A Year in Reading: Phillip Lopate

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The greatest reading pleasure I’ve had this past year has been discovering the novels of Theodore Fontane (1819-1899), which are so sparkling, polished, tender, sympathetic, delicately ironic and psychologically astute that it is a wonder they are not better known by American readers.  Considered the most important German novelist between Goethe and Mann, Fontane was also the first European German novelist: he turned German fiction away from its folkloric, mythological and toward the novel of society, rooted in a particular historic period and alert to its manners and hierarchical/class tensions.  What makes these books delightful, for me, is their worldly, tolerant understanding of human frailty: the author’s refusal to condemn, preach morality or be shocked by his characters’ infidelities and errors, side by side with his rigorous honesty about their self-deceptions.  He was able to see both sides of every question, and to keep his sense of humor while doing so.  His most famous novel is Effi Briest, a gem, but I also love Irretrievable (also called Beyond Recall), which NYRB Classics is reprinting, and some of his others are excellent as well: The Woman Taken in Adultery, The Poggenpuhl Family, Delusions, Confusions, and his two longer novels, Before the Storm and The Stechlin.

I also had a great time reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Selected Journals, 1,800 pages divided into two volumes, and published by the Library of America.   This fabulous opus, the Moby Dick of nineteenth century U.S. nonfiction, heretofore known mainly to scholars, brings us deeper into the mind of a great American writer than any other work I know.  You get to see Emerson’s hesitations, conflicts, formation of ideas, responses to the daily pressures of family life and nutty friends, and he comes off very humanly, warmly–in any case, much more accessibly than in his compact, daunting Essays.  

Finally, on an entirely different note, I want to recommend Jonathan Soffer’s Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City.  This fascinating, entertainingly written and illuminating book, the best piece of contemporary urban history I’ve read in a long time, is a marvel of even-handedness and balance.  It has forced me to rethink Koch and what it means to be progressive and pro-urban in a neo-liberal era.

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A Year in Reading: Phillip Lopate


The new book that dazzled me the most this past year, and that I loved the most, was The Essays of Leonard Michaels. The essays range from meditations on literature (Shakespeare), religion (Bible stories), language (metaphor, psychobabble), painting (Edward Hopper) and film (Gilda, Hollywood screenwriting) to personal matters, but as the author says, with him everything he writes is personal.

The pieces about his mother and father, various teacher mentors and the Yiddish language are some of the greatest essays I know; they will break your heart and excite your thinking at the same time. Michaels had a trenchant, elegantly forceful style that cut to the bone; what impresses me the most, as a fellow essayist, is that he always tried to get to the bottom of what he knew and understand. He had a brilliant mind and, unlike the tough guy streetwise swagger adopted in some of his early stories, here he stands unashamedly before us as a cultivated intellectual, a man who lived through and in language. He was especially sensitive to certain mature, subtle, courtly distinctions in word usage and manners that are passing out of existence, to our loss. We think of Michaels as a cutting edge modernist, but this collection reveals how deep was his appreciative grasp of older traditions. He expressed gratitude again and again in these essays for all those he learned from; and gratitude is what I feel for all we can learn from him.

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