— Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind
— Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind
Two more notes on what I’ve been doing since I last wrote in this blog.
1) I am an editor at LETTERS, a new literary journal published by Yale. We put out our first issue in the spring. There is some excellent stuff on there, especially the prose. The story by Mark Powell and the essay by Christian Wiman are worth your time.
I am also proud of a feature that I invented called “The Accursed Questions,” in which the journal asks established writers a series of baffling Dostoevskian questions. It is probably better just to click on it than to try to explain.
The journal also does a correspondence project between issues; again, clicking through will explain it better than I can.
2) In addition to wrangling fiction for the journal, I am still writing. My most recent publication was a short story in the South Florida Arts Journal. The site’s interface is a bit clunky, so here is a direct link to my piece. (I don’t like to do too much self-promotion here, but I have a special fondness for that story. It is one of the few things that I’ve written that has been able to produce laughter: it actually went over pretty well at a reading I did last month.)
Now back to what’s really important: other people’s books…
I haven’t used this blog in about two years. I am starting again.
I am not a person who likes to do things like this on the internet. I don’t have a Facebook, Twitter, Friendster, etc. I have spent about a year trying to convince my girlfriend to let me give up my phone. (My plan: we have only one phone between the two of us, and she takes all my calls.) This phone is an old Verizon flip-phone, I should say.
So why write things on the internet?
I started doing this in late 2010. I had graduated from college, and I was worried I was going to stop learning about books. I was still readings books, of course, but I no longer had anyone holding me accountable for them. I decided to hold myself accountable by writing a blog, posting and sometimes analyzing the best passages from whatever I was reading, and writing little summaries and reviews when I finished a book.
I was living in China at the time, and I kept the blog up more or less until I came back to the United States for graduate school. By that point, the blog didn’t have much of a purpose: graduate school was going to hold me accountable for learning about books.
Now graduate school is over, and I am back out in the real world. (Not China this time, but somewhere equally foreign, at least to this poor displaced Floridian—Brooklyn.) The blog will again keep me accountable.
As I’ve described it, this blog is mostly for my personal purposes. (I certainly don’t “reblog” things.) So why put it on the internet for people to see? Why not just write it in a little notebook and store it in my drawer at night?
1) If other people can see what I’m reading, sometimes they recommend me other good books. (Thanks, person who told me to read The Aspern Papers: James had been impenetrable to me before, but that book cracked him for me.)
2) If I imagine that people are actually reading—even if, as is likely, they are not—then I am more likely to write things down. It’s another way of holding myself accountable.
So that’s who I am and what I’m doing here. I hope that will be the last I talk about myself. Onto what really matters—books.
If you look back at some of my earlier posts, you’ll see that I read novels almost exclusively. But in my time away, I have developed an appreciation for certain kinds of nonfiction books. I had a revelatory experience reading Edward Gibbon, who showed me that historians can write like novelists.
Which does not mean “historical novels.” If you’ve read Gibbon, you know what I’m talking about: he is telling interesting stories, yes, but he can make pages of historical analysis read like a novel. In his hands, ideas become characters. For these kinds of writers, historical writing can be thrilling, penetrating, smooth, psychological—a good novel, in other words.
I am not well-read enough in contemporary history-writing to say that writers like Gibbon no longer exist. But if they do, I don’t know about them. (This is where recommendations are needed.) History seems to have gone to the history departments—to academia, where style goes to starve to death. The only vaguely comparable contemporary historian I know is Candice Millard. She writes at a potboiler pace (I tore though Destiny of the Republic in a single day), and most of the time her prose is sharp. But unfortunately, she has almost no interest in ideas or themes. For her, history is a well of interesting scenes and trivia, but unlike Gibbon, she never has anything to say. She has no interest but telling a good story, and to her credit, she does that well. But she is not Gibbon. She writes history as if it were a thriller; Gibbon writes it as if it were literature.
Unfortunately, finding historians like Gibbon means reading people who are already dead. But at least there are lots of good writers among them. One of these is Paul Hazard, whose Crisis of the European Mind I started reading a few days ago. But much more on Hazard in later posts (that is, after all, the point of this blog).
Surprising: Antonin Scalia, admirer of David Foster Wallace.
My girlfriend today suggested that I should start capitalizing on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies model—that is, nineteenth-century literature plus pop culture fad. My response was Fifty Shades of James:
“His pénis, his “pecker,” as it were, became, gradually, progressively, steeply, tumnescent and, soon enough, though perhaps not soon enough to sate the desire for the act which he longed to perform, began to begin to create a delicate swell within his cream-colored trousers and, subsequently, throbbed for her not less than a little…”
Start printing my money please!
— Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
— Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim
I’ve been out of the country for a few weeks, so I’ve only just come across 22-year-old Obama’s commentary on “The Waste Land.” Most of which we can just pass over in silence, since all its pretension and fluffiness make this almost 22 year old English major cringe in recognition. But let’s look more closely at one part:
Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.)
(Ugh, that preening “milieu.”)
Compare early 80s Obama to Terry Eagleton (from 1975’s Marxism and Literary Criticism):
…the agreed major writers of the twentieth century—Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence—are political conservatives who each had truck with fascism. Marxist criticism, rather than apologizing for that fact, explains it—sees that, in the absence of genuinely revolutionary art, only a radical conservatism, hostile like Marxism to the withered values of liberal bourgeois society, could produce the most significant literature.
Not only are the sentiments the same, but even have them phrased the same way—“liberal bourgeois,” etc. College Obama not only read some Marxist criticism, but sympathized with some of it. Which is not exactly remarkable, given that he was in college (and this was 1983, before the reactionary 80s had really quite set in).
Obviously he’s not a Marxist—he certainly hasn’t governed like one, or even like one of those “bourgeois liberals.” But can you imagine the shitstorm if conservatives were able to make this connection? It would be an unfair shitstorm, of course, but it does play into all the deranged conservative fears about him. We live in a country where a knowledge of Marx disqualifies one from public office—but fortunately, it’s this very ignorance that keeps conservatives from spotting the Marx in this letter (and making it into a talking point). It is, when you think about it, a weird, slightly sad kind of justice.