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Showing posts from August, 2009

The Man of the Hour

Apparently, there is a finite number of books one can expect to read in one's lifetime, provided that one lives to seventy or eighty. This makes reading seem entirely pointless. There isn't enough time to read every good book out there, or even the guilty pleasure books - and what about re-readings? And the fact that literature is constantly, endlessly being produced? "The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth" wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century; how much more true is this today?

I have found the solution to this dilemma. Being James Wood. Acknowledged as the best critic of his generation by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and others, Wood is which the Harvard Crimson writes "criticizes with purpose and insight." He writes essays, he writes books, writes book reviews, is on staff for the New Yorker and a professor at Harvard. I'm sure he travels. As a friend said, Wood can go anywhere - anywhere in the world. He …

Conversations at the Register

I sold a woman Machiavelli's Art of War today. Though a maths teacher, she had recently taken a seminar recently on Machiavelli and developed a fascination. I confessed that I had never read the Prince, and she said that she hadn't read it until very recently either.

"Isn't it modeled on Cesar Borgia?" I asked, remembering also that the familiar picture of Jesus was based on Cesare Borgia's handsome, degenerate face (learned from Gregory Maguire's Mirror Mirror).

She said that it was, and brightened a little. In a flurry of educating she told me the Prince was a treatise sent to Lorenzo de Medici as a job application, that she found Machiavelli realistic rather than cynical. "When he says 'armored'" she said enthusiastically, "he means prepared..." She compared 21st century North America to 15th century Italy, suggested that Obama had certainly read the Prince, and that it is as timely a read now as it was in it's original c…

I've Heard Proust Can Change Your Life

For the past month I've been reading Swann's Way, the first book in the seven volume cycle that makes up Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or the Remembrance of Things Past. Proust is a literary catch-word. If you toss a reference to Proust into a milieu, chances are your companions will either contest what you have (glibly) said, or agree for form's sake. A well-timed mention of this literateur elevates conversation, and endows one with the appearance of cosmopolitanism, erudition, and initiation into the Great Mysteries. (This is observation, not opinion.) Truthfully, I decided I must read Proust when Max Medina gave Lorelei Gilmore a copy of Swann's Way on Gilmore Girls. And I think Rory (my pace-setter, my bookly challenger)had already read it. The book has sat on my shelf for at least six months waiting for the exact hallowed moment when I felt sufficiently intelligent enough to read it. It seems that this was the fated week in which to finish Swa…

(Oh no)

A quote from wikipedia for the word bibliophilia:

"Bibliophilia is not to be confused with bibliomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving the collecting of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged, and in which the mere fact that an object is a book is sufficient for it to be collected or loved."

And bibliomania is
"...characterized by purchasing multiple copies of the same book and edition and the accumulation of the same book and edition and the accumulation of books beyond possible capacity of use or enjoyment..."

The School of Hard Knocks

It is my current hope to go to graduate school for English literature next year: a certain school in a certain place, both a goal and an insurmountable challenge. Having been out of college for a year already, and having graduated as a music major, I am rusty.

Trying to compensate, I googled “books every english major has read” but have had a difficult time finding a list that suggests what every (generalized) English major should have read by the time of (undergraduate) graduation. As a person who attended a high school whose meager syllabus prescribed the study of one novel, one play and four poems a year, and who could only scrape enough college literature credits for a minor, I feel woefully behind. Most American kids got a head start in AP English (seriously – who are those freaks who read Ulysses in high school?). American high schools may have their weaknesses, but a strong and ambitious push to read literature consistently is not one of them.

There are gaps, and I fear that wh…

From Airline #166, Seat 20 F

Aside from working out how many extra pairs of underwear you need, the hardest part of traveling - or perhaps the most enjoyable challenge - is what book (or books) to bring on the plane. Should they be fluffy beach reads? A pot-boiler? Something you were embarrassed to read in front of your flatmate? Or perhaps something you had always meant to read and now were forcing yourself to read in a small enclosed space surrounded by strangers, sustained only by diet Coke (spilled on shirt) and pretzels (nutritive content = 0)?

After making the trusty pro/con list, I brought with me a short story collection I'd meant to read for a while, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, and a book highly recommended by several co-workers, Helen De Witt's Last Samurai.

I read the O'Connor second, discovering why her reputation for an odd combination of grace and the grotesque is deserved. O'Connor's South is peopled with those who are backwards, squinting, freckled, …

Bulwer-Lytton Contestant

Read the worst sentence today, revealed to me by my coworker Stan, from Pat Conroy's new book, South of Broad. (Note: Have not read the rest of the book; it may be a literary success...)
It is on the first page of the novel and the narrator is discussing his loyalty to Charleston, South Carolina. Here is the sentence:

"I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen."

I have many questions about the aptness of comparing the love of place to "soft-tissued mollusks". My soul is probably Mesa-shaped or Rainforest-hardened. Yours is probably Butte-shaped.


Several weeks ago, I suddenly caught Bloomsbury fever. This happens, I think, from time to time for no apparent reason but random osmosis. It's like the weird fascination I have for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (and I know I'm not alone). Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia kept on sneaking up on me in lit-blog posts and newspaper reviews and on bookshelves. Eventually, succumbing, I checked it out of the library and began to read it on the bus I took to see Othello. I have experienced several books like this recently; it is as if there is a trap door that is suddenly opened and as one sits to read (or stands), one plunges suddenly down twenty-five levels and (in the manner of Dumbledore's pensieve) there is a smudging of colors and sounds and all that flows in and around your brain is Words. It sounds very dramatic, I know, but oh well.

Vanessa and Virginia is, as one might imagine, about those famously intelligent and talented sisters, the writer Virginia Woolf …

To Be Posted Up at Work

Yesterday, I bought a book by Clive Linklater entitled Reflections from a Bookshop Window and I opened it randomly to a page that made me laugh:

"The most surprising thing of all about secondhand bookselling is that anyone should want to do it in the first place. What sort of parents are they that encourage their offspring with the suggestion -
'Have you ever considered becoming a secondhand bookdealer when you grow up?'
Where are the schools that have secondhand bookselling on the list of careers that they recommend to their pupils?
Why become a bookdealer, when there is such a shortage of property speculators, television interviewers, media tycoons, prime ministers? (All of which are well paid, and none of which require any particular talents or qualifications.)
Why become a bookdealer, when, if the same techniques were employed selling secondhand cars, the rewards would be a thousand times greater?
And yet people do become bookdealers. For every bookdealer that plunges lemm…

A Day for Postcards

I love postcards. Inexpensive souveneirs, colorful, evocative, artistic, kitsch, memorable. You can send them. You can hoard them. You can find them by the box in antique shops and garage sales and bookstores and airports and museum gift shops. Finding postcards with messages written on the back is much like discovering inscriptions in old books; there is a sense of connectedness, of intimacy with strangers. There is dried ink, a real address, a real stamp, a real sliver of history.

I found this one in the Pioneer Square subterranean antique mall last week. The caption is "The King and Queen on their way to St. Paul's Cathedral for the Royal Silver Jubilee Service." (The date indicates King George V and his wife Mary of Teck, grand-parents of the current monarch Elizabeth II. This was the year before the King's death; he does look rather haggard. Apparently George V preferred to stay at home with his stamp collection rather than tour his Empire. In this postcard I ju…

Twilight in Forks, WA

I read in Publishers Weekly several weeks ago that an estimated 1 in every 7 books sold in 2008 was one of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight books, that this series may have saved the publishing industry in a particularly bleak year where the economy plummeted and discretionary spending on amusements like books shrank. I’m not sure whether to be impressed or appalled.

I have read the books, the last two read out loud with my roommate Kristin late at night with a cup of coffee, spending an enjoyable hour or two mocking and laughing and shamefully admitting we were having a good time. The fourth book, Breaking Dawn, was especially fun as it contained gory details of certain honeymoons, pregnancies, and birth (I won’t spoil it by telling you whose). And I have seen the movie; have gone to the midnight showing of the movie and indulged in an awkward and still enjoyable film experience – shared with hundreds of teenage girls and several reluctant boyfriends.

Now I have made the pilgrimage to Fork…