There’s a rhythm to this blog thing. Twice a week studio schedule means there will be projects to talk about, but they will naturally involve writing incessantly about me.
Nick Hornby-style book blurbs provide topical diversity, and a never depleting pile of subjects to write about. But there’s a catch: One has to finish the books in the pile. An unanticipated obstacle to finishing lots of books, then firing off witty blurbs about them, leaving aside the always tricky question of where the wit is to come from, is not finishing a lot of them. It’s not indolence, boredom born of crap books. I just like them too much.
My living room pile is as fulsome and alluring and edifying as it’s ever been. From printmaking to Shakespeare to Maggie Nelsen, it’s a cornucopia of choice and aspiration. My bed room pile, typically about indulgence and dreamy flights of fantasy with comics and soccer, history and literary essays, is a bower of unrestrained geekdom. An Emily Dickinson bio floats between both.
Half of them, with pride of place in the theoretically public pile in the LR, are half done. The rest, trapped in my BR torture chamber, are being nibbled to death. My mentor, Nick Hornby from the Believer’s Polysyllabic Spree column, is very decisive about the books he lists in his blurbs: he either loves them, and finishes them and their entertaining blurbs by deadline; or he decides ‘they’re not for me’. I’ve spurned books, yes, but mostly I’m good at choosing ones I’ll like. And don’t finish, fickle, besotted page-flipper. And I can’t write a post about books I haven’t finished, can I?
Books I Haven’t Finished
Part of it is, I have more time. Cool mornings without time clock deadlines, afternoons to browse bookstores and the Gonzalez branch library, or obscure web sites specializing in rarified exegeses. I like to think of them as rare treats, to be savored. So I save them for later, then pick up another intoxicating tome.
Also, I’m a general reader. And publishers and writers have our number now. From breezy, conversational sentences, thick with implication, to perfectly sized chapters or sections timed unerringly to a cup of coffee or glass of wine, it’s like they’ve read ME (are they reading this blog? They’d be the only ones). I can plow grumblingly through something addressed to academics, thinking, it’s good for me, then trundle it back to the library-off you go! But whisper sweet, declarative nothings in a soothing authorial voice, and it’s like you become a part of the furniture.
Why I haven’t Finished Them
Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd: I’ve been reading English History for years, heaven help me. On the one hand, it’s very seductive, the endless and obscure royal successions, and the incestuous relations with France, both literal and geographical/cultural. And while the genre has long understood that its audience is far larger than academia, the endless detail of ducal ambition and the twists and turns of fortunes in the shires often leads to an unhealthy fascination with the venal schemes of aristocracy, which defeats engaging narration.
Ackroyd keeps it pacy and readable by gliding lightly over the interminable venality of the upper crust, and stopping to dig deep into the lives in the lanes. There is not a lot of documentation about lower class lives, to be fair. But he’s hit on a way to make medieval history engaging- make it at least partly about us working stiffs. And he’s written a series of English histories, divided into eras, so there’s no reason to set this one aside.
Why I Set This One Aside
The English are continually chopping people up. Or sticking hot pokers up one another’s asses. It’s pleasant to take a break from that. Also, I’d finished the Saxons and Plantagenets, and had reached the Wars of the Roses ( Lancasters and Yorks), about which I’ve read extensively, so the time was right to take a break. I am very excited to get Ackroyd’s refreshing perspective on that, so I will be returning, however.
My Wars Are Laid Away In Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, Alfred Habegger: This poet is emblematic of my struggles with academic writing. A few years back, I drifted into the deep end with a book by Cynthia Griffin Wolf about Dickinson, replete with lots of close reading and oblique psychological interpretation. All (interesting) books address other books, to a certain extent, and it’s natural for an academic to pose innovative theories addressing the complex motivations of artists.
But Dickinson’s obscure life and homespun phrasing, ambiguous syntax and backyard infinities cry out for a commonsense guide for a general reader. I’m hoping this is it. It’s certainly effortless reading, and the amount of detail seems right. Unlike Wolf, the close reading has mostly been reserved for the years she actually wrote the poems, and Habegger has been critical of writers, notably Wolf, who read too much into poems written decades after formative years.
Why I Laid This One Away
I’d reached the very formative Mount Holyoke Academy years of her early adulthood, just prior to the beginning of her writing years, and I want to give it full attention. Some of the books go back to the library, or have just arrived in the door, bright and shiny, and this was always a book meant to brighten the Fall and Winter gloom or the quiet Summer late nights with a soft glow.
This is preciousness, I get that. I shouldn’t be precious in the studio, in conversation, or even in largely ignored blog posts ( especially in largely ignored blogs?). But books- I’mma go ahead and let myself be precious.
Dickinson, Apple TV: Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way at the get go: DO NOT let your children write their class essays based on this layered cocktail of magic realism, indie/hip hop music video, and Buzzfeed lifestyle porn, dressed up in designer calico. Our educational system is not set up to see the humor in this, and they will flunk. But this odd show is surprisingly sensitive to the issues surrounding ED’s most un-hip hop puritanical world, and that, in a way is very appropriate to Dickinson’s legacy. Once resigned to rustic nature writing, then elevated to late Romantic repressed striver, and now subject to all manner of academic fabulations, including Camille Paglia’s anti-academic Amherst’s Madame De Sade. So the boob tube is not the first to use a cypher who stayed in her room and wrote on scraps of paper as dress up doll. Sweet, mousy Emily as feminist, lesbian, dominatrix, and now, woke party girl. Don’t touch that dial!
Why I Touched That Dial
I watch a couple of episodes, then I return to the book. It’s like going back to class after a spring break acid trip. Because who really is to say what belongs in the syllabus? ED, on ‘poetic feet’ of unassigned, syntaxqueer phrasings, dead-legging her way, dashes dashing, through a dime package of academic ‘line packers’ and into the open field. Hoo-Rah! People say poetry is boring.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom: First, here’s more advice. DO NOT go into blogging if you want to appear smart. As in the famous aphorism, it is a perfect way to ‘remove all doubt’. Harold Bloom is actually one of the more general-reader-friendly academics. This book posits a thesis, indicated clearly in the subtitle and intro, that is provocative and interesting. Then develops it as a chronological survey of all of the Bard’s plays. It seems superficial to read it without going back to at least some of the actual source material, and my plan was to start with some of the plays I’d never actually seen. Taming of the Shrew amazingly being one. I searched Kanopy, and found a BBC version with John Cleese as Petruchio (!)
John Cleese, and British actors, and Shakespeare, and all British people, actually, and the Early Modern English language have thick, impenetrable accents and bizarre phrasings. I decided that flipping on the captioning on my TV would be wise. This was stupid.
Shakespeare is (not was) a master of witty dialog, mise-en-scene pacing and exposition. Early Shakespeare, when he may have been concerned about holding a raucous London audience (and here, possibly beholden to rigid BBC scheduling), is a machine gun spray of thickly accented, Elizabethan lingo. In the theatre, one trusts in the interpretive body dynamics of live actors, and ‘lets the early modern Elizabethan patois wash over you.’ Generally, by the end of the first act, you are doing fine. Here, my main instinct was to duck and cover.
The Bard is far too nimble of verse and quick witted for the BBC’s fat fingered character generator operators to keep up, and now I had two impenetrable Elizabethan scripts to follow, a good 5 seconds out of sync. Was I reading, or watching? Time to drop back and punt.
Why I Punted
Harold Bloom is very readable and his proposition, that Shakespeare invented what it is to be a modern human, is beguiling. But all interesting books address other books, and Bloom himself is clearly at the center of an academic power struggle between those who trust that canonical works traffic in universal truths, and those who insist that they are merely products of the prejudices of their eras, albeit, burnished by time and repeated readings. And Bloom very much does challenge the post structuralists directly at times. One can’t accuse him of not being transparent. It’s really hard to judge these subtleties of language, inflection and theatrical body language necessary to deriving meaning from a play when at the mercy of a character generator.
Traditionally, studying Shakespeare’s language is done by reading the scripts, and I’m sure that’s what Bloom has done. But for the general reader, what fun is that? It is after all, not the original intention. The play’s the thing.
So, possibly a later, more familiar play to begin with. I’ll finish Taming, and re-read the commentary by Bloom on it. But unless you’re someone living on academic grant money, watching Kate, and critiquing her feminist credentials, are two separate tasks.
The Age of Football: Soccer in the 21st Century, David Goldblatt: Goldblatt wrote the definitive history of the game, The Ball Is Round, and this is a sequel of sorts. Readers who have just discovered their passion for Man City or their grandfather’s Italian National Team, should be warned: world football goes back decades before the NFL was even paid attention too, and is of course, the world’s favorite game. Meaning, there are many many stories about football in many different lands, and in both books, Goldblatt tells them all.
“Tell me how you play, and I will tell you who you are”, Eduardo Galeano said. The Uruguayan writer, social activist and fanatico understood the cultural implications in the game’s alternating beauties and uglinesses. Goldblatt follows this plan to the letter. He does not generalize about each separate country’s history in the beautiful game, understanding e.g., that the social divisions that motivate the glories and the corruption of Brazilian football ( black, white) are different than those that animate neighbor Argentina (city, country).
A litany develops: each country gets a railroad and a weekend, and soon after, each country gets football. Then football gets money, and goes industrial (Goldblatt is very good in explaining the anomalies, Australia, Japan and the U.S., and how their resistance is inevitably weakening). Ball is the best 900-page analysis/history of a game from a Marxian, means of production, perspective you’ll ever read. But for the newbie, who just discovered why the ball is deliberately kicked to the opposing team after an injury, it may all be a bit much. Poor newbie.
This book raises the ante another notch, because globalization, natch. There is less on-field lore about big games at the inflection point of social change, and more about the social upheavals (racism) related to football themselves. And of course, as the money in the game explodes, more corruption. It’s more a hard tackle than a thrilling romp down the touchline.
Why I Put It Over The Touchline
As mentioned, the book flirts with a repetitive drone. Goldblatt is careful to examine the subtle differences in each region, and many countries. It’s easier to digest in segments, and besides, I worry that with the World Cup looming, I won’t have something interesting to read about football as the unbearable anticipation builds. I think this is demonstrably foolish. For one thing, it occurs to me that I could simply re-read Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow. But running out of books is one of my few worries these days, so I worry it like crazy.
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges: The final wonderful book I CAN put down. I wrote about the generative power of Borges’ amazing little fables in a post about recent studio doings, here. But why in hell would I put such a fascinating book down?
Why In Hell I Put Such A Fascinating Book Down
I always put it down. It’s perfect to put down. It’s quite possible its author wrote it to be put down. Each of these 8-10 page little gems get my mind churning with the conceptual, metafictional magic and ultra realism they embody. I ponder it for a few days, then sometimes I wind up in the studio, starting another project. I’ve had it for a couple of years now and I’m only on the 3rd of the nine original volumes it collects. So I keep it by the bed for when I can’t think of a thing to read. Which evidently is not now.
There are several comics-related books I’m also reading, then ignoring, but that’s a separate post.
#books #readingedge #readinglist