Saturday, September 30, 2006

Art and life and Proust

Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

I have recently come across a beautiful passage from Proust on the relationship of art and life. It is a passage on Vinteuil's sonata, the famous sonata from which comes the "little phrase" that was so important to Swann as he fell in love with Odette. Now it's the narrator who is thinking about its significance.

This is what he thinks: upon encountering a new work of art -- "new" meaning something recent that departs from established methods and schools -- we can't understand it immediately. We don't have the background to make sense of it; it seems foreign and chaotic, and maybe ugly. We can't analyze it -- break it into parts -- because we can't get a grasp of the entire thing in order to understand its structure. When we do begin to appreciate the new work of art, we don't appreciate the right things:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.

When we finally understand the work more fully, those things we valued at the beginning of the process, we have now forgotten. And here is his conclusion:

Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirely -- it was an image of life.

If we were to possess life entirely, it would have to be from the perspective of death, wouldn't it? Otherwise, we are always changing and so can't possess a thing in flux. But because we are changing constantly, our understanding of art is constantly changing, so we can't possess the work of art either. Art isn't so much a way of getting life to stand still as it is a way of charting its movement.

Proust elaborates:

But the great works of art are also less of a disappointment than life, in that their best parts do not come first. In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheet power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.

I like what this says about art; I'm not sure I like what it says about life. About art, this tells me that some of the greatest pleasures to be had are those I have to wait and work for. It tells me, as I think about my post from a couple days ago, that pleasure and effort and patience are not opposed. If I stick with a difficult and bewildering work of art, it will begin to reveal beauties to me.

About life, Proust implies that the best parts come first, that we have the greatest access to beauty when we are young. I'm not sure I like this because I find it depressing, and also because I'm not sure it's true. Perhaps we have more intense experiences of life when we are young -- perhaps -- but surely the nature of one's experiences become deeper and more complex. Surely there is beauty in life that witholds itself until we have been patient long enough to see it revealed.

Friday, September 29, 2006

What is it with me and footnotes lately?

I've begun reading The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, and guess what? It's a novel with footnotes! Not the usual kind of scholarly footnotes written by an editor, but footnotes written by the first-person narrator. I had no idea! I've only read about 15 pages of the novel -- which is short at 135 pages -- so I can't say much about whether they work or not, but so far, I'm liking it. In typical Nicholson Baker-fashion, the book gives you everything in minute detail: the setting, the character's thoughts, the action -- which, as I understand it, consists of the main character taking an elevator ride. The footnotes elaborate in great detail on the already detailed main text, explaining such things as the history of staplers, the history of straws, and how the narrator pulls up his socks. This could be intensely annoying, but so far it's not, although I am predisposed to like this book, as I like other things Baker's written (especially U & I).

Thanks to Barry for pointing out Mark Dunn's novel Ibid, a novel made up entirely of footnotes. This, clearly, I will have to check out.

One of the blurbs for The Mezzanine says this:

I love novels with gimmicks. The list of great ones -- Tristram Shandy ... Pale Fire ... Ulysses, the ultimate gimmick novel. The Mezzanine is a definite contribution, a very funny book about the human mind. Mesmerizing.

I don't like this reviewer calling these novels gimmicky. Isn't the term "gimmicky" kind of dismissive? These novels are more than just gimmicks; they are experiments, explorations, novels where the author is pushing the limits of what a novel can do. If something is gimmicky, it's interesting only in its newness and tricksiness, but these books do new things and also old things -- old things like telling us what it's like to be a person or to live in one's mind or to experience the world or to be obsessed with another person.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from one of Baker's footnotes, one that's about reading and eating:

I stared in disbelief the first time a straw rose up from my can of soda and hung out over the table, barely arrested by burrs in the underside of the metal opening. I was holding a slice of pizza in one hand, folded in a three-finger grip so that it wouldn't flop and pour cheese-grease on the paper plate, and a paperback in a similar grip in the other hand -- what was I supposed to do? The whole point of straws, I had thought, was that you did not have to set down the slice of pizza to suck a dose of Coke while reading a paperback. I soon found, as many have, that there was a way to drink no-handed with these new floating straws: you had to bend low to the table and grasp the almost horizontal straw with your lips, steering it back down into the can every time you wanted a sip, while straining your eyes to keep them trained on the line of the page you were reading. How could the staw engineers have made so elementary a mistake, designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which it was intended to stand? Madness!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

About the wiki

Well, it seems like there's interest in a litwiki or footnote wiki, or whatever we like to call it. Thanks to all of you who commented with encouragement and suggestions!

Here's where we are: Kate, the facilitator of A Curious Singularity, a short story group blog, thought that one of their short stories would make a good pilot for the litwiki, and a lot of people agreed, so let's try that. They are reading Virginia Woolf's story "Kew Gardens" beginning October 10th, so I can post the story on our wiki, and we can have at it. It'll be an experiment; maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, but it will be fun to try. Kate's thought was this (from comments to an earlier post): "The discussion could occur first via a group blog like "A Curious Singularity" or the "Slaves of Golconda" then the insights that emerge from the discussion could be transformed into annotations, and the questions that emerge could send people off on a bit of research and the answers could then be transformed into annotations, and so on." Cool, yes?

Here's where I need your help. We have two possible sites that can host our wiki (there are many, many possibilities, but these two seemed particularly good -- although I haven't done very thorough research): wikispaces or tiddlywiki. Many thanks to Mandarine for setting up the tiddlywiki! Which do you like better?

Tiddlywiki looks cooler and seems to do more, including using tags, which I think would mean a person could sort footnotes by author and by topic, or whatever sorts of tags we assign. It might also be harder to learn, and I think you need a password to save your edits. This would mean it wouldn't be quite as open and public -- maybe good, maybe not. Wikispaces is simpler but maybe not quite as versatile. That one is now public, so anyone can edit.


Here are two sites that do similar things: an annotated version of James Joyce's story "The Dead," which wasn't done on a wiki, and the Queen Loana wiki, done on wikispaces.

Update: if you want to edit and save your edits on the tiddlywiki site (which you are welcome to do, of course), you'll need a password: "muttboy." And check out this link on the tiddlywiki as a hyperlinked blog. Cool.

Old and new books

I was intrigued by Patrick Kurp's post on the value of reading old books as opposed to new ones -- old meaning published many years ago, not old as in used. He says, "the past is a much bigger place than the present, so it follows that most worthwhile books were published not last week but some time in the previous three millennia. Every minute devoted to reading the new and middling is a minute spent languishing away from the old and dependably superior." This makes sense to me in a way. Almost everything we read that's recently published won't last; it will be forgotten, and there's no knowing which very few books are the exceptions. I was interested to read in Virginia Woolf's diary about the books she reviewed, and I noticed that many of them I hadn't heard of before. The books we are debating about today, people won't have heard of 100 years from now. The things we read from the past are by definition the stuff that has lasted, and perhaps that means they're superior to today's books.

Patrick also argues, following William Hazlitt, that it's the older books that are really new: they can show us a world different from the one we inhabit. Older books can shake us up a bit, show us new things, get us out of the familiar and make us encounter the alien. I like that idea too. I look for the new and unfamiliar in my reading, often.

And yet, I wonder. Why do we read? Is it for edification and instruction, or for comfort and pleasure? Okay, it can be both, sometimes both at once, sometimes in separate reading experiences, depending on one's mood.

But here's what I really wonder: does it matter why we read? I kind of buy the argument that reading older books can be an encounter with the new and can help us break out of our private comfortable worlds as Patrick argues. But does it have to be older books that do this? Can't we have that experience with new books, if that experience is what we are looking for, ones that show us worlds different from the ones we know?

And when it comes to the argument that older books are the ones that have lasted and new books probably won't, and that therefore reading older books is more worthwhile, I begin to wonder what we mean by "worthwhile." What do we seek to get out of reading? I guess this kind of argument presumes that we should be reading for self-edification, for self-improvement, that reading should be a learning experience.

I've often thought that myself. I've read a whole lot of older books because I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to be well-read and well-educated, and knowledgeable and open-minded. But sometimes I wonder what the point of all that is. Does every minute we spend have to be spent in a worthwhile manner?

Maybe after all pleasure and not edification is a better goal. A part of me shudders to say that -- forget being a better person, just enjoy yourself! I've spent most of my life thinking I needed to be a better person and that every minute should be devoted to it. Ultimately, I wouldn't be able to shake that way of thinking, even if I decided I really wanted to. But I do sometimes think I might be better off if I decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, and in that case I'll read what I damn well please, old or new.

I guess ultimately I think that if everyone decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, the world would be a messed-up place (oh, wait ... the world IS a messed up place ...), but I also think that people like me who are driven fairly mercilessly to spend every moment of time wisely might be better off seeking pleasure more often.

And so I'm having a bit of a bad reaction to the idea that my reading should be worthwhile. Would it hurt me much if my reading were more escapist?

Hmmm ... I'm off to read Proust. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More on the wiki

Well, I've spent all my reading time and all the time I was supposed to be writing a post playing around with wikis, so I have no real post for you. I learned it's easy to set up a wiki, but I can't figure out how to insert hyperlinked notes. Well, I did learn how to insert notes, but each one takes you to a new page, which isn't what I was looking for. Or is it? I'm not sure if the technology won't let me do what I want (let people insert links to create notes, preferably ones sortable or searchable by author) or if I just don't know how to do it. Okay --- here's what I want. You know how in Microsoft Word if you're using footnotes you can put the cursor over the footnote number and the text will pop up in a bubble right there? Or if you've used the comment function on Microsoft Word, you know how you can insert comments that will appear in the margin or appear in a bubble right above the words you commented on? That's what I want on a wiki, but I don't know that that's possible.

Anyone want to help? I had some volunteers yesterday :) I set up a "litwiki" over here, and anyone can edit it, so if you're bored ... And there's a "reading wiki" over here; the password is "muttboy" if you want to sign in and play around. Anyone know of a better site?

I do want to use one of these for class at some point, once I learn a little more about it. I could have students write articles for it and they would work collaboratively. That raises some interesting issues about power in the classroom -- for example, how much should the teacher step in to correct and guide and edit? I'm a little uncertain about the whole idea of "collaborative" writing also; in a way, blogs can be collaborative, sort of, in that people write back and forth and toss ideas and topics around. But writing still seems personal and private to me. Actually, I've always hated collaboration and group work. But that's one of the big deals in education today. Anyway, part of what got me interested in wikis was this post over at The Long Eighteenth (which in itself is an interesting project).

I'm like this, I'm afraid -- confronted with a problem, particularly a technological problem, I'll devote hours to it until I feel I've learned what I want to. A bit obsessive, in other words.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thoughts on footnotes

I've written a number of times about the footnotes to my edition of Dracula (you can find those posts here and here), and I've continued to think about how fun they were -- perhaps not so much as a first-time reader of the novel, but still, they were fun. And I'm reminded of a comment Mandarine left on one of those posts:

I was thinking someone should set up a literary comments/editing/footnote wiki, where one would suggest classics, and everybody could add/edit all sorts of comments around the text. Each comment would have categories, so a reader can then check or uncheck the 'fun', 'gothic', 'schoolboy', 'academic', 'cultural reference' footnotes as they please.

Now wouldn't that be awesome? I think that's a great idea. I have no idea how to set this up, but someone else surely does (maybe someone's done this already?). The footnotes in Dracula make me realize how much fun this would be, because those footnotes provide a range of information, from historical background to personal responses to almost off-topic musings to textual inconsistencies. They are much more personal than footnotes generally are; in places they are more like a reader's musings than formal footnotes. And reader's musings are very interesting to read, provided, of course, that the reader is interesting. Maybe one of the options on this hypothetical literature wiki would be to follow the footnotes or comments of one particular author, so you could find a writer you liked and follow his or her way through the text.

For those of you who know Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, you have a glimpse of how much fun this can be; that novel starts with a 999-line poem and the rest of it is one person's notes on that poem, notes that are ... fascinating. Given the right primary text and the right reader, or group of readers, this could be a great exercise in thinking about how people read. Or it could be just plain old fun.

And, of course, you could have the scholarly comments, the historical footnotes, the theoretical ponderings, the critical citations. And these wouldn't be limited by space constraints. They could be limitless in number and endless in length.

The commentary would get much longer than the primary text, I would think. You'd need to make sure a person could search through the material and get a handle on it somehow. I guess you'd run into the problems they have over at Wikipedia with fights over who gets to post what material. But anyway -- it would be cool to experiment with, wouldn't it?

As I'm typing this, in the oddest of coincidences, the Hobgoblin is laughing uproariously at this website: Joe Mathlete Explains Today's Marmaduke in 500 Words or Less -- it's a site that has a commentary on the cartoon that's just as funny as or funnier than the cartoon itself. I call it a coincidence, because it's kind of like the commentary I'm talking about with Dracula -- parasitic, perhaps, second-hand, but very clever and funny. The internet makes this sort of thing easy. Isn't the internet the best?

Monday, September 25, 2006


I reached my goal for the weekend: I finished Dracula, and what fun it was! The ending is very tense and exciting. And so now my rather lame RIP challenge is finished, only one book, and it's not even October yet. I have time to read more RIP books if I like. We'll see.

I thought the book was good in a number of ways, most of all, perhaps, because it was a great story. It's a relatively long novel, but Stoker kept the tension high throughout. He's fabulous at creating the frightening, eerie mood that this novel absolutely must have. The parts that take place in Transylvania -- at the beginning and the end -- are the most exciting and atmospheric, but the middle parts in England maintain the momentum.

The book is also good in ways Stoker might or might not have intended: it strikes me as the perfect late 19C novel (1897), reflecting so precisely so many of the period's preoccupations. It's about the too-thin veneer of order and rationality that we sometimes think is all of life, and how easily this gets ripped away to reveal the chaos and irrationality beneath. The book is full of train time tables and business accounts, signs of an orderly society at work, but order and rationality are at war with the supernatural. Nice, neat categories such as "alive" and "dead" are disturbed and forced to make room for the "undead" vampire. Up until the very end, the time tables are there, symbols of "civilization," weapons the characters must wield against Count Dracula, whose powers and actions defy the rules that generally govern humanity.

The book is also about very weird and disturbing gender dynamics, and it's obsessed with sexuality. You have the typical Victorian bifurcated view of women: Lucy, for example, the innocent, beautiful, sexually-attractive-but-pure, soon-to-be wife and angel of the house at first, who then transforms into a lustful, aggressive, evil vampire who must be killed. The issue is complicated, however, because while the men in the novel insist that Mina, the other main female character, remain out of their planning to destroy Dracula, they soon learn that Mina is precisely the one they need to track him down. It's her good memory for those train tables and her forceful logical thought that save them in the end. The women in this novel are either perfectly pure or perfectly corrupt, but it is a woman who employs the stereotypically male power of logic to deduce Dracula's whereabouts at a crucial moment in the story.

And Stoker has way too much fun playing around with images of sucking people's blood and blood transfusions and exchanges of blood as thinly veiled sex acts. Sexuality is equated with vampirism, showing how a fear of and obsession with sex underlie Victorian staidness. Sex haunts the book, just as do a fear of the supernatural and of death.

I think Dracula belongs to the class of book which is at least as interesting for the ways it reveals something about the culture it came out of as it is for its story and characters. Any book will reveal something about its time and place of origin, but some books sum up what's characteristic of its time and place so well that that becomes one of the chief pleasures of reading it. This novel is quite like The Monk and The Castle of Otranto in the way they all are often a bit sloppy and sometimes unintentially hilarious (well, maybe this is intentional?) but very good and interesting nonetheless, because of the energy and pleasure that obviously went into the writing and also because of the way they so perfectly speak to their times.

This book certainly has its flaws: I wished Stoker hadn't bothered with the accents, especially Van Helsing's, which is horribly distracting, and, like the accent of a bad actor, comes and goes. And not only are the gender stereotypes pervasive, but the national stereotypes are as well. The American character, Quincy Morris, made me laugh; he was from Texas, of course! and was rather cowboy-like. And the farther east the characters traveled across Europe, the more "primitive" and superstitious and irrational the natives became. But the book was just too much fun to let its flaws get to me.

If you've read Dracula before and are looking to read it again at some point, I highly recommend this edition. It's not good for a first-time read (as mine was) because the footnotes are very intrusive and give away parts of the story early on, but it's excellent for a re-reading. The footnotes are thorough and very funny in places; you can see my delighted posts on them here and here. They are the footnotes of a book-lover as well as a scholar, and they make good reading in and of themselves.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

TBR shelves

Here are my nice, neat, pretty shelves full of books I own but haven't yet read, from two weeks ago:

And here are my shelves today:

I blame this on Book Mooch; I swear I haven't been near a bookstore recently, except to buy a copy of Indiana, which I need for a book group and Book Mooch doesn't have. And now I've got two more books on the way: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I'll need a new shelf soon!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Anarchy Soup

I'm having a whole lot of fun reading the Hobgoblin's novel. Something about writing one's novel on a blog strikes me as really, really cool. Part of the fun of reading it for me is recognizing some of the settings and characters from our real life. I won't discuss those details because you probably wouldn't know what I was talking about anyway, but the locations and some of the characters sounded quite familiar to me, and I was right: the Hobgoblin confirmed that he used some places we've spent time in and people we've spent time with as inspirations for his writing. One of the professors we both knew from grad school quit her job to write academic mysteries, and I remember people in the English department speculating about which character corresponded to which faculty member. In that department the "cookie key" was well-known -- the key that got you into any office -- and it made an appearance in this professor's novel, which delighted us all.

I also think it's very interesting to be writing a novel and getting feedback on it as he goes along. I'll probably never write a novel, so I won't know about these things first-hand, but it must be very, very different writing a novel in the usual way and publishing chapters online as they get written. I doubt any of the reader comments will change the way the Hobgoblin is writing his novel, but those comments have an influence anyway -- the encouragement that comes from the comments must have an impact, and simply knowing that people are reading the chapters as he produces them must influence his motivation to write. It makes novel-writing a less isolating endeavour and a more communal one. I guess people working on novels in writing workshops can have a similar experience, but the reader/writer relationship is different, and the way readers encounter the novel is different too.

This kind of publication is like the old 19C way of serializing novels, so that the author could get reviews and other forms of feedback before the end of the novel is written. With a blog, however, the feedback can be more immediate and direct. I've come to see how blogging is a form of journal-writing gone public, so that one's journal becomes more communal than private, but to apply that model to novel writing seems to be a different thing. Journals lend themselves to daily or at least frequent publication, where it seems more natural to be able to see the process of living and thinking and writing at work. But readers rarely get a glimpse of the process of novel writing (check out Bloglily's excellent post on the subject if you are interested).

Okay, let me go and ask the Hobgoblin when I can expect his latest chapter ...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Book notes

It's a good day when you come home and find three books in your mailbox! I came home yesterday and found three Bookmooch books: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, So Many Books, So Little Time, by Sara Nelson, and Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. And now, as I have no points left at Bookmooch, I'll have to wait until someone mooches a book off of me before I can get any more.

I'm determined to finish Dracula this weekend. It's been too long since I've finished a book, and I'm getting anxious. I want to start something new! And I'm closest to finishing Dracula, so that's what it'll be.

What I really wanted to talk about, though, is Frances Burney's Journals and Letters, which has been so much fun to read. She meets nearly everybody famous in eighteenth-century England, it seems. She's good friends with or hangs out at parties with Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and David Garrick. And the part I just began has her meeting King George III, and Queen Charlotte. She eventually becomes an attendant in the queen’s court, which it turns out she doesn’t like at all, since she has little privacy and time to herself. Reading her journals reminds me that the London literary world was fairly small and everybody seemed to know each other. Burney was very famous after the publication of Evelina; everyone wants to meet her everywhere she goes. She is painfully shy about her writing and seems to hate the attention she gets. However, the voice that comes through in the journals and letters makes me forget how famous she was. She seems so unassuming and quiet and doesn’t draw any attention to her success as a novelist that she comes across as just a regular person with a rather extraordinary life instead of the famous, very talented person she really is.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Proust and inconsistency of emotion

Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

One of the things I'm enjoying in my Proust reading is the way he captures the waywardness of the mind and emotions, the manner in which a person can feel one thing in one moment and then the opposite in the next. He describes the contrariness of emotion and desire so excruciatingly well; I recognize my own shifts and variations and inconsistencies in Proust's characters.

Towards the beginning of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the narrator talks a lot about his desire to be a writer and his confidence, or lack of confidence, in his ability to write. And his feelings change constantly. When the narrator's father says about the narrator's desire to write that "The main thing is to enjoy what one does in life. He's not a child anymore, he knows what he likes, he's probably not going to change, he's old enough to know what'll make him happy in life," he has a strange response. He knows he should be happy because his father had wanted him to be a diplomat, and now, instead, he's getting permission from his father to do what he's dreamed of -- be a writer. But instead:

On this occasion, much as an author, to whom his own conceptions seem to have little value because he cannot think of them as separate from himself, may be alarmed at seeing his publishers putting themselves to the trouble of selecting an appropriate paper for them and setting them in a typeface that he may think too fine, I began to doubt whether my desire to write was a thing of sufficient importance for my father to lavish such kindness upon it.

Now that his father is taking his desire to be a writer seriously, he's not so sure that he's worthy of it. And this proclamation from his father makes him nervous for other reasons; his father's statement that he's old enough to know what he likes and that he won't change has made him realize that his life has truly begun. He is no longer on the threshold of life, full of possibility, but instead is already living, and, what's worse, his life may not change all that much. Isn't it often true that when we finally get the thing we've been longing for, we realize it's a disappointment, or that we didn't really want it, or that getting what we want just creates a whole new set of problems?

Near the above passage, Proust offers another example of the inconsistency of our minds and emotions:

Think of the travelers who are uplifted by the general beauty of a journey they have just completed, although during it their main impression, day after day, was that it was a chore.

He talks about the "promiscuity of the ideas that lurk within us." Isn't that a great way to describe what living in one's mind is like? It's true for me, certainly. That example of the traveler works particularly well for me, because I'm reminded of my backpacking trips, which I have fond memories of, many great memories, and yet when I try hard to remember what each moment actually felt like when I was backpacking, I have to admit that it was a lot of pain, misery, boredom, and unhappiness.

So which is it? Are my backpacking trips wonderful or terrible? Does the narrator want to be a writer or not? The answer depends on the moment you are asking the question.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Book reviews

So Kate asks, "When and why do you read reviews?" And who am I to turn down a great idea for a blog post? As I consider my answer, I feel like I need to call it a confession: I don't like reading book reviews of authors I've never heard of.

Well, that's true when it comes to fiction and even more so for poetry. As for nonfiction, I love reading those reviews because I can often get the gist of the book without going to the trouble of ... actually reading the book. The vast majority of nonfiction books that get published I'll never read, and book reviews are a great way of keeping up with the ideas out there, a great way of learning a tiny bit of the latest in history, science, psychology, economics, politics, etc. etc. Sometimes I do end up reading the book; often, though, I get what I can from the review and move on.

As for fiction, though, that's another story. The truth is that I feel overwhelmed by the number of novels out there and I'm sometimes resistant to new authors. I'm not especially pleased with myself for this; I'd like to be more adventurous in my reading. But I wait to see how widely a new name gets talked about, to see if the people I know, in person or online, talk about an author, to see what other authors recommend that person. I'm sure I'm missing out on a lot of good writing this way, but I don't know what else to do, really, when my to-be-read list is already so long and I'm feeling too pressured by books I'm already aware of to take a look at new ones.

So I avoid those reviews of books that are completely new to me, unless I happen to glance at a sentence that catches my attention and then I might read further. But that doesn't happen all that often.

The other problem with reading fiction reviews, for me, is that I'm bored by plot summary. I'm happy to read a plot summary after I've read the book because then it all makes sense to me, but beforehand? It's hard work to make sense of a novel's premise from a few paragraphs. I'll read the reviewer's opening hook with interest, but when the plot summary begins, my mind wanders and I'm off to the next review.

What I like to read about in a review are things like the reviewer's sense of the author's writing career and how the new book fits into it, or about writing style, or comparisons between the author under consideration and other authors, or the reviewer's judgments about what works and what doesn't. I find myself reading the opening and closing paragraphs of reviews because that's where I most often find those elements; the middle gets lost in the plot summary.

As for poetry, I'm even less likely to take a risk on a poet I've never heard of before, so those reviews I generally ignore also.

Maybe I should make a point of taking a risk on a new author every once in a while. If I decide to make up some reading goals for the new year, maybe that'll be one of them: to read a book by an author I've never heard of before and that nobody has recommended to me. So, readers, don't give me any ideas.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

My difficult books

I was fascinated by Bloglily's post on difficult books, books she doesn't finish because they just weren't working for her. I'm going to steal her idea and talk about my own examples. She's talking about books that she puts aside not because they are bad -- an entirely separate category, I imagine, with its own list -- but because she's not ready for them for one reason or another. As an obsessive book-finisher, I don't give up on many books, preferring to struggle on and suffer until the bitter end. But occasionally it happens, and then it rankles a bit. I feel challenged. I may have lost that round, but I'm coming back, one day when I'm stronger.

Bloglily mentions Henry James's novel The Ambassadors, which is top on my list of unfinished books. I tried this book a few years ago, and just couldn't for the life of me figure out what was going on. I looked around for some help on the internet and found a little bit, but I got annoyed that I needed a plot summary to keep going, and couldn't get it on my own, and I said forget it. I did make it through The Wings of the Dove, another late James novel, with much sweat and perserverance, so I think I can get The Ambassadors; I just need the right conditions -- a fairly calm, quiet, unstressful couple of weeks during which I can spend the time to get a handle on the story. Maybe, also, I need to learn something about reading slowly and about living with a little uncertainty. Maybe Proust will help me with that stuff.

More common for me, however, are those books that I've read twice, and come to like the second time around, when the first time I didn't. Something about those books brought me back again, even after an initial bad response. Pale Fire is a good example; I had to read the book for a college class, and it left me kind of cold. I re-read it a few years later, and changed my mind entirely. There was something about the language of that novel, the excitement and intensity of the commentary that came after the opening poem, the playfulness of it all that I just couldn't appreciate the first time, and came to love the second. I needed to learn something about the pleasures of experimentation with form and language, I think.

I had a similar experience with Don Delillo's White Noise, which also left me cold at first. I'm not sure why I read it again, except perhaps because so many people loved it that I wondered what I had missed. When I re-read it, I finally got it -- the humor and the social satire. Maybe I needed to learn how to read the type of book that doesn't necessarily work to create emotionally-vibrant, psychologically-realistic characters of the sort I'm usually drawn to. I needed to learn how to read and appreciate satire. I think that's true about me -- I don't always respond well to satire, preferring warmer, intimate reads that take me into the heart of a character rather than books that focus on the failings of people and of society from a more exterior point of view.

Thinking along these lines, maybe I should read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann once again. I read it a year or two ago, and found it okay in places, downright boring in others. I'm guessing this is because of a flaw in me and not in the book. Maybe if I take another look at it again a few years from now, I'll find its highly philosophical meanderings and its very slow pace intriguing and absorbing.

At any rate, many thanks to Bloglily for writing a thought-provoking post. I like the idea of giving certain novels a second chance -- and giving myself one too.

Monday, September 18, 2006

My century

On my last century (by "century" I mean a 100-mile bike ride -- no, this isn't a post on my last 100 years of life or a report on how the 21st century is going for me), I actually only rode 98 miles. The course wasn't quite as long as they said it was. I really don't like planning on riding 100 miles and only getting to 98 -- it's not quite the same as 100 is it? But as it was raining that day, and I'd been riding in the rain for 4 hours or so, I left it at 98. Today, however, when I got near the end and found I'd only rode 95 miles, I turned off the course to add some miles before heading to the car, in hopes of reaching 100. And then I did a few laps around the parking lot to make sure my bike computer reached the magic number, which it eventually did. So, yay! A real century!

Unfortunately, when I got back to the car, I found out that the Hobgoblin hadn't had a good ride. I won't describe that, as he has written about it, but rest assured that no crashes were involved, and he and his bike are doing okay.

As for me, I set out on my own, fully expecting to ride by myself the entire time, but somehow I fell in with this guy around mile 10 or so, and we rode the rest of the way together. It was nice to have a partner; often I don't find anyone who rides at my pace, but this guy did, and we talked off and on, which made the time livelier. And when I got a flat tire, he helped me change it. While I can certainly change a tire all on my own (I'd be highly embarrassed if I couldn't!), I'm not that fast, so I'll let someone faster help me out, so we can get back on the bikes sooner. After that, I had no troubles whatsoever. It was a beautiful day, sunny and in the 70s, maybe hitting 80, I'm not sure, and I realized that since it's probably the nicest day we'll see for a while, it was a very good thing I could be outside for most of it.

Now I think I've reached the end of my riding season. A century is a good way to end, a culmination of hours of training, a big event that requires a lot of effort and feels like a worthy accomplishment.

But don't think this means I'll be off my bike until spring -- oh, no! It means I'll be off my bike for a few weeks. My races begin in March, which means I'd like to start my serious race training in December to be ready for the March races, and I need to do 1 or 2 months of preparatory riding before serious training, which pushes things back to October. I have grand plans for training and what I'll accomplish at the races next year, although I realize that it's easy to make training plans for January and February when it's only September and still in the 70s outside and I've forgotten what it feels like to ride when it's in the 20s and snowy. This year I won't be wimpy about cold weather training, I'm sure of it!

We shall see.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A reading and riding update

Today is my second century of the year. I kind of wish it were going to be rainy, so I could have an excuse to stay home and not ride, but, no, it's going to be a gorgeous day, so I'll be out riding for 6-7 hours. Once I'm out there it'll be fun, but sometimes it's hard to get myself up and out of the house at 6:30 in the morning to go ride all day. I'll certainly let you know how it goes!

As for books, I now have my copy of George Sand's Indiana, so I'm ready to read for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion. I think I'll pick up another novel before I begin Sand's, but that's just to make sure I don't read it so soon I forget it before the posts are due. I'm looking forward to it a lot.

But I don't feel like my reading is going that well these days. I'm much busier than I was a few weeks ago, so I have less time, and am only slowly dragging myself through books that I thought would go much faster. Dracula should be a fast read, but it's not when I only get through 20-30 pages a day. I'm on schedule with Proust, at about 50 pages a week, but my other books are languishing on the shelves. It's at this point that reading multiple books gets to be a bit more difficult, as I don't have time to read regularly in each one, and I begin to feel disconnected from them. Not that I'm going to give it up, mind you, but I do feel that if I can get to the end of one or two of my current reads, I might not pick up new ones, to get the total number down. It's just that I'm in the middle of a bunch of long books, so there's no end in sight: I'm maybe 1/3 of the way through my Colette biography, 1/4 of the way through Burney's letters and journals, and only 25 pages or so into Jane Kenyon's poems. And no where near the end of Proust.

I AM busy buying and mooching books though; my nice, neat to-be-read shelves are beginning to look a little less neat. In addition to Indiana, I've recently acquired The Great Mortality about the plague, and The Heptameron. I have The Places In Between, a travel book by Rory Stewart about walking through Afghanistan, W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, and Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time on the way to me through Bookmooch. In times when I can't read much, buying (or mooching) books is a decent substitute.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

More footnotes

I'm reading slowly these days, although fairly steadily; I'm maybe 1/3 of the way through Dracula, and finding some more funny footnotes, although nothing as good as the ones here. The editor gets pedantic about the ways the blood transfusions in Dracula are completely unrealistic, peppering the narrative with corrective comments. Here are a whole series of footnotes to a passage that's about a page long:

In real life the hugger-mugger blood transfusions that follow would almost certainly kill both donor and patient, since no effort is made by Van Helsing or Seward to match blood types, which, in any event, they could not have known about until nearly three decades later. For those living at the end of the twentieth century, in the age of AIDS, this can be an especially poignant scene.

Veins are never empty. They are full of serum plus red blood cells.

The brightest blood is dilute, anemic blood. On the other hand, adequate normal blood is dark.

Stoker lays the groundwork for the erotic meaning of the blood transactions that are to come.

Narcotics are for pain; narcoleptic drugs and hypnotics are for sleep.

Fibrin is the clotting material in blood.

Did he transfuse the blood directly or use a receptacle?

If the loss of blood was telling on Arthur, it would be because he had given Lucy more than two pints of his own blood. The healthy adult human body has four or five quarts of blood flowing in it. Modern bloodbank practice is to limit blood donations to one pint at prescribed intervals.

It makes its own story, doesn't it? It IS rather Pale Fire-like.

This footnote made me laugh out loud; to understand its humor, you have to remember that there are no llamas or monkeys in the book (as least as far as I know -- although other animals are important), and military bands make no appearance whatsoever:

The Zoological Gardens, in the northwest corner of Regent's Park, were open daily from 9:00 A.M. to sunset. Admission was (in Stoker's time) one shilling, except on Monday, when it was sixpence. Children were half price. In a more God-fearing age than ours, the zoo was closed on Sunday.

On summer Saturdays at 4:00 P.M. there was a military band concert at the zoo.

Visitors were cautioned not to get too close to the llamas "on account of [their] unpleasant expectorating propensities." The unpleasant odor of the monkey house was "judiciously disguised by numerous plants and flowers."

Readers of Dracula will want to know that unaccountably the zoo's bats were kept in the monkey house.

I love the "God-fearing age" detail and I do wonder, I really wonder, why the editor thought expectorating llamas and smelly monkeys were necessary to mention. And okay, there IS a bat in the book, a very important one, but why I'd want to know that the zoo's bats were kept with monkeys I'm not sure.

And finally, another reassurance that our editor is doing his research. Here's a passage from the novel:

We went round to the back of the house, where there was a kitchen window. The Professor took a small surgical saw from his case, and handing it to me, pointed to the iron bars which guarded the window. I attacked them at once and had very soon cut through three of them.

Here's the footnote:

An unlikely story. An energetic undergraduate, using a modern high carbon steel surgical saw against an iron strap one eighth of an inch thick, was able to cut one-fourth of an inch into the strap in half an hour. Assuming that Seward was cutting into bars of modest thickness, three quarters of an inch per bar, the task of cutting three such bars should have taken five hours. This is to say nothing about the condition of the surgical saw which, in the modern experiment, was rendered nearly useless for iron bars and absolutely useless for surgery.

On the other hand, Seward was desperate.

So how's that for active, experiential learning?

Oh, and I do like Dracula itself, very much. One day I'll post on it. It's just that the footnotes are so ... great.

Friday, September 15, 2006

On being a litblogger (or bookblogger?)

Courtney has a post on Richard Russo's Empire Falls, which has some great thoughts about the book, but also some interesting musings on what it's like to write about books and some ambivalence about claiming the title "litblogger." She talks about finding it painful to write about books unless she is "absolutely burning up with motivation to do so" and connects that pain to years of writing about books for classes. (Courtney -- forgive me if I've described your post inaccurately.) As a side note, I think it's a real shame that people leave literature classes associating writing about books with pain, and as someone who occasionally makes students write about books, I'd love to know how to keep that from happening. I suppose when we're talking about "making" students writing about books, a certain amount of pain might be unavoidable. But what I'm really interested in are the connections -- or lack of connections -- between what it's like to write about books on my blog and what it's like to write about books for class or for other scholarly purposes.

If I thought of this blog as a place to prepare for scholarly writing, I probably would have quit the blog quite a while ago. And if I thought of the blog as a place to analyze books -- you know, to be thorough and careful about it, to be responsible and smart and to write real reviews and give "readings" -- I wouldn't be here. All that's anxiety-inducing. What's great about the blog is that I get to write about books in a way that's purely fun. I often find myself writing about a book I've finished, and realizing that while I've got more I could say, I'm getting tired, and I'm going to wrap things up, because, you know what? -- this isn't for class or for a book review or for anybody but me, so if I don't say everything I have to say about a book, so be it. And while I tell my students not to let quotations overwhelm their own voices, when I write about literature here, if I want to have 9/10 of my post be quotation, I can. I can let writers speak for me if I want to. I can be unabashedly personal in my responses to books; there are no restrictions on talking about what I liked or didn't like, and I don't even have to have a great reason for it.

It's interesting that if you look at some of the comments to Courtney's post, you'll find ambivalence about the term "litblogger." I wonder if "bookblogger" isn't a better term, partly to get away from the feeling that we're writing about literature, not just plain old books, and had therefore better do it well. It also interests me the way that creating a category begins to cause a bit of tension because of the way people then have to define themselves by it or against it, which can be fraught with anxiety. If I call myself a litblogger, I've made a claim that I'm setting out to write about literature and therefore implying that I've got some special insights or something to share. That requires confidence.

And you know what? After Courtney's ambivalence about the term litblogger and about writing about books, she's got a really great post on Russo's novel. It's exactly the sort of bookblogging I love: personal, thoughtful, connecting the book to an ongoing blog conversation (about plot), and offering great insights. To go from a gut feeling to analysis, without getting all serious and scholarly about it, is exactly what book blogs (or book posts, if the blog's not solely about books) do so well. And I don't mean to criticize those bookbloggers who get scholarly now and then -- not at all; I think that, for those who enjoy it, connecting the scholarly and the personal is another thing a blog is great for, and I'd like to think that blogs might change the way we think about scholarly writing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A whiny post, revised for less whining

Okay, so I just wrote a couple of paragraphs whining about being tired, and then I deleted them. Who wants to hear me whining, after all?

What I'll write about instead of whining is what it's like to write in my blog every day. I'm curious how people who blog decide how often to write and what inspires them to write when they do, and if they feel guilty for neglecting the blog for a while, and, if they write regularly or every day, if they long for a break at times.

For the most part, I love writing every day. I find writing a good way to start my evening -- to create a break between my work day and my evening (assuming I'm not doing some work in the evening, which isn't always the case). What I've been doing lately is writing something in the evening and then posting it in the morning. That way, I can look it over and make sure I didn't say anything ridiculous and maybe change a few things if I feel like it. I like waking up in the morning and having a brand new blog post waiting for me to publish it.

I worried when I started this that I'd run out of ideas. But mostly I don't. Mostly I have a couple ideas for blog posts lurking in my brain somewhere, waiting their turn to get out. Okay, today is maybe an exception; if I were still in a whiny mode, I'd write about being too tired to read much and get much out of it, too tired to concentrate and therefore too tired to keep the blogging ideas flowing. Hence this random post. But, really, almost always there's something in my reading that triggers the thought, "blog post!"

I do sometimes feel that because I've established the pattern of writing every day, I have to keep writing every day. The fun part of blogging is having people read me, and even though people who read me would understand if I don't post on a certain day, I'm sure, I do feel that if I don't post, something is missing, something is wrong, something is lacking out there and I have to fix it, people are checking my blog, and there's nothing new. I don't feel that this is a burden, and if I did, I'd do what litlove did, and declare that I'm going to follow some new pattern, one that gives me more flexibility.

Rather, it's a discipline that keeps me thinking critically about what I'm reading and how my cycling is going. And it's not a burdensome discipline, but a delightful one. It's kind of fun to think that there are a bunch of blog posts that I'll be writing in the coming weeks and months, and I have no idea what they are about, but they will get written, and I'll come up with an idea every day, reliably. Maybe that's what makes the discipline of writing every day so delightful: I'm showing myself again and again that I have stuff to say. Given my uncertainties about my interest in writing and my writing ability, that's a good lesson.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cycling and play

Litlove wrote a great post on creativity and play recently, and I've been thinking about how cycling is a form of play for me. In a way my cycling isn't a good example at all, since many aspects of it are not in the least "playful" -- the fact that I measure so much of what I do on the bike, that I'm training and I plan my training carefully, that on the bike I'm performing the same motions over and over again, and I'm frequently out on the same routes again and again. I have a bike computer that sits on my handlebars where I can read what my heart rate is at the moment, and my speed, and cadence, and a whole bunch of other things. There doesn't seem to be much room for the creativity of play -- it's more about repetitive motion and numbers. Litlove says that play is "open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules, mutually engaging (if in involves another)" and that isn't really what my riding is about.

Except in another sense that IS what it's about, because what happens with my mind isn't the same as what happens with my body. Even though my body is doing the same thing over and over again -- pushing the pedals, turning the handle bars -- my mind is free to wander anywhere. I spend a lot of hours on the bike, but I rarely find myself bored. Even riding in a century, when I'm on the bike for 6 or 7 hours, I don't get bored up until the very end when my mind starts to focus in on my aching body. When I'm riding I often get in what feels like a meditative space, where I'm not really thinking of anything at all. I may have a song in my head, I may occasionally think ahead to what I'm doing next in my day, but mostly I'm just ... thinking nothing. The very fact that my body is performing a repetitive motion helps free up my mind, I think; the constraint of being on the bike creates space to just exist in.

I think my mind accomplishes something while I'm out playing on rides; it doesn't solve problems, or come up with creative new ideas, or reach fabulous insights, but my mind does a lot of letting go -- letting go of worries, mostly. I almost always come back from a ride feeling much better, much happier, much less anxious, much more energetic.

Litlove says that play is "a state of creativity that is of necessity inconclusive." Riding my bike is in a sense all about conclusiveness: I'm out there in order to do the ride and get back home again, in the fastest time possible, or in order to gain a certain amount of strength and power. But in another sense, I'm out there and have nothing to do with my mind, except for the minimal need to pay attention to traffic and the road (actually, my mind tends to wander so much I can have trouble with this, and have been known to let my bike wander off into the grass), and am free to think or not to think, whatever I want. My mind has no goal or task to accomplish. Thinking of riding in these terms helps me understand why I love it so much.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


So you know how I thought the introduction to my edition of Dracula was funny? Well, the footnotes are funnier. I’m discovering that my edition isn’t a typically academic one; in fact, I think it’s geared more toward gothic/horror fans, although the book proclaims the editor as “the world’s premier Dracula scholar” (which reminds me of Little Miss Sunshine …).

The edition has commentary by “leading contemporary horror writers, including Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and many more” and this commentary is interspersed throughout the book, so that in between chapters I’m invited to step outside of the story and think about what some other writer has to say about it. Actually, though, I just ignore those parts. The book also has “Over 35 illustrations, including stunning new Dracula illustrations by Christopher Bing.” These are fun, but I was a bit perplexed to come across a drawing of Bram Stoker himself – again, it’s disconcerting to get caught up in a story and then get pulled out of it to consider what the author looks like. Why couldn’t they just let the story be, and keep all that other stuff to the introduction or an appendix?

But the footnotes are the most intrusive of all; they are frequent, with probably 3 or 4 a page on average and often lengthy. Many of them contain useful information – a LOT of information – on the history and culture of Transylvania, on vampire stories, on Stoker’s life and times. But many of them contain no useful information at all, and instead offer interpretations of the book, point out inconsistencies in Stoker’s storytelling, make judgments on the characters’ actions, and generally just get in the way – and make me laugh. The book mentions the dish “paprika hendl,” and in the footnotes we get a recipe. The novel says that the driver “cracked his big whip over four small horses, which ran abreast,” and the footnote tells us “In no Dracula film yet made has anyone depicted the horses harnessed in this way.”

Dracula says, “I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may,” and the editor muses, “A surprisingly melancholy passage. Is Dracula lonely? Why does he want Harker there? Is he really testing his English, or his social skills, as he claims?” And what are these footnotes – attempts at creating a reader’s guide, complete with discussion questions? Harker considers escaping from Dracula’s castle, saying, “I shall try to scale the castle wall farther than I have yet attempted. I shall take some of the gold with me lest I want it later,” and the editor gets moralistic: “A pretty lame excuse for stealing Dracula’s gold.”

But the best footnote of all is yet to come (and I’ve only read about 60 pages! Hundreds left to go!). First, the text: this is the scene where Harker is first attacked by the three mysterious vampire women hanging out in Dracula’s castle (and the text itself is pretty funny, if you read it in the right way):

The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck….

Here’s the accompanying footnote:

I have tried, calmly as well as passionately, to reproduce this churning sound with my tongue but without success. It may be a noise that only a passionate vampire can make.

I’m glad to know this editor is doing his research!

It would be better to read a less intrusive edition for my first time through the book, but I have to admit that the editorial apparatus is adding an entirely unexpected level of pleasure to my reading.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

Yesterday I wrote about the odd introduction to my edition of Dracula; today I read another introduction, this time to Proust's In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, written by James Grieve, the volume's translator and editor. This introduction was a little more traditional and less amusing than the Dracula introduction, but it had some odd moments too. Grieve tells us in the first paragraph that "Inclined to see this volume as a 'listless interlude,' Proust was surprised that 'everyone's reading it.'" Well, that's going to get readers excited about the book, isn't it? I'm guessing that the book won't feel like a "listless interlude" -- the first ten pages certainly don't feel that way, which is what I've read so far -- but I do wonder what made Proust see it that way.

But much odder is Grieve's rather-too-intense focus on Proust's shortcomings as a storyteller. In a short introduction, about 8 pages, he spends 3 or 4 describing Proust's inconsistencies and carelessness with detail. Part of the point, I think, is to discuss the troubles a translator faces when trying to figure out whether to correct an obvious and glaring error or to leave it there. Here is a passage on Proust's weaknesses:

Among the great novelists, as a bungler of basics Proust has no equal, save perhaps Henry James ... [James] seems unskilled in introducing his characters to his reader, and in enabling characters to converse. In similar things, Proust too seems incompetent, or perhaps an improviser ... His composition was not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even. He can make heavy weather of simple movements: characters get stood roughly into position so that the next demonstration may take place; action must be performed perfunctorily, so that protracted analysis of it may ensue; the narrator seems to say farewell to Elstir at his front door, yet two pages later is walking him home. Proust shows, it has been said, "utter nonchalance" about "loss of fictional verisimilitude."
Now it makes perfect sense to me than an introduction-writer might point out some of the author's flaws, but Grieve emphasizes them too much I think. After the above passage, he proceeds to offer pages of Proust's errors and lapses and inconsistencies, things that could have been left to the footnotes. So maybe Grieve doesn't need to work to convince us that Proust is great -- we already know he is -- but on the other hand he doesn't need to work so hard to convince us that Proust is sloppy!

But when Grieve writes about Proust's strengths, he does so very well. I like this explanatory passage:

Proust was intermittently unsure whether he was writing an essay or a novel. Here is a novel written by a critic and literary theorist, both a novel in the form of an essay and an essay on the novel. Proust must not only show but tell, tell rather than show, tell at the expense of showing; he must make the reader, who may wish only to revel in the fiction, admit the truthfulness of its fictionality.

This sounds exactly like the kind of book I like (although I like more traditional sorts of novels too -- very much so), with its mix of essayistic and storytelling modes, and it helps me understand what Proust is up to -- telling a story and meditating on stories both. And this passage might make you want to read the novel, although then again it might just depress you. I liked it anyway:

Proust's real strengths lie in his analysis of the ordinary, his close acquaintance with feelings, the pessimism of his examination of consciousness, his diagnosis of the unreliability of relationships and the incoherence of personality, his attentiveness to the bleak truths he has to tell of time, of its unrelenting wear and tear, its indifferent outlasting of all human endeavor, its gradual annulment of our dearest joys and even our cruelest sorrows, voiding them of all that once made them ours. Life, as Proust tells it, is disappointment and loss -- loss of time, as his title says, and loss of youth of course; loss of freshness of vision, of belief, of the semblance it once gave to the world; and loss of self, a loss against which we have only one safeguard, and that unsure: memory.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Some pictures

You know how I said I was going to pull out all my to-be-read books and put them on separate shelves? Well, here they are. It doesn't look like that many, but it would take me about a year to read them all. At least.

And if you are at all interested in where it is I do most of my reading, here's a picture. It's where I do my blogging too; you can see my laptop on the footrest.


I've begun reading Dracula and am discovering how closely it adheres to the gothic style, particularly that of Ann Radcliffe, two books of whose I've read, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian. You have the journey south and east across Europe, complete with stereotypes of superstitious Catholics, exotically-dressed locals, threatening wild beasts, and dangerous climbs over rocky crags. You have the lengthy descriptions of nature, which is both beautiful and threatening -- although I should say it's sublime, to use the appropriate aesthetic term. You have the ever-increasing chaos and uncertainty the further from England the traveler ventures. It's all quite familiar to this avid-eighteenth-century novel reader, except for the trains, but they fit into the pattern as well: "It seems to me the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?" We have a punctual, time-table-driven, proper Englishman -- this part strikes me as the Victorian contribution to the eighteenth-century tradition -- traveling to the "exotic" east.

The introduction to the novel amused me; the editor gives a brief history of gothic novels and vampire stories, and he's got some rather strong opinions on things that he's not afraid to share (I've got The Essential Dracula, subtitled The Definitive Annotated Edition of Bram Stoker's Classic Novel). On The Castle of Otranto, he says:

I am myself fond of Otranto without being either moved or surprised by it. It seems precisely the sort of novel a neurasthenic antiquarian with bad dreams and plenty of time on his hands would write in two months time "without knowing in the least what [he] intended to say or to relate."

He admires Radcliffe somewhat more:

With Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), we have the first fully realized Gothic romance in the history of the genre. Despite its sometimes endless descriptions of places to which its author had never been; despite lapses into fifth-rate poetry; despite even its author's insistence on demystifying her first-rate mysteries, the work has a compelling fascination that commands respect.

High praise, yes? His description of Matthew Lewis's The Monk strikes me as about right:

Lewis, at nineteen, as Walpole did at forty-seven, wrote his book at top speed, finishing it in the space of ten weeks. The Monk is a work of wonderful adolescent gusto. The young Lewis intensely enjoyed the lustful and violent extravagances of his villain, Ambrosio, and devoted himself to giving them to us in every macabre and delicious detail.

He does not at all like John Polidori's The Vampyre:

The Vampyre is a work almost without merit, having neither memorable characters, a plot worth pursuing, nor any noticeable style,

but he likes another vampire tale, Thomas Presket Prest's Varney the Vampyre a bit better:

Varney the Vampyre (1847), a work that has no literary pretensions, is for that reason much more fun to read. The book is an enthusiastic potboiler whose energy almost never flags.

I wouldn't take this editor's judgments too seriously, but he does capture the feeling of a lot of these books, which, with the possible exception of Radcliffe, are more about having a lot of fun than taking care with craft. And there's something wonderful about writing a novel solely in order to have some fun, I'd say.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Swann's Way

Cross-posted at Involuntary Memory

So I’ve now finished the first volume of Proust’s novel (and I’m counting each volume as a separate book!). It’s taken me about two months to read the entire thing; I’ve been reading in small chunks of about 10 pages or so, and read about 50 pages a week. For me, that’s the perfect way to read it; regularly enough to keep the story and ideas fresh in my mind, but at a slow enough pace to absorb it and to keep from feeling bogged down. This is most definitely not a book to rush.

And I’ve found it so very rewarding. Proust’s sentences are beautiful, long and digressive and convoluted, but they do yield their meaning, even if I have to read them a couple of times and turn the pages back and forth and back and forth to piece everything together. The book has sections that read quickly as well, particularly in the long middle section that tells the story of Swann and Odette. Here I found myself getting caught up in the story and the pages flew by. But best of all are Proust’s insights into consciousness, into what it’s like to be a young boy, for example, a very intense, intelligent, yearning young boy. We see him as both a little ridiculous – one of the things I liked was how I could imagine exactly why his parents found him exasperating – and as completely sympathetic and awe-inspiring and wonderful. His longing for his mother, and later for Gilberte, is moving; we know that such an intense, emotional child is bound to experience much struggle and pain.

This volume does have a carefully-wrought structure, although one entirely of Proust’s own devising; we begin with the unnamed narrator and a story of longing, and we end with that same narrator, a little older, longing still. All through the novel, Proust explores the way the mind mediates our experiences, shaping them through memory or desire; he considers how art affects his characters – the crucial role music and painting play in Swann’s love affair with Odette, for example. The novel is very much about reading; we learn a little about the narrator’s reading habits and desires in the first section, but also characters attempt to read one another, Swann desperately trying to understand Odette, the narrator reading much into everything his mother says, and then at the end turning the same attention toward Gilberte. The book trains readers to pay close attention, to their own minds and to other people and to the world. It contains some of most beautiful, detailed descriptions of nature I’ve read.

And the novel’s length strikes me as necessary, and not only because Proust needs the length to say what he wants to say about his characters and his ideas; there is something about living with this book for a long time, in much the same way that in reading Clarissa we come to feel like she is a companion, that we live with her, that we know her and she is a part of our lives. In Proust, we spend many, many hours luxuriating in the complexity of the mind and of emotion. We are forced – if we read carefully – to experience things slowly and to pay attention, to dig deeply into life.

And the way the narrative moves around in time, from the narrator as an older man describing himself as he is now, to the narrator telling stories from his childhood, to the narrator telling Swann’s story which took place before he was born, forces us to consider how our experience of time differs from “regular” clock time. In our minds, we move through time, back and forth, from past to present to future, easily and quickly. Proust’s central theme is memory, that capacity that holds us together and gives us a coherent identity. Except that our memories are not ours to control. A coherent identity may be an illusion, one fostered by memory, our ability to hold together disparate chunks of time, and undermined by memory too, since we can remember and forget involuntarily.

I’m looking forward to the other volumes; I’m curious about what Proust does with plot, oddly enough, perhaps. What will happen to these characters? Or will we even stay with these characters, or move on to others? But most of all, I’m looking forward to the company of Proust’s prose and his mind.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Thoughts on books

With that generic post title, I can write about anything! I'm finding myself with a whole lot of little ideas on what to write here and can't decide what to focus on, so I'll write a little about a lot of stuff.

First of all, while I won't tell you you must read Alison Lurie because I don't believe in telling people they have to read things (um ... unless you're a student in my class that is -- in that case, there'll be a quiz), I think it would be great if more people read her. I finished The War Between the Tates last night and loved it. It's smart, extremely well-written, clever and satirical, but also warm in a way many satirical novels are not. I like reading academic satires now and then, and this book would certainly qualify as one, but I do sometimes find them rather cold and brittle. Give me some emotional warmth, and I'm happy, and I found it here.

I've discovered a number of writers recently whom I've come to love -- writers that are new to me, although not necessarily to others -- and I'm interested that they are women: Rebecca West, Colette, Alison Lurie, Elizabeth Taylor, maybe Anne Tyler (I liked her latest book a lot, but I'm not sure I'm inspired to go read more). I've sensed that when I think of "great" writers of recent times, let's say the last 100 years, I tend to think of more male writers than female; maybe I've picked up biases from the educational systems I've gone through, or maybe it's that male authors are written about and reviewed more often than female writers. Well, I know the latter is true; maybe, my point is, I've picked up a bias from the media as well as from my education. And now I'm poised to read Margaret Atwood for the first time (Alias Grace, although Dracula will come first), so maybe I'll find another woman writer to love. And the poets -- yes -- I'd add Jane Kenyon, Jane Hirschfield, and Mary Oliver to my list of recently-discovered women writers whom I've come to love. The friend of mind who loves Anita Brookner was wondering why she hadn't heard of Brookner before, and surely it has something to do with the lack of serious attention paid to women writers -- still.

But at any rate -- Alias Grace just arrived in the mail through Book Mooch, and I've got a rather embarrassingly large number of books still to come. I've sent out two books to people, and have received two and am waiting on five more. I've accumulated points (which is what you use to request books from others) by adding books to my Book Mooch list (1/10 of a point for each book), and by mailing a book to Canada, which earned me a whole three points instead of the usual one. I justify my greed by reminding myself that people like to get books mooched from them because they can get rid of what they don't want and use the points they earn to get ones they do. I eagerly await emails from people saying they want books of mine. So I tell myself I'm making people happy when I ask them to mail me books. It's true, I'm sure!

So here's what I'm waiting on: Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Marguerite Navarre's The Heptameron (in the style of The Decameron but written by a woman), Mythologies by Roland Barthes (this one I can justify because the Hobgoblin wants it), Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine (I like this guy a lot, and I'm not entirely sure why), and John Kelly's The Great Mortality, the book on the plague. I'm not sure why a book on the plague fascinates me so much, but it does.

And I finished the first volume of Proust. I loved it. I'll have to write more on it later -- that surely deserves its own post, not a brief mention in this random one.

One other thing: I'm considering moving my to-be-read books to their own separate shelf, something I've never done before. I've got some space on my bookshelves upstairs in my study where I do most of my reading that would work nicely. This would please and appease my obsessive, hyper-organized self (another way to sort things!), and it would have another benefit: I'll put the books on the shelf across the room from me, which, since it's not a very big room, I'll be able to see quite clearly. That way, the books I own that I haven't read will be before me at all times, tempting me (hopefully) to read them next instead of rushing off to the bookstore to buy more books.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Colette and athleticism

One of the things that intrigues me about Colette is her interest in exercise and athleticism; I'm trying to figure out as I read her biography to what extent she's pioneer in this way. I don't know all that much about the history of women and athleticism, and I'd love to find out more. Here's what Colette's biographer says about it:

Colette was not the first woman of the century to work out, but she was one of the first amateurs. She had just turned thirty, and she had a morbid fear of succombing to the matronly flaccidity that was the fate of the average middle-aged woman of that era. In the process of becoming fit, she discovered that exercise strengthens one's morale. "O molle ardeur de la femme amoureuse" --- O mushy ardor of the woman in love! --- she exclaims. In the gym, she was battling that mollesse, and acquiring a "modern" body: hard, supple, and, from the perspective of her era, androgynous. She was also, consciously or not, training herself for the profession she would take up when her marriage ended. Colette had understood, precociously, that the true beauty of a woman's muscles is identical with their purpose, and that's self-support.

It's interesting (and probably typical) the way Colette seems to combine admirable and questionable motives for working out: she does it to conform to a cultural image of beauty but also to begin to become independent. I like very much what Thurman says about the beauty of a woman's muscles being about self-support.

Here's another passage, this one about the dancer Isadora Duncan:

Despite the pride and pleasure she took in her discipline [exercise], Colette wasn't deluded about the extent to which a contemporary woman might throw off her fetters ... she writes of [Duncan's] "naive person," and what was specifically naive to Colette was the idealism of her message. It didn't escape her that the women who had come to cheer this "little naked creature in her veils" were corseted from their armpits to their knees, absurdly hatted, slaves to fashion, "heroic and bound." "I muse on how peculiar women are, watching all these ladies who applaud Isadora Duncan ... let us not fool ourselves! They acclaim her but they don't envy her. They salute her at a distance, and they contemplate her, but as an escapee -- not as a liberator."

If Colette dreamed of escape, she never underestimated the difficulties posed to women by their desire to remain bound. "Reflecting on it later, it has seemed to me that I was exercising my body in the way that those prisoners who aren't concretely planning a breakout still braid a sheet, sew gold pieces into a lining, and hide chocolate under their mattresses." Colette's gymnastics were flexing a will that aspired to, but wasn't yet fit for, the rigors of freedom.

So in Colette's time and place, strong athletic women like Duncan were admired but not emulated. This makes Colette's own physical ambitions that much more interesting -- she would be someone who would both admire and emulate, gaining strength and turning into a performer herself later on. I like the way she is practicing freedom from the constraints of the patriarchy, even though she can't escape them yet, through physical exertion.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Books, bikes, and numbers

I'm interested in the ways people keep track of their reading, or don't; in the comments to yesterday's post, people said some interesting things about the benefits and drawbacks of lists. Yesterday I mentioned the range of books I'll probably end up reading this year, but the truth is, this is the first year I've kept track of my reading, so I have no idea how representative my number of 50-60 books is of my typical reading pattern. And it's reading blogs that gave me the idea; seeing the lists of books read in people's sidebars made me want a list of my own. That, and I don't always remember accurately how long ago I read something, and now I have a way of checking.

This is the good thing for me about lists -- to jog my memory -- and it's a good thing about the blog itself, where not only can I look up what I read, but what I thought about it. I wish I had a better memory, but I'm better off acknowledging I don't, and therefore keeping a good record.

But the bad thing about list-making and book-counting is that it feeds my obsessive, number-crunching, year-to-year comparing, self-critical, and worried-about-stupid-things-all-the-time side. I'd like to think that it doesn't matter how many books I read in a year or how long it takes me to read them, or how many pages I can read an hour. Actually, I do think it doesn't matter -- what matters is what I make of my reading and how much pleasure I get from it. I really do believe that. Well, one part of me does, the sensible, reasonable part. But the other part of me, equally strong, does care about numbers and loves making comparisons and would wonder why, if one year I read 60 books, another year I'd only read 40. When this side of me speaks, it says "keep track!" When my sensible, reasonable side speaks, it says "don't!" So which side of me will win out? Probably the number-cruncher side. The blog, in spite of all its wonderful qualities, does encourage the number-crunching side of me. It makes it so much easier to keep lists and count books. And I do like math. I like numbers and statistics. I find them fun.

Bettybetty wanted to know if this worry about reading speed is a carry-over from cycling. In one sense, no; I'm not really worried about my reading speed; I can accept my slow pace with a book when I'm less likely to accept it on the bike. But in another sense, the interest in numbers is similar in both areas. There is so much I can count with my bike computer/heart rate monitor: miles ridden on each ride, miles ridden this month, miles ridden this year, average speed, maximum speed, average heart rate, maximum heart rate, average cadence, maximum cadence, calories burned, time spent in target heart rate zones, etc. etc. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. I discovered a website this year where I can keep track of these things: Bike Journal. Here, I can enter all my information, and it'll keep track of it and add up my monthly and yearly numbers.

This is a wonderful thing. But it's all about codifying an experience that is wonderful for all sorts of non-codified ways. Numbers are great for serious training, so there's no way I'm giving them up, but I can get too obsessed with them, and wonder, for example, why I rode slower today than yesterday. Why is my average speed in August slower than it was in July? Ugh. It's impossible, thank God, to keep stats about reading in the same way I keep them about riding, but the counting impulse is still there.

Somehow I have to find a way to balance my sometimes unbalanced self.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reading time

Do you consider yourself a slow or a fast reader? I'd call myself a slow one. Obviously, such things are relative, but I've found that the Hobgoblin not only reads more books over the course of a year than I do, but that he seems to be able to get to the bottom of the page faster during those few times we've shared a magazine or newspaper. And I read book bloggers who seem to get through books awfully quickly, posting book reviews with admirable frequency. I think I'm slow in terms of the speed with which I process words and sentences, and if I read a decent number of books a year -- this year I'll probably read between 50 and 60 -- it's because I have a lot of time for reading, or, rather, I make a lot of time. The Hobgoblin and I just had a conversation about the things we could do if we didn't read so much -- things like keeping the house clean, the lawn neat, the pool free from algae (or, better yet, we'd have time to get rid of the stupid thing and do something better with the yard) -- a list which is not particularly inspiring. We'll continue to opt for the reading time.

I'm in awe of those who can regularly read a book in a day or two, who can sit down for a couple of hours and get through hundreds of pages. I must have read a book in a day at some point in my life, but I can't remember when, and the book must have been quite short. I can read things fast if I make myself -- student papers are one example of reading material I'll rip through, eager to get to the end -- but generally I'm happy to linger over words and sentences, re-read things, pause frequently and look up to consider a point, and let my mind wander.

Even more significant for me, though, is that I can't seem to take in that much of a story in one sitting before I begin to get a bit anxious, feeling like I need a break. I need a lot of time to process what I'm reading, I think. If I read too much of a novel in one day, say more than 70-80 pages, or even less, depending on the novel, I feel as though I'm not really appreciating it, not really absorbing it. It's like I can only comprehend a certain amount of action or information, or a certain number of plot events or character revelations before I begin to feel overloaded. And with nonfiction, it's even worse -- if I'm reading something full of facts and ideas I'd like to remember, I need even more time to process it -- to think about it and make sense of it before I go on to the next thing.

Reading multiple books helps me with this problem -- if it is a problem; if I feel like I've read enough of Proust, I can turn to my biography of Colette, or my book of poetry, or whatever else, and I won't feel overwhelmed. I think this has less to do with the total number of hours of reading in a day than with the amount of any one book I can take in at a time, although I can't hop from book to book for all that terribly long either -- I'll get restless.

So -- while I'd love to be able to read more books than I do, I'd really, really love it, I'm not sure I could, even if I had more hours available in the day. I'd lose something by trying to cram too much in. I think that if I tried to read more than, say, 60 books a year, I'd have to force myself to read less well. I love the idea of days and weeks with not much else to do but read (and ride my bike), but the reality is that I'd be unhappy. So I'm just going to have to pretend that I will have an unlimited number of years to read what I want to read, and therefore that my slow pace doesn't matter.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates

I've begun Alison Lurie's novel The War Between the Tates, and I'm finding it quite good. It's a family drama, and it's also an academic satire, although not a satire in the comic mode of Jane Smiley's Moo or Richard Russo's Straight Man. It has funny moments, but the predominating mood is serious. Brian Tate, the husband, is a political science professor who has dreamed of being an important political consultant, although he now knows he never will be. He begins an affair with a graduate student (we learn this early on -- no spoilers here) and the quality of his life plummets from there.

The novel begins with his wife Erica who has recently realized that she hates her two children, Jeffrey and Matilda. They have reached the sullen early-adolescent age, and have become unbearable. I like the way she is honest with herself about this feeling; while she's no child abandoner or neglecter, and while I'm left thinking that she must, deep down, feel loyal toward her children, the feeling of hatred penetrates fairly deeply. I felt conflicted as I read about this relationship because I was just such a sullen, unbearable, anger- and frustration-inducing adolescent myself. I understand completely why the children act as they do, and I understand completely why Erica hates them for it. If I ever have children, which is most definitely not in my future plans anywhere right now, I'm certain I'm going to have just such a sullen child myself, because I deserve it completely. So Erica is unhappy in many ways, and she is learning just how much of this is her husband's fault -- he's at fault for the affair, of course, but also for manipulating her and shutting off opportunities for her and generally being insufferable. This is a story of Erica beginning to take some control of her life.

I like Erica's character, and I also like the narrator's way of dealing with Brian, who is very much a jerk, but the narrator lets us see his thought processes and motivations in such a way that makes him understandable, if not likeable. And Brian's character offers some great opportunities for academic satire:

Teachers, especially university professors, often have an elective affinity with their subjects. Whether through original tropism, conscious effort, or merely long association, language instructors born in Missouri and Brooklyn look and act remarkably like Frenchmen and Italians; professors of economics resemble bankers; and musicologists are indistinguishable from musicians ...

These affinities also profoundly influence the functioning of the various Corinth University departments. They determine, for instance, which academic issues will take the longest to resolve and arouse the strongest feelings. Members of the Maths. Department tend to quarrel over the figures in their annual report, and members of the English department over its wording. In Psychology, analysis of the personality traits of candidates for promotion sometimes ends in ego-dystonic shouting; and the controversy over the new men's washroom in the Architecture Building (during which two professors who had not designed an actual building in twenty years came to blows) has already passed into University annals.

But the political science department is the worst:

Since every member of the Political Science department is in outward manner and inner fantasy an expert political strategist, every issue provokes public debate and private lobbying. Even when there is little at stake, eloquent speeches are made; wires are skillfully pulled and logs rolled out of simple enjoyment of the sport.
We get a wonderful description of a political science department meeting, which, as you can imagine, is excruciating.

I think this book is extremely well written; the novel is set during the Vietnam War, and the war, besides hovering in the background of the plot, becomes a metaphor for what is happening to the family:

Brian and Erica, like their friends, students, and colleagues, have spent considerable time trying to understand and halt the war in Vietnam. If he were to draw a parallel between it and the war now going on in his house, he would have unhesitatingly identified with the South Vietnamese. He would have said that the conflict, begun a year or so ago as a minor police action, intended only to preserve democratic government and maintain the status quo -- a preventive measure, really -- has escalated steadily and disastrously against his and Erica's wishes, and in spite of their earnest efforts to end it. For nearly two years, he would point out, the house on Jones Creek Road has been occupied territory. Jeffrey and Matilda have gradually taken it over, moving in troops and supplies, depleting natural resources, and destroying the local culture.

And Lurie goes on in this vein for another couple of pages. The cleverness of the writing doesn't distract from the family drama; rather, it provides some comic relief from a dark tale. I'm impressed with the way Lurie effortlessly places the story in the context of the war and of the feminist movement without any awkward exposition; it comes naturally through the characters' conversations and the narrator's descriptions of the family dynamics.

I've only read the first half of the book so far; I'll be sure to let you know how I like the second half.