Book VI of The Aeneid is a tough one for non-classicists to love. The central theme of the book — about 900 lines of Latin dactylic hexameter, the epic verse — is the imperial destiny of Rome. At first glance, Vergil lets his poetic license run freely in defense of empire. The prophecy of the dead Anchises, when he meets his son Aeneas in the underworld, is often taken to be representative:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
Translated here by Seamus Heaney:
…But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts —
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear.
This may be the first time Aeneas is called Romanus, indicating the city his descendants were to found. Vergil casts his eye all the way to praise Augustus, in whose circle he was living and whose favor, we must suppose, he wished to obtain. In our post-colonial age we cannot help but see a more complicated story, find a different reading experience in these lines than did the generations of Victorian school boys who were raised on visions of a civilizing empire. But more of that in a moment.
The sixth book of the 12-book Latin epic on the founding of Rome sits right on the cusp between its so-called “Trojan” and “Roman” halves, sometimes also called its “Odyssey” and “Iliad” halves. The first half features many of its most famous images: the Trojan horse, the flight of Aeneas and his family with other refugees from burning Troy, the doomed love story of Aeneas and Dido queen of Carthage. These books echo the wanderings of Odysseus as he makes his way back to his home of Ithaca, except here Aeneas, propelled by the gods, is seeking a new home for his defeated people.
After Book VI we see Aeneas and his wandering band of Trojans make land in Italy, setting the stage for war with the land of Latium, where he finds, Lavinia, the woman fated to become Aeneas’ wife (after he kills Turnus, his Italian rival). These books, again an echo of Vergil’s Homeric model in the Iliad, describe the events which Aeneas endured in order to fulfill his destiny.
This is not the first time Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013 after an illustrious career, including the Nobel Prize in 1995, has tackled this book. In 2010, in a poem sequence called “Route 110,” Heaney used the underworld journey as a counterpoint to autobiography. A bus journey becomes his underworld, and Heaney brings out the father-son story embedded in Book VI reflected in his own life.
The book proper is divided into roughly three pieces. First is the journey to the lair of the Sibyl at Cumae on the Italian coast, the prophet possessed by the god Apollo who will tell Aeneas’ fate; the second section deals with the burial rites for Aeneas’s comrade Misenus, who had challenged the gods to a musical contest and was drowned by Triton in anger (“Triton … inter saxa virum spumosa immerserat unda”/Triton was shaken with envy … and surged up/And drowned him in a sudden backwash of foam”). The final, longest section is the tour through the underworld where Sibyl acts as guide and where, at its climax, Aeneas meets his father, whose burial closed Book V.
In a short preface, Heaney writes that he treated book VI separately out of a somewhat Roman sense of obligation: ”The translation is more like “classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St. Columb’s College, father Michael McGlinchey.” This is not false modesty; even a workable translation of Vergil is no mean feat, but once Vergil’s style is grasped, some rough translation is not that difficult, which is one reason the text has long been used for students (cultural training for imperial administration was, of course, another). Heaney marked the draft that forms the basis for this text as “final;” as Catherine Heaney and Matthew Hollis, who brought the translation to publication, the text is as Heaney intended it, barring final revisions prior to publication.
Unlike his translation of Beowulf, Heaney tries no pyrotechnics with the Aeneid. There are few opportunities to do so in any event. The book has set pieces, but they are written as long evocations of Roman glory, and there is only so much poetic license to be taken. Heaney himself alludes to the effect reading it has for aspiring translators; aside from some notable passages early on, “[b]y the time the story reaches its climax of Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of generals and imperial heroes … make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.”
The meeting with Dido may be an exception. Aeneas abandoned Dido in Africa back in Book IV, after which she commits suicide; her shade in some sense haunts the poem. They meet again in the underworld. Dido says nothing, but Aeneas exclaims:
…tibi causa fui? Per sidera iuro
Per superos, et si qua fides tellure sub ima est
Invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.
Was I, O was I to blame
For your death? I swear by the stars, by the powers
Above and by any truth that may be under earth,
I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.
Whether we believe Aeneas’ defense that he was driven from Carthage by the gods, or whether it was special pleading by a callous and ambitious man, says a lot of how we view the poem as a whole. Another recent translation covering the first six books tries a different tack with this scene:
by the starsby the gods
and whatever honor
I have, I never
Meant to hurt you
The gods want what they want.
Heaney’s is the more literal here, and the clearest. But this second version (translated by David Hadbawnik) has more contemporary punch.
Which brings us back to that imperial complication. Recent scholars have changed the view of the poem, and have argued Vergil may in fact be more ambivalent toward empire than traditionally supposed. There is Dido, first of all, whose story shows us that the advent of Rome causes personal and national grief. Anchises recounts Rome’s future by showing his son the shades of his descendants, including good men cut down in their youth and wars bringing ruin. And the Sibyl, too, even as she prophesies Rome’s success, gives witness to its dark side. Roma may indeed be Victrix, but “non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella … cerno” (“But the day is one you will rue. I see wars/Atrocious wars…”)
In retrospect, it is hard not to see the conflicted vision of imperial glory reflected in the poem. Perhaps, even if unwittingly, those Victorians were right to focus on the Aeneid after all.
One book blew me away this year: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. But I had a lot of dead Englishmen to revel with first. It must have been sitting through two inferior takes on Wolf Hall this spring that set me off: an awful production on Broadway; a far better but still tedious rendering on PBS. That sent me back to the books, flipping through to find the passages with my most feverish underlines, taking note of how masterfully Hilary Mantel brought the same scenes to life, with imagery, interior dialogue and delicious prose. I reread long stretches of both books in the series — can’t wait for the third.
I literally couldn’t wait. I found myself gobbling up books connected to that era, or connected to the connections. Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors was illuminating, but frustrating — especially for his penchant for lathering praise on the most dickish of kings. I was far more satisfied with Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. I’ve OD’d on the period a bit for now, but when I return to the histories, it will be to his series. Foundation was best at its prehistoric and pre-Norman passages, which finally removed a festering burr from my intellect. If the Saxons were the dominant half of Anglo-Saxons, how did the Angles get custody of the name? It’s always perplexed me. The short answer: proximity to their conquerors. The Angles controlled much of the east coast, so it was their kingdoms the Danes wiped out when they crossed the North Sea. So the island was AngleLand (or something like that) to the Danes. They didn’t rename the place when they discovered even more Saxons much further in. (The Jutes got left out completely, along with lots of lesser tribes.)
It was also Foundation that led me to Beowulf, at the same time I was discovering how much J.R.R. Tolkien had riffed on it from the prologue of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. That was enough to entice me to a bookstore to thumb through the supposed literary abomination I had escaped in high school. “Never take a class that forces you to read Beowulf,” an older friend had sagely advised on his first trip home from college. I’m reconsidering everything I ever learned from him. Of course he was too young to enjoy the melodious Seamus Heaney translation. What a delight that turned out to be!
Sure it got repetitive, and heavy-handed, but that was half the joy of it — the window into the psyche of 8th- to 11th-century English aristocracy: the ideas they cherished, how they sought to (over) communicate them, and what they considered a great yarn. It was also eye-opening to discover how liberally Tolkien helped himself to the material. Shelob, in particular, was concocted by imaginations 1,000 years earlier, and I felt rumblings of Middle Earth nearly every page. Yet Tolkien made it all his own. Well done, J.R.R.
My first attempt at Anglo-Saxon also made it apparent how absurd the alternate label of Old English is. I planned to approach Beowulf the way I do William Shakespeare: attempt to cold read chunks of the original on the left, jumping over to explanations — or translation — when I got really frustrated. Not happening. The “Old English” on the left was not just old or archaic, it was a completely different language. Not a recognizable word, anywhere. All of which I should have understood already perhaps from the Plantagenet histories, or high school, but there’s nothing like confronting the actual text to see how far we’ve come in 1,000 years.
And then I dove into the Henrys. I intend to get to all of them, but jumped ahead to start with Henry IV, Part 1. Good call. I can’t wait to start stealing from this! Shakespeare at the top of his form, in language, plot, and character. In spite of Falstaff. God, do I hate that guy. Never funny, always heavy-handed (a holdover from Beowulf?). Ugh. There’s a lot of the dufus in there, but the bursts surrounding him are brilliant enough to wipe out most of him from my memory.
Part 1 was so intoxicating, I plunged right into Part 2. Despite the naming convention, they are completely separate, self-contained plays. In fact, they’re more or less the same play: a complete rehash, replaying the same plot, ideas, and (mostly) cast — including His Vileness, Falstaff. With none of the inspiration or vitality. Half-hearted remake masquerading as sequel. So this is where Hollywood got it.
And then I got my hands on A Manual for Cleaning Women. Wow. No kings or dukes or ladies in waiting losing their heads or fighting for the crown. No grand sweeping anything. And no boisterous narrator, showing off, nor boring MFA stories, full of pretty sentences about nothing. These characters remind me of Denis Johnson. They could fit snugly into Jesus’ Son, though Lucia Berlin wrote most of these stories earlier.
Lucia gives us gripping tales about switchboard operators, cleaning ladies, and shy little Protestant girls trying to fit in at Catholic school. In the mission school in “El Tim,” the children tremble their morning prayers, the Latina girls flirting quietly, like muted birds, the boys cocking their plumed heads, decked out in brilliant yellows and turquoise, with V-neck sweaters and no shirts, exposing the crucifixes gleaming against their smooth brown chests. Berlin can sure set a scene. And bring it alive with boys trying hard to be hoods, “flipping a switchblade into a desk, blushing when it flipped and fell.”
Lucia Berlin was my mentor. She’s suddenly a sensation, but died 11 years ago, a virtual unknown. I’d read most of these stories, so I planned to skim a little and dip back into my favorites. I’m not much of a re-reader — I bore easily. But I’m transfixed, again, even deeper this time. I wasn’t a good enough writer to fully appreciate them the first pass. Half of what I do I learned from these stories, but I see now how much more there is to mine.
I read them mostly to enjoy. So much to savor. The flitting nuns and thuggish pachuco crucifixes in “El Tim” felt so vivid, but were all set-up for the emergence of the title character, who takes down Sister Lourdes, looking down at her with “his eyelashes creating jagged shadows down his gaunt cheeks. His black hair was long and straight. He smoothed it back with long slender fingers, quick, like a bird.” The girls were awed. “The pretty young girls who whispered in the restroom not of dates or love but of marriage and abortion. They were tensed, watching him, flushed and alive.”
How I feel every time I crack open this book.
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Medievalist Elaine Treharne teaches a course on Beowulf at Stanford, and one of her primary theoretical questions for her students is, “What is (the) Text? … What constitutes Beowulf?” So she got to thinking. She wondered what she and her students would do “with a social media version of the poem.” What ensued is a distillation of the great epic in 100 tweets, which you can read over here.
In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.
I don’t think I ever quite knew myself until I read Seamus Heaney. I can’t remember exactly which of his poems I read first, but that’s not important. What is important is what his poems did to me. When I encountered “Blackberry Picking,” I first felt the full force of what a poem can do. The poem describes picking blackberries in the spring and hoarding them in a tub in the barn, then discovering that they have begun to rot, ending with the lines “It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. / Each year I’d hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” The poem hit me somewhere right at the base of my ribs. It created an actual physical sensation. When I was a kid, I was always catching small animals, usually crickets and frogs, and keeping them in coffee cans, then forgetting about them for days, only to return and find their corpses. I remember the mingled smell of dead crickets and Folgers coffee — those once lovely canfuls.
For a long time, that same feeling, that of my own emotions synching up with those described by a poem, eluded description. For me, it was ineffable. The connection with a poem, with a poet, while one of the strongest that I felt, sidestepped definition. Appropriately though, in his essay “Feelings Into Words,” collected in Preoccupations, Heaney provided an answer for the question he had raised:
Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up. How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else; you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in in through your ear and enters the echo chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspect of yourself and your experience.
For me, Heaney was the place where I definitively heard that voice in several aspects — from his content down to individual phrases and chunks of sound. Heaney wrote, especially in his early volumes, of life in rural Northern Ireland and all that entailed, from the loss of a livelihood earned through manual labor and agriculture in Death of a Naturalist and Door Into the Dark to the way in which the political concerns of the Troubles were embedded in the very archaeology of the place in his magnum opus, North. The sense of place in his poetry is extraordinary. For me, his content choices were much more than examples of Heaney taking up the old poetic mortar and pestle of “to be universal, you must be local,” they unfolded the world of poetry for me in places where I didn’t even realize there were creases.
My father grew up on a rabbit farm and helped his father poach from the National Forest for supper, while my mother’s family of nine planted five acres of potatoes to live on through the winter, her father making his meager living skidding pine logs with mules. My mother’s family didn’t have indoor plumbing until the late 1960s and used a dug well, complete with bucket and windlass, for water. Home for me is the Ouachita Mountains, a place even more innocuous then pre-Troubles Ulster: a small mountain range 500 miles from the ass end of the Appalachians.
In Heaney’s voice I found a license, almost an imperative, to write about the basic things that I had grown up around; if Heaney’s Moyola and Castledawson and Mossbawn mattered and had something profound to offer the world, so did my own region straddling the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line. I should have seen this before; I had been reading Frost and certainly could have picked up the same things from him, but, lovely as Frost is, his New England didn’t resonate with me in the same contorted but insistent ways that Heaney’s Northern Ireland did. Why is that? For me, it amounts to how I identified with Heaney’s voice.
Heaney’s voice went much deeper than regionalism, not only in his persistent archaeological motifs, which critics have identified as representative of the collective unconsciousness, but in the basic noise of his poems — the tangible aural sensations that create meaning almost independent from the semantics of the language, scraping down even further into the unconscious. When Heaney writes of bringing his grandfather “milk in a bottle corked sloppily with paper,” he works nearly with onomatopoeia, what his mentor Philip Hobsbaum termed “Heaneyspeak,” which I find to be little more than a cute way of referring to Heaney’s poetic voice. Heaney’s obsession with sound (again, something I might have, in another life, first noticed in Frost and his “sound of sense”) struck me immediately. In “Blackberry Picking,” the line “where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots” provided a perfect nugget of voice, marrying sound — the words “briars scratched” and “bleached our boots” make the exact sound as the actions that they describe — with the larger concern of identifiable content. I have bleached a couple pairs of boots myself.
I find a rightness, for lack of a better term, in Heaney’s voice on all levels. I don’t need to try to find exactly how the position of the tongue in pronouncing “Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting” perfectly encapsulates the lines’ meaning, nor do I have to search for the tenuous relationship between Heaney’s description of the fearful transformation from tadpole to bullfrog in “Death of a Naturalist” with my own experience of catching and hatching tadpoles and being frightened by the plop of bullfrogs in my grandmother’s pond. Heaney’s voice is true, and it is readily apparent. That is enough. I don’t need the critics or Carl Jung to tell me that depictions of amphibian fear tap into the collective unconsciousness and that the water of the flax dam represents sex, further reinforced by the reproduction of the frogs, etc. etc. I read the poem and I know, in a very visceral way, that Heaney has gotten something very right, that his voice has executed a perfect arpeggio in a brilliant cadenza.
“Blackberry Picking” offered up yet another lesson in voice years after I first read it. I had always heard the poem in my own accent, and read it with my own voice. In a dialect that is firmly within the sphere of the upper American South, the only apparent rhyme in the poem is “clot/knot.” I had once read an essay that alluded to the “effective use of slant rhyme in the poem,” but did not offer any examples. I quickly assumed that the reference to “slant rhyme” was a mistake. Coming from a dialect which monophthongizes long “i” sounds to a fronted “ah” and merges the pronunciation of “pin” and “pen” to both sound as “pin,” the words “sun” and “ripen” don’t even come close to rhyming. The stress patterns of my own speech didn’t help. The word “ripen” is always pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, the second is diminished to the point of barely even being voiced. This manner of speech, which formed and forms my own internal reading voice, tends to take iambic pentameter out back for a good woodshedding, never mind that I didn’t really learn to even recognize iambs for a long while after encountering Heaney. In short, while the poem managed to strike me with great force, I was missing what amounts to half of Heaney’s craftsmanship. I didn’t discover any of this until I actually heard recordings of Heaney reading the poem, the way he heard it, in his own natural voice. Not only was every line in iambic pentameter, but every line rhymed in an array of brilliant little half rhymes. The heavens opened and light shone down illuminating, if nothing else, the full extent of Heaney’s skill.
In Heaney’s fifth volume, North, he creates and interprets Ireland through its long history of Germanic incursions beginning with the Vikings. In the title poem, he imagines the voices of dead Vikings as “ocean-deafened voices” and “the longship’s swimming tongue,” which tells him:
. . . lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.
In appropriating this archaeological voice, Heaney delivers a series of admonishments that are instructions to the poet as well as the reader. This voice is different, more ancient — unmetered stresses, no rhymes. It’s no wonder that Heaney wound up translating Beowulf; he was familiar with its voice, able to call it up from the “belly of stone ships,” to utter its implorement: “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.” This imperative struck me. “Trust!” it said; whatever your hands have known, trust in it. As long as your eye is clear, trust. Lie down. Burrow. Like Antaeus, be nourished by the soil, by a sense of place. Trust your place, trust your own geography, trust in your own culture, trust your own experience.
For Heaney, this experience, this nubbed treasure, like all good treasures, is buried. As a poet, Heaney exhumes things. In “Bogland,” the last poem from Door into the Dark, he writes of the bringing up of ancient artifacts from Irish bogs, and that the bogs themselves “might be Atlantic seepage. / The wet centre is bottomless.” Speaking about the poem in an essay, Heaney notes that he derived the last line from hearing old people tell children not to play in the bogs because they were bottomless. This mining of memory is essential to Heaney’s poetry. In trying to access things that Heaney only half-consciously knows, he bores into my unconscious as a reader — the things that I too am only half-aware of. Maybe that’s why the feeling I get reading Heaney approaches inexplicable, conveyed only through metaphors of physical sensation: what Heaney has to say does something to my subconscious; his voice resonates there on that low level. It takes up residence with all the archetypes and shadows in the part of my psyche that, if mapped, would be labeled “Here Be Monsters” in ornate script wreathed in a facsimile of fog.
Heaney’s most famous poem “Digging” set the tenor for his early work, celebrating the subterranean and particularly the role that writing plays in exploring it. The poem describes the memories Heaney has of his father and grandfather digging, but laments that “I’ve no spade to follow men like them,” then goes on to assert, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” Like his grandfather who digs up turf for fuel, Heaney unearths a fuel that is no less important. Heaney once remarked that, to someone from his background, the word “work” meant physical work only, that one could not be “upstairs reading a book and say ‘oh, I’m working,’” and that “Digging” was partly a defense of his own way of life against the mores of his own culture. “Digging” shows the conflict between tradition and modernity. In this way it participates, in a meaningful way, in the development of Western thought. To be egregiously brief, the Ancient, Medieval, and Modern periods can be said to be concerned with humanity’s perception of conflict with three different iterations of higher power. The ancients conceived of gods who dealt out inescapable fate, then gods were replaced with a singular God who, though he was all powerful, still managed to allow evil in the world. Most recently, God has been replaced with science and technology, their conflict with humanity was probably first noticed by the Romantics and has persisted, more or less, until the present day. Heaney knew and lived that conflict — of watching his father’s occupation of cattle dealer fade away. It is equally important to me, in very practical terms. My grandfather worked in the timber, cutting down trees for a living, the next generation, my mother’s two brothers, were both carpenters, building houses from those same trees. My grandfather had a fourth grade education; my uncles finished only high school; I became a college boy and sure as hell can’t start cutting down trees for a living. In both a metaphorical and literal sense, all the trees have already been cut.
Maybe “Digging” seems old hat. It was written in the mid-1960s and was one of Heaney’s first poems. However, there is a reason that it is Heaney’s most anthologized poem. Its strident voice proclaims that poetry, that literature, is important in a time when the nutritional label on a box of Post-Toasties is considered a text and given equal status with Keats’s Odes.
In “The Forge,” Heaney plainly states in the first line “All I know is a door into the dark,” then goes on to describe a blacksmith who “expends himself in shape and music,” who upon looking out his door at the passing lights of traffic, turns back inside “To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.” For a long time I read Heaney as looking out into the dark from inside the blacksmith shop, but I was wrong. Blacksmith shops are always dark so that the smith can properly see the color of the metal he’s working; different temperatures are indicated by the color, from reds to yellows and whites, each ideal for specific tasks: cutting, welding, drawing. Heaney looks in on this dark smithy; he has the capacity to see it, his eye is “clear as the bleb of the icicle.” His vantage point standing, as it were, with one foot in the past and another in the present allows him to see this murky scene. All his foundational knowledge is in these old ways; his family did not own a car when he was growing up, and his father plowed their fields with horses. Heaney “beats real iron out” as he dredges up these artifacts. The farther down one goes into the ground, the older things are, back even to the Iron Age: this is the basic tenet of geology and archaeology. Heaney is connected to these old, chthonic things. He disinters them and remembers them. In a sense, he members them again, creates them anew through his writing.
Heaney gives the best explanation of what he does in the last poem of Death of a Naturalist. “Personal Helicon” is a poem about wells and Heaney’s fascination with them. Various wells are characterized as “So deep you saw no reflection in it,” “fructified” with “long roots” and in particular one that “had echoes, gave back your own call/ with a clean new music in it.” He ends the poem with:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Heaney claims to see himself, not necessarily as an unadulterated reflection, but through echoes that come back up from the wells that he has dug into the darkness. The darkness of this well, bored into the deep strata of the unconscious, echoes with his voice and gives back a “clean new music.” Heaney writes as a means to hear himself, in order to truly ascertain his own voice. To do this he must work in the underground medium of his upbringing. It is the darkness that must be used to create the echo. The well must be dug deep, into those long, fructified roots of the subconscious, before it can echo. The discovery of this well and its echo is an exhumation, and even a bit of a resurrection. Though they are echoes, that “clean new music” carries a ring that comes from beyond the grave. And what grave is as deep as a well?
In hearing Heaney’s voice echoing, I was able to get a sense of my own voice. I could use, at first at least, Heaney’s well to shout in, to see what came back, to find what those fructified roots are made of. Eventually I need to dig my own well, into my own fructified roots, with its own echo. Of course my own well may tap into the same underground spring as Heaney’s — perhaps all wells do — but I first needed Heaney’s well to become aware of what a well can do — of what digging can do. I needed Heaney’s voice to know what a voice could sound like, and through Heaney I discovered my own voice. I learned to listen to the timbre of its echoes.
Seamus Heaney recently passed away. It was reported that his last words were a text message to his wife that read noli timere, which, translated into good King James English, is “Be not afraid.” Of course, Seamus was sharp enough to alter the conjugation from nolite timere found in St. Matthew, which is in the second person plural to the singular “noli.” This surprised me, not because a dying man still knew enough Latin to not only quote from the Vulgate but to give the proper conjugation on the fly, but rather than Heaney’s last words were via text message. My perception of him as a poet of the soil, one who spoke of thatched roofs and plowing by hand, was shattered by the news of his last words being transmitted via text message. Of course I read this news on a smartphone, but somehow it was still a staggering blow.
It only took me five minutes of careful thought to reestablish equilibrium. So what if Heaney and cellphones seemed incongruous to me? His life as a man of letters probably seemed just as contradictory to the people of his childhood. From the external world to our senses, from our senses to our brains, from our brains into language, from that language into writing, from the handwritten original to print in a book, from a printed book through the whole shebang again, back through taps of thumbs into a text message and radio waves, beams of invisible light, and a torrent of ones and zeros — it’s all just space between the infinite notches of Plato’s divided line.
Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the first electronic image pickup device that made television possible, was inspired by furrows of plowed earth and envisioned a device which reproduced images by scanning then reproducing them one row at a time. It wasn’t nearly as incongruous as I had thought. Heaney writes in his “Glanmore Sonnets” that,
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Arting a paradigm, that’s our real business. The medium doesn’t matter. Give us dancing electrons. Be not afraid. Dig with them.
I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom. Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read. Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties. A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing. All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded.
Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty. Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation. We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read. We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices. Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose. But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character. Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.
There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours. Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books. But he recognizes that they do pose a danger. The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook. Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits. He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings.
“Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish. Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits. How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up. The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions.
While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two. Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character. Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted. Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying.
Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect. Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations. The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn. Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it? I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading. This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters. These people were putting my very soul to the test. And what if I failed? What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear? What did that mean about me? Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?
Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite. In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism. Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear. He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic. But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments. Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires. Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate.
As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader. “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted. Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.” Quite an assignment! But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century.
I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy. It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking. Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications. Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience.
In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended. For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.” Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth. And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst: Can I get away with a Latin term? Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick. But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.” Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic? No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek. But is it dangerous to use irony here? Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual? Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers.
In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature. Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books. I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure. And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic. That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without. Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them. Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.
I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
Michael wrote in with this question:For some reason (an end of summer shortening of attention span, perhaps) I’m in the mood for poetry, so I was wondering if, in the interest of discussing that other form of literature, the crew at The Millions could suggest some favorite poems, poets or poetry collections (the latter would be especially helpful, its the easiest way to carry around a dozen great mind in your pocket). Anyway, thanks for any suggestions.A trio of Millions contibutors chimed in on this one:Andrew: Full disclosure: my experience with poetry has been minimal, and for the most part it is my obsession with song and music that has led me to certain poets. In this context, then, I have been stirred most by the poetic voice of Leonard Cohen. The very fact that I know his voice intimately from his songs means that I hear his poems, too, spoken in my ear in that same voice. And while he’s often labeled as a darkly intense romantic, in fact some of his finest poems have a light, playful quality. The one that first caught my attention is a little thing called “I Wonder How Many People In This City”, from The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems from 1961. Here it is in its entirety:I wonder how many people in this citylive in furnished rooms.Late at night when I look out at the buildingsI swear I see a face in every windowlooking back at meand when I turn awayI wonder how many go back to their desksand write this down.All his collections are great, and his first one Let Us Compare Mythologies, from 1956, has recently been reissued. Additionally, many of his poems (including the one cited) and song lyrics can be found within the pages of the massive Stranger Music.Garth: Inspired by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, I’ve been working my way through John Berryman’s Dream Songs this year. Even for someone like me, who enjoys the fragmentary and fractal poetry of, say, John Ashbery, the Dream Songs were an adjustment, in that point-of-view and syntax are ever-shifting. For the first ten poems, I found myself searching for a way in. But this seems to be one of those great books that teaches you how to read it; I latched on to the rhythm, started reading the poems aloud to myself, and was off and running. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that so many of my friends turn out to have read it, and everyone has different favorites. Dream Songs Week at The Millions, anyone?Emily: If you don’t have a preexisting taste for a particular kind of poetry and you like browsing, there’s really nothing like The Norton Anthology of Poetry – then you’ve got everything from Beowulf to Billy Collins (our former poet laureate, whom I loathe, but many people seem to like) in chronological order, along with brief bios of all the poets, and a bit of a reader’s guide on versification (rhyme, meter, forms) and poetic syntax. But it’s not cheap and with 1828 poems by 334 poets, it’s not a pocket book either.For price and selection – oh, most beloved of American publishers! – you cannot beat Dover paperbacks for poetry collections (where, right now, you can also get Obama and McCain paperdolls). All of their books are between a dollar and $10 and they have both single author collections (Yeats, Rochester – one of my favorites – a dirty, disillusioned Restoration poet, Browning, most wonderful Keats, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, Sandburg), and multi-author collections. Favorite American Poems and 101 Best Loved Poems both looked good, but they have historical collections as well, like English Romantic Poetry, if you want to be more methodical in your reading.I also highly recommend the Academy of American Poets. They have an extensive online collection of poetry by American and English poets – more poets than the Norton – and they also have recordings of many of the poets reading their work. I highly recommend listening to Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool” or Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s a very user-friendly site and in addition to better biographical sketches than the Norton, they have an index of occasional poems for those so inclined (wedding, funeral, etc).As for individual favorite poems: I love Christopher Smart’s crazy “Jubilate Agno” – it’s a long poem, but a small portion of it gets anthologized and excerpted a lot as “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” or just “My Cat Jeoffry.” I also love Ogden Nash’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” (also, if you can find the recording of this, it’s delightful). Robert Herrick’s short poems: “The Night Piece, to Julia,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “Upon Prue, His Maid,” “Delight in Disorder,” and also his pastoral poems like “The Hock Cart” and “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Milton is great but he’s a workout – his syntax can be a bit like taking part in WWF Smackdown for some readers. And Marvell’s “The Garden,” his “Mower” poems, and “Bermudas.” Others to try: Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market,” Dorothy Parker’s “Resume,” Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox” …There are so many more, but I think I’ve probably already said too much.As a final note: I recommend you begin by reading William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” and then read Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a theme by William Carlos Williams.”
Seamus Heaney’s seminal 2000 translation of the Old English epic Beowulf brought the work, first put to paper by an unknown Anglo-Saxon about a thousand years ago, into the 21st century. Heaney considers Beowulf “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” Now that cornerstone is getting the Hollywood treatment, and, as you might expect, some of its rougher edges have been smoothed over.Most of us are familiar with the story: Beowulf, the Geat, comes to the aid of Hrothgar and the Danes by slaying Grendel, a man-eating monster that has been terrorizing the great hall at Heorot. I had a wonderfully illustrated version of Beowulf by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Charles Keeping that I would read and look at often growing up, and returned to the tale when someone gave me Heaney’s translation. But the illustrations in the book I had as a kid have defined the visual elements of the story for me.In what I always considered a bizarre and chilling twist, Beowulf, after vanquishing Grendel, tearing the beast’s arm off with his bare hands, is forced to do battle with Grendel’s mother in her lair at the bottom of a miasmic mear. The beast’s mother? How weird, to use an Old English word in its modern sense. Keeping’s drawings of the she-beast in the illustrated book are indelible (a sample).So imagine my surprise when I found that, for the motion picture adaptation of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is played by… Angelina Jolie? That’s right, the she-beast has been scrubbed just a bit, as you can see from this still. Apparently the movie’s writers took other liberties with the story as it relates to the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Well, that’s Hollywood, and hey, a sexy makeover can make any mother’s day. But what I would really like to see is Jolie voyage to the Danish countryside and return with a hulking, hirsute, one-armed ogre with a taste for human flesh as the latest addition to her ethnically diverse brood of adopted children. Monsters need love too.
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.
Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I’d fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I’d separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the “literary” adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, and I’ve never seen any of the movies either. It’s safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It’s a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he’ll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can’t say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris’ latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn’t that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I’m planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here’s hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I’m sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I’m skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don’t you just get the feeling she’s going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn’t Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would’ve predicted it during his “Talk Soup” days?). It’s an odd choice for an adaption. I’ve read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz’s novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don’t Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year – Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson’s War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don’t hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I’m not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you’ll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean’s 13: The Baker’s Dozen.
Brian, one of my more well read and more ebullient friends, sent me this email emoting about one of the more underappreciated writers of the 20th century, Joseph Roth. Roth’s reputation and body of work were recently addressed in a New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella. Here’s Brian’s reaction:took the advice of the New Yorker and started reading Joseph Roth’s collection of short stories and am totally overwhelmed. read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” from the collection on your next break. amazing. i just ordered Radetzsky March from amazon (along with seamus heaney’s translation of Beowulf) –j. roth is one of those writers that was meant to write as we are all meant to breathe and move and sleep — his prose is beautiful: perfect constructions and his sentences convey much human truth — one of those guys who writes a line and immediately we ‘know’ it as we have felt it a million times but have never been able to articulate it the way he does… i look forward to pillaging his oeuvre…. He makes it sound pretty great. Unfortunately I didn’t get to read “Stationmaster Fallermayer” during my break at work yesterday, but I certainly intend to soon.