Mike Puma's Reviews > An Elemental Thing

An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger
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Oct 05, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2010, favorites, new-directions-publishing, spenx
Recommended for: readers with high expectations
Read from November 19 to December 29, 2010

What do you do when you finish a book of extraordinary writing—writing that’s unlike anything you’ve read before? Writing that’s caught you up and not turned you loose. Writing that informs, but is beautiful. Writing that leaves you breathless, but not wanting for air, rather wanting for more writing…writing of the kind you’re swimming in at the moment.

A normal person would, I suppose (and I have to suppose what it is normal people do…ever…under any circumstance), rush out and tell his friends, tell anyone who’ll hold still, shout it to the world. I’m doing that, of course, but being me, I’m also facing a dilemma: where do I house such a singular title in the bookcases of my own library?

An Elemetal Thing is unlike anything I’ve read. I have no place to house it—on my shelves or in my thinking. To call it a book of essays just doesn’t seem right or do it justice; it might be off-putting to those for whom essays aren’t the order of the day. Then again, to call them prose poems doesn’t seem right either, although they’re surely poetic and wondrous. I should also mention that Weinberger is an acclaimed translator of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and other South American authors, as well as being an acclaimed poet himself and winner the National Book Critics Award for criticism. He is a writer readers should know.

I suspect I’ll end up dedicating part of a shelf to the handful of volumes of prose poetry I own and part of the same shelf to the works of Weinberger that I own or expect to own—creating a skimpy-looking shelf in an otherwise crowded library of fiction, poetry, and lit crit. I’m whining and I’ll stop.

The entries in this book takes the reader to China and India, to Papua, New Guinea and the Nazca Desert of Peru. They provide the history of the first, second, third, fourth, etc., rhinoceros to arrive in Europe and the fates that befell them. They offer a dizzying history of the vortex in philosophical and scientific thought—as dizzying as Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström.” (Did you know the caduceus is part of that history? The DNA double helix?) Would you have imagined that all the star myths could be condensed into a brief six pages, and would you expect a phrase like, "thier infinitude propels us to count them?" Included is the story of Muhammad and other myths, as well as an inclusive bibliography that informs this volume.

I found this title by sheer good luck and following the reviews of Stephen (above) whose review says it best: “Astonishing, just astonishing.”

This is likely the last book I’ll finish this year—a perfect one. Having met my goal of 60, this volume has been the culmination of some very, very good reading.
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Reading Progress

11/19/2010 page 45
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08/29/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Mike Puma But, but, I don't have a "w" section. I reckon I could begin The Caris O'Malley Memorial W Section of Books Which Don't Belong Anywhere Else. But, I don't want to wait to place it until sometime after your death. In fact, I'd just as soon people stopped dying altogether (well, most of 'em).


Mike Puma Caris wrote: "As luck would have it, I recently faked my own death. Problem solved. I am not actually Caris. I am my secretary writing this while I am somewhere else, probably Mexico, getting fucked up in a bord..."

You, sir, could be a McCarthy protagonist. The horror, the horror.


Jimmy I don't keep my books ordered on a shelf in any way, but if I did, I'd have a shelf purely for "uncategorizeable" books (books unlike anything else I've read). I've read enough books that would fit in this odd category that it would be probably the most interesting shelf.


Mike Puma I try to keep mine somewhat organized: alphabetical by author within categories. I get a sort of perverse pleasure having Marilyn Robinson's Gilead sitting between Ayn Rand (ugh) and Sade's 120 Days of Sodom--it's the little things, you know?


Kris I have just started this, Mike, and I'm in love with it already. Writing to savor.


Mike Puma I saw you'd started and immediately thought: drumroll. (that anxioux period between the time you know something is going to happen and it actually happens) So, so much in such a tiny, little book.


Kris Every word counts. I love sensing that care and artistry when I am reading.

I am slowing way down for this one. It feels like just what I need to be reading right now.


Mike Puma Kris wrote: "Every word counts. I love sensing that care and artistry when I am reading.

I am slowing way down for this one. It feels like just what I need to be reading right now."


It somewhat creates an approach/avoidance conflict--knowing whether to pick up something else by him and risk losing the good impression of this one. I'm sure I will. I have read 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, but that one was entirely different.


message 9: by Mikki (new) - added it

Mikki Between you and Kris, I'm sold! Thanks, Mike.


message 10: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Thanks, Mikki, this writer is amazing. Hope you like it.


message 11: by Stephen (new) - added it

Stephen P mike: "Supposing," what a normal person would do-is a great compliment to you, and not knowing where to house this book on your shelves is a great compliment to this book. Between Kris's review and your comment i dare any human being to not want to read this book.


message 12: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Thanks, Stephen, it eventually did end up housed with the prose poetry (I was running out of shelf space), but I'm hoping to have a Weinberger shelf at some point--a couple more bookcases from now.


message 13: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Mike wrote: "Thanks, Stephen, it eventually did end up housed with the prose poetry (I was running out of shelf space), but I'm hoping to have a Weinberger shelf at some point--a couple more bookcases from now."

That's an excellent goal! BTW, I am planning to order three more collections of his essays next month. I am hooked...


message 14: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Kris wrote: "Mike wrote: "Thanks, Stephen, it eventually did end up housed with the prose poetry (I was running out of shelf space), but I'm hoping to have a Weinberger shelf at some point--a couple more bookca..."

I saw that 'completist' element at work in my feed. Looking forward to see what you make of them, then I expect they'll go right to my TR list as well.


message 15: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Ah yes -- I am a much more successful completist for music than for books atm, but I am an aspirational completist for quite a few writers. If the next collection of essays I read by EW is as good as An Elemental Thing, he'll go right on that list.


message 16: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma I have a dread that 'completist' has much to do with getting older--sooner or later, you just get to everything your favorite authors have written. I think that's better than the alternative.


message 17: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Mike wrote: "I have a dread that 'completist' has much to do with getting older--sooner or later, you just get to everything your favorite authors have written. I think that's better than the alternative."

No doubt about that.....


message 18: by El Avestruz (new) - added it

El Avestruz Liado Now I am quite curious about this book. How well does it fares compared to Borges' non-fictions or Sebald's quasi-essay style?


message 19: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma I'm too unfamiliar with Borges to judge, although I'm wondering about that since you've asked. This tends more toward the lyric essay, or prose poems.


message 20: by El Avestruz (new) - added it

El Avestruz Liado I see, I should get this book and see the state of affairs by myself. Although I guess getting the original (in english) might be a bit hard.


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