would see it than if it were a documentary. All the information from the book is still in it, it has just been placed in the context of a story. I am keen to see it. I have only read Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and wasn't very excited by it. But his new book, The Road, a sort of end of the world as we know it novel, sounds so good I think I will have to read it. The reviewer likens its philosophical foundation to that of a Joseph Conrad novel, particularly Heart of Darkness. The reviewer also mentions over and over how graphically violent it is which makes me worry about what it might do to my dreams if I read the book. Perhaps it is one to read during the bright light of summer. Pynchon's book gets a write up but it doesn't make me want to read it. Francine Prose, however, makes me want to read Rachel Cusk. What clenched it was how Prose describes Cusk's new book Arlington Park:
At moments the novel seems like Desperate Housewives as scripted by Katherine Mansfield in collaboration with Muriel Spark.Yup, that's one for the TBR pile! There is also a nice interview with Gore Vidal. Does never having read Vidal make me a philistine? I've had his book Creation on my bookshelf since I was a teenager but never got around to reading it. Now I'm going to have to because Vidal says of all his books, that's the one he wants people to read the most. But I am also interested in his new book Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964-2006. In it he apparently refers frequently to Montaigne and memory. Vidal's idea of memory is so different from Proust's it is worth mentioning. He thinks that you can never remember the event itself, that when we remember what we are remembering is the last time we remembered the event. Memory becomes layered. I think Proust would agree memory has layers but the two ultimately diverge since Proust believes that you can remember the actual event in glorious technicolor if only the right thing comes along to trigger it. Oy. Just when I start to think that maybe I can wrestle a little control over my TBR lists and piles I find a bunch of new books to add. Yeah, I know, what was I thinking? There is a word for this: delusional.
I began reading Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just over the weekend. Dorothy had some great posts about the book awhile back and between her and Proust I decided this was a book I had to read. What strikes me right off is Scarry's assertion that "beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people." This reminds me of Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire in which he discusses plant evolution from the plant's point of view, giving them agency in their survival and the manner in which certain species have become indispensable to humans. Scarry's statement makes beauty into an agent, a thing that acts on its own and that gets us to help it along in its existence. It is sort of a freaky, mind-bending idea. If you're like me your imagination starts to get a bit too wild wondering if beauty has some kind of consciousness and if so what are its ultimate goals? World domination? Would that be a bad thing? No doubt there would be some sort of horror-movie twist and we'd be longing for something, anything, ugly just so we could rest from the constant dazzlement. I think what Scarry says about the copying is true. Van Gogh admires the beauty of a starry night, he paints it. The painting replicates the beauty and is itself beautiful. We can buy posters and postcards of it, have it as our computer backgrounds, wear it on shirts. Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song. There are poems. I am writing about it here. I like that. But then I think of Proust and the character Swann's tendency to turn people into paintings. Swann falls in love with Odette because she reminds him of a painting he loves. In In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower Swann is disappointed that Odette does not like to wear some of the clothes he bought her that match the clothing in the painting he sees her in. Odette is so annoyed that Swann does this to her and gives in only once, the rest of the time refusing (rightly I think) to be the woman in the painting. The replication of beauty in this instance is an error on Swann's part. There is nothing wrong with him seeing Odette's face in the painting. The error is that he goes too far, trying to turn Odette into someone and something she isn't. Scarry calls this copying of itself that beauty does "replication." She chose this word carefully and uses it because it, among other things, "reminds us that the generative object continues, in some sense, to be present in the newly begotten object," and because the word "recalls the fact that something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently in the newborn object." I like the idea that the original beautiful object is present in the copy no matter how far removed it is from the original. I also like the idea that the creator of the object is also part of it. Thus, especially this time of year, if you make gifts for others you are giving them a part of you as well and really, can there be anything more generous than that? I'm only on page nineteen of Scarry's book. This is going to be a great read.
It's Emerson time again. This week I read about English manners and their love of truth. At times I found myself wondering if Emerson actually ever met any real English people because so much of his description seems to have come from a novel. He says things like, "the one thing the English value is pluck. The word is not beautiful, but on the quality they signify by it the nation is unanimous." Emerson insists the English love eccentrics and eccentrics get along well because the English mind their own business and don't care what anyone else does so long as it doesn't interfere with their own doings. Emerson also describes the English as "positive, methodical, cleanly and formal, loving routine and conventional ways; loving truth and religion to be sure, but inexorable on points of form." They have an "affectionate and loyal temper" and love their houses (it strikes me that this makes them sound like good pets). And he notes, they are very fond of silver plate and old customs. They are also very "petulant and precise" about "accommodation at inns and on the road." Apparently, dinner is "the capital institution." Inviting someone to dinner, Emerson says, is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded that person especially if the hosts do not know him well. If dinner is the capital institution, an introduction is a "sacrament." It is "almost and affront" to talk to or even look in the eye someone to whom you have not been introduced. This sort of reminded me of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Collins dares to speak to Mr. Darcy at a party when they have not been introduced. Horrors! Emerson declares that to the English "a presentation is a circumstance as valid as a contract." The English also have a love of truth and Emerson states "their practical power rests on their national sincerity." The people are blunt in saying what they think, "sparing of promises," "require plain dealing of others," and "hate shuffling equivocation." But Emerson also finds fault with the English, believing their mastery of the mechanical and the efficiency with which they run things has given the people a "mechanical regularity" in their habits which has also infiltrated their thoughts. This leads to a dislike of change and innovation and a tendency toward the entrenchment of mediocrity. However, Emerson clearly admires the English because he states over and over, if the English decide to do something there is nothing that will keep them from doing it. Next week's English Traits: Character and Cockayne (appears to be a person)
I thought I'd do a short post on my mambo class last night instead of putting it in yesterday's comments. Nothing horrible happened, or at least I didn't do anything embarrassing. I can't say as much about some of the partners I danced with though but that's the chance you take in group classes especially when they are not posted at a certain experience level. No one in the class was a brand new beginner but the guy that kept stepping on the wrong beat clearly was not getting it. Tony is a really nice guy with no Hollywood or champion pretensions (he does have really white teeth though). And I realized when I saw him that I had seen him at the studio before. I asked my regular instructor about it and she said he's been coming there for years even before he was famous. I just never put the two of them together. Duh. A little inside gossip for those of you who like ballroom dancing, there might be a sitcom that takes place in a dance studio coming to your TV in the future. It's just in the talking stages right now, but if it comes to fruition, remember, you heard it here first! The class was great. Tony began by talking about how the mambo got its name (from the mamba snake), the difference between salsa and mambo (in salsa you step on the one beat, in mambo you don't otherwise they are exactly the same dance), the proper dance hold, hip movement and other technique, and then to the actual dancing. The pattern of steps he put together was all very simple and fun to dance but looked hard and complicated. He's a very good teacher. He was also wearing some form-fitting latin dance pants and well, let's just say when he was facing the men showing them their steps the view from the women's side of the room was quite nice. In order to add some redeeming something about books in this post, I forgot to mention in my rush last night that the books we ordered online arrived. They came in two boxes, one small, obviuously a single book box, and everything else in one bigger box. So far we have not been so very tempted, though my Bookman did sugest we closse our eyes and open the big box and pull out the CDs. I said no way because one of us would inevitably "accidentally" peek. Will we make it to December 22nd, the day of our Solstice celebrations? You'll have to check the odds in Vegas, but I think it's about 50/50 at the moment.
Just a quickie tonight because I've got plans that are big and non-bookish for a change. You see, Tony Dovolani and his competition partner Elena Grinenko, who have both appeared on Dancing With the Stars as professional partners, are at my dance studio. Tony is giving a group mambo class and I and my husband will be among the students. Not only is he on TV, but he is also a champion latin ballroom dancer. I am excited and nervous and hope I don't make a fool of myself. Anywho...Charles J. Shields, the author of the Harper Lee biography (my review and an interview) is now writing a biography on Kurt Vonnegut. This will be the first authorized bio of Vonnegut. He is hoping to hear from readers about their experiences with Vonnegut, whether they be personal or with his novels. If you have a story to tell, email him. And a quick update on The Gunslinger and the exercise bike. It's going pretty well. I am not into the book enough at this point to want to ride the bike just so I can listen to it, but while I am riding I find I can't stop in the middle of a chapter. So at least it keeps me going even if I want to stop. The story is interesting and my husband is tickled that I am listening to it since he loves the Dark Tower books. He comes to check on me from time to time to see where I am in the story, smiles and then scampers away. That's it. Told you it'd be quick. Off I go to dance, dance, dance!