This book provides three things: an overview of the life of George Eliot, a critical analysis of her Middlemarch, and a discussion of how MiddlemarchThis book provides three things: an overview of the life of George Eliot, a critical analysis of her Middlemarch, and a discussion of how Middlemarch impacted the life and thought of the author, Rebecca Mead. There is much to recommend this book: Mead's passion for Eliot and her work is moving, and her many descriptions of her encounters with remnants of Eliot's life speak to a marvelous bookish passion:
"After dinner we sat in the living room, where, on the mantelpiece, was a small leather wallet with the initials G.H.L. and the date of 1874 embossed upon it, a gift from Eliot to Lewes. Next to it was Eliot’s pen. It had a slim handle made from what looked like bone, and a tarnished metal nib. I asked if I could hold it, and when Jonathan said I could, I gingerly picked it up. It felt heavier in my hand than I expected, and I thought of the labor it must have demanded. “Have you known the misery of writing with a tired steel pen which is reluctant to make a mark?” Eliot once wrote to a friend. I imagined her holding this pen, dipping it over and over into an inkstand, taking care against blotting or smudging, and I wondered which of her works she had written with it."
Mead's engagement with Eliot drives the book, and her shared illuminations can be summed up by this observation:
"A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel—not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider."
Most interesting was Mead's chronicle of how her perspective on the characters of Middlemarch changed as she grew older and wiser:
"As I grew a little older with the book, though, I developed a greater scorn for Casaubon—for his undeserved self-importance and his intellectual pettiness, and for his ungenerous, withholding behavior toward his young wife, who deserves so much better from him. By my thirties, it was easier to look down on Casaubon, to regard him as contemptible and repellent. But having reached the age of Casaubon, I realize that it would take a great deal of self-regard on my part not to feel a tender sense of kinship with that sad, proud, desiccated man. In middle age, it becomes considerably harder to maintain a superior sense of distance from his preoccupations: his timid fear of professional judgment, hindering him from ever producing the work upon which he has staked his life; his quietly devastating discovery that, having deferred domestic intimacy for so long, he is incapable of entering into it; his perverse conviction that Dorothea’s ardor and submissiveness amount to a cruel, deliberate undermining of all he has aspired to be."
There are many fine and intelligent observations throughout the book, and I found it highly gratifying to see how Mead had grown with this book over the years. My only reservation is Mead's subject, a book to which I have never had any great attraction. I'm sorry that I don't value Middlemarch the way Mead does--that lack of interest hindered my enjoyment of the book. Still, I am deeply appreciative of her relationship with this classic, and her ability to articulate so clearly how one can grow and mature with a great work of literature. ...more
Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read since it was first released in November of 2002. At the time I had oClaire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys has been sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read since it was first released in November of 2002. At the time I had only glancing awareness of Pepys and his celebrated diary (an awareness probably gleaned for 34 Charing Cross Road), and between then and now, I read the Modern Library selection from his diary.
Tomalin's book was highly praised, for good reason: it is an extremely fair, engagingly written biography of an interesting man. Notably, she quotes extremely sparingly from the diary, rather parsing it for the reader, and filling in with contemporary sources.
Reading it, though, my heart slowly sank as I realized what a creep Pepys was. The man was a lecher, a rapacious sexual predator who chased every woman beneath his station, with particular attention paid to his servants. Tomalin praises Pepys, sort of, for his frankness and candor about his vile behavior, and she suggests that his behavior was quite typical. Still, I found it revolting to read.
I'm glad I read the book, it is a very fine biography, but I would be quite happy if I never read a further word about Pepys or his dirty diary. ...more
Very enjoyable selection of poems and brief extracts from prose works. Familiar passages from works like Dicken's Christmas Carol and Washington IrvinVery enjoyable selection of poems and brief extracts from prose works. Familiar passages from works like Dicken's Christmas Carol and Washington Irving's Christmas Sketches are placed alongside less familiar texts from D.H. Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Saki and others. All topped off with some fine illustrations--I'll look forward to dragging this one out every year, along with my Modern Library collections of Christmas poems and stories....more
Reading Bolaño, the English-speaker has to be overwhelmed by the vast ocean of Latin American literature that is virtually invisible in the United St Reading Bolaño, the English-speaker has to be overwhelmed by the vast ocean of Latin American literature that is virtually invisible in the United States. But, as Bolaño points out, that's hardly a problem unique to North Amerrica: "which brings us to a problem even worse than being forgotten: the provincialism of the book market, which corrals and locks away Spanish-language literature, which, simply put, means that Chilean authors are only of interest in Chile, Mexican authors in Mexico, and Colombians in Colombia, as if each Latin American country spoke a different language or as if the aesthetic taste of each Latin American reader were determined first and foremost by national — that is, provincial — imperatives, which wasn’t the case in the 1960s, for example, when the Boom exploded, or in the 1950s or 1940s, despite poor distribution." Bolaño's text could easily be used as an introduction to modern Spanish literature. He's incredibly widely read, and he covers a lot of authors in these mostly throw-away pieces he wrote for Spanish papers. Bolaño's enthusiasm is infectious--of the many books he mentions, I added to my reading list practically all of them that I could find in English translation (which was unfortunaely not many). So typical, his exhortation to read, as in this commentary:
"Thus it was that The Temple of Iconoclasts came into my hands, during a cold, wet winter, and I still remember the enormous pleasure it brought me, and the consolation, too, at a time when almost everything was full of sadness. Wilcock’s book restored happiness to me, as is only the case with those masterpieces of literature that are also masterpieces of black humor, like Lichtenberg’s Aphorisms or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Of course, Wilcock’s book tiptoed out of bookstores. Today, seventeen years later, it has just been reprinted. If you want to have a good time, if you want to cure what ails you, buy it, steal it, borrow it, but most importantly, read it."
These essays are an endless pleasure to read: always invigorating, clever, opinionated, and sharp. Impossible to take everything in one reading: without question a book that will reward repeated readings. ...more
The author of this book begins by staking out the position that caring for words is a moral issue: if language is going to sustain and nurture our comThe author of this book begins by staking out the position that caring for words is a moral issue: if language is going to sustain and nurture our common life, it must be tended the way a farmer tends to his soil and crops. Because of the vast proliferation of means of communication, the stewardship of language takes on an even greater value. The author lays out a clear argument for the moral implications to careless use of language, showing that we pay a heavy price for our tolerance of inaccuracy and triteness. "Like food, language has been 'industrialized'. Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed." The book therefore examines strategies of stewardship. To be good stewards of language, we have to do three things: 1) deepen and sharpen our reading skills, 2) cultivate habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity , and 3) to practice poesis: to be makers and doers of the word. A brilliant book, and absolutely necessary reading for anyone wishing to make a commitment to clear and careful use of the language....more
Decades after the publication of "The Anxiety of Influence", Harold Bloom has returned to his favorite them with a new collection of essays. AlthoughDecades after the publication of "The Anxiety of Influence", Harold Bloom has returned to his favorite them with a new collection of essays. Although he cover a range of English poetry from Shakespeare to the modern poets Mark Strand and John Ashbery, almost half of the book concerns Shakespeare. Identifying Shakespeare as "the Founder", Bloom works through Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare, and then traces Shakespeare's influence through writers from Milton to Joyce. The later chapters of the book take up the theme of America, beginning with Emerson's influence on Whitman, and then tracing Whitman's influence down through Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, and from them to the modern generation of Strand, Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, and others.
For Bloom, influence is everything. All works are connected to each other by a strand of influence, a strand that ties the works together in an endless and ever growing continuum of thought. Of course, this means that works that fall outside the orbit of his chosen authors may as well not exist, at least to him. But his approach provides a critical method for tracing the development of thought an style across long reaches of time, and he uses his techniques to argue effectively for the primacy of Shakespeare and Whitman in English and American poetry.
A first reading of this book is only a beginning. I was able to see the major themes, take note of Bloom's many references, and assemble a list for future reading (both critics and texts). The book is so rich and dense, I really could not do more than that. Working through Bloom's analysis and all the associated texts will keep me occupied for quite some time....more
Booklovers are a bit disoriented these days, between the rise of the e-book and the collapse of the physical bookseller Borders. Are these trends trulBooklovers are a bit disoriented these days, between the rise of the e-book and the collapse of the physical bookseller Borders. Are these trends truly related? And what does that mean for the future of books? The independent publisher Soft Skull Press wins the award for breathtaking timeliness. They have just published a collection of essays, "The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books". Twenty-five authors consider not just the future of the novel and imaginative writing, but also that of the physical book. Not surprisingly, although there is some pessimism, these writers, and I would guess most of their readers, cannot imagine a world without books (and novels) in some form or another. One of the founders of n+1, Marco Roth, puts it best in his essay "The Outskirts of Progress":"The "future of the book" is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. The crisis of the book is really a crisis of our free will to culture. If we commit ourselves to the culture of thought, inquiry, and rhetorical expression that arose in conjunction with the written word, inevitably we'll carry books with us in whatever shape, and inevitably we'll want to "access them" and compose them in their traditional bound and printed form, if only to feel a shimmer of connection to earlier human generations." Of this last point, I'm not so sure--I can easily imagine physical books slipping away, or at least becoming luxury items. I cannot abide physical newspapers now, because I cannot interact with them. When I read a newspaper online, I clip bits and pieces to Evernote to remember, I share articles with friends, or evaluate the tone of comments piling up at the end of an article. I think it is possible that as the reading of ebooks becomes a social experience, I may feel the same way about printed books. But then, I am a collector, and I cannot imagine having something physical to put on my bookshelves. At the end, though, I think Joe Meno speaks for most readers when he says, "For me, a book, in whatever form it takes--hardbound copy, paperback, electronic version, online instrument, text downloaded on a cellphone, even a story read orally--a book is actually a place, a place where we, as adults, still have a chance to engage in active imagining, translating word to image, connecting these images to memories, dreams, and larger ideas." ...more
n this book of essays, Colm Toibin, author of The Master, a fictionalized account of a period from Henry James’ life, attempts to lay out how both hen this book of essays, Colm Toibin, author of The Master, a fictionalized account of a period from Henry James’ life, attempts to lay out how both he and James came to write their fictions. More than a tribute to James’ work, Toibin explains across many works the complex processes whereby James metamorphizes bits of life (anecdotes heard, figures glimpsed, experiences recalled) into art. As Toibin puts it, “As James imagined his books, he saw life as shadow and the art he produced as substance. He believed that language and form, the tapestry of the novel, could produce something much richer and more substantial than mere life, could produce something that offered what was chaotic and fascinating, a sort of complex and golden completion.” In his analysis of Portrait of a Lady, Toibin examines the question of just what James took from the life of his cousin, Minny Temple, who died quite young, and quotes from James’s own journal: "Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were." Toibin remarks, “Here, in a few sentences, was the philosophy of the novel, which made all the difference to James and makes all the difference to us now when we read him and consider his vast dedication to his art. He believed that his novels, in all their shapeliness and formal grace, in all the nuance and shadow offered, in all their drama, were richer than life, more complete than life. This does not mean he held life in contempt. Rather he longed to shape it, offer it, with his great talent and industry, significance and a sense of completion.” As James imagined his books, he saw life as shadow and the art he produced as substance. He believed that language and form, the tapestry of the novel, could produce something much richer and more substantial than mere life, could produce something that offered what was chaotic and fascinating, a sort of completion. The essays in this collection address many of James’ greatest works, his stories, as well as recent biographies, studies, and collections of letters and documents. Toibin also discusses his own work and growth as a writer, what he has learned from James, and how he began writing his own novel The Master. In a final tour de force, Toibin takes a scrap from Henry James’ journal, and spins it out into a story, re-imagining James’ own creative process. A fabulous collection of essays, really all a Henry James lover needs. ...more
This book is an analysis of the development of the concept of "sophistication" in early modern literature. Specifically, the author examines when andThis book is an analysis of the development of the concept of "sophistication" in early modern literature. Specifically, the author examines when and how the meaning of sophistication changed from a negative (signifying faslification and perversion) to a positive (signifying discrimination and refinement) attribute. The author starts with Sheridan's School for Scandal and Austen's Mansfield Park, and works her way up through Trollope, James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, and ends with analysis of Noel Coward, Nabokov, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.
I have a long-standing interest in the subject, coming from my deep interest in the pastoral genre. The pastorals of Theocritus, with their contrasts between urban and rural life, are among the first examples of literary sophistication. Although pastoral is not a focus of this study, the author does make reference to the genre and quotes extensively from Empson's "Some Versions of Pastoral", particularly within her analysis of "Alice in Wonderland".
A very interesting theme that runs through the study is that sophistication can operate through nostalgia (self-conscious reference to the styles of the past), but it cannot be old-fashioned. Therefore, sophisticated nostalgia is much more likely to focus on the unfamiliar glamor of a long-past era than on the merely outdated fashions of recent generations. Sophistication, though forever appearing to identify itself with the modern, often turns out to be a nostalgic structure which takes a clear, definable shape only in retrospect. A fabulous current example of this (which I would love to send to the author) is a new Asus laptop with a bamboo shell. This is a example of technological sophistication: a computer sporting the very latest in architecture and features, not just clad in an old-fashioned wood cover, but specifically bamboo, a renewable wood, the ownership of which would immediately identify the possessor as technologically au courant but also fashionably "green".
Work for the future: the book revealed to me a huge gap in my reading, namely the works of Noel Coward. He is discussed as a paragon of sophistication in the inter-war years. I'll have to get him on my reading list soon. ...more
Good collection of short stories--more polished than the St. Petersburg stories, but perhaps a little less inspired. Schulze is fairly unique in his EGood collection of short stories--more polished than the St. Petersburg stories, but perhaps a little less inspired. Schulze is fairly unique in his Eastward orientation: his focus remains on East Germany and eastern Europe in general. Although illuminating, I can't unreservedly recommend Schulze: his stories can be quite opaque and it's sometimes quite difficult to see what he's getting at. I'm not sure that it's worth the struggle. ...more