Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Reading, 2008

I'm down in New Orleans, to which I fled so I could grade my students' final essays while lounging in the Cafe du Monde and eating beignets, or sprawling in one of the big chairs in CC's Coffee on Royal Street, listening to the French Quarter intellectuals jaw about how corrupt northern politics has become (as an Illinois guy, I'm ashamed to say that, with this Blagojevich affair, we've actually managed to disgrace ourselves by the standards of Louisiana politics, which is saying something). My plan worked fine yesterday, but Lousiana got some uncharacteristic cold and snow this morning, so I'm laying off the French Quarter flanneur routine and typing up a list of the books I read (or re-read) since the beginning of the year.

This is the first year I've kept a list of the books I've read, but I was inspired by Mark Scroggins' list on his blog last year. Frankly, I had no idea how many books I read in a year, though I thought it might be about one a week (way, way less than my wife, Valerie, who is a marathon reader). Then again, I think most of what I read now is either online or in journals (especially poetry, which I tend to read in the journals I scoop out of the magazine rack by the armload whenever I'm in a good bookstore). So this list is kind of incomplete. It leaves out books I didn't finish, or consulted for a chapter or two. And it also leaves out a lot of reading in anthologies (especially the Norton Britlit anthologies, from which I do a lot of my teaching), as well as the epic task, shared with Josh Corey, of reading the hundred or so manuscripts submitted to the Plonsker Prize competition. Thank god the latter task came during the lying-in-the-hammock-until-my-pals-come-to-collect-me-for-a-bike-ride season.

Anyway, here's the list...


Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

It's like all of Bellow: great characters, great predicaments, no shape to the thing. But while most of Bellow's works are "great loose baggy monsters" (to steal Henry James' term for Tolstoy's novels), this is a svelte little thing.

Marquis de Sade, Justine
There's something to be written — well, it's probably been written — about de Sade and the rise of self-interested, amoral capitalism. The unfortunate Justine is punished over and over because of her tenacious sense of virtue, while her sister, Juliette, is amoral and self-interested in a Hobbesian way, and she does quite well for herself in the world. All this, written at the time when the old aristocratic order is falling to the bourgeoisie.

Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal
Has something been written about the alchemy by which Genet converts the abject into the sublime? I kind of wish Raymond Federman had written something of that sort: he and I had a great discussion about Genet when Federman was in Chicago this last February (he agrees that Genet is full of shit, and that it doesn't matter).

Anne Louise Germaine DeStael, Mirza
Madame DeStael was a big wheel in early nineteenth century literary theory (I'm sort of stunned she's not more canonical in that realm — the second edition of Critical Theory Since Plato inexplicably dropped her work). But she's not so hot with the novella, believe me.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
There's something very strange and interesting in this: it's almost like a retraction of Wilde's l'art pour l'art stance. Then again, I can never quite tell to what degree Joris-Karl Huysman's À Rebours, the model for Wilde's novel, is an ironizing of aestheticism, and to what degree it is an advocation.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
This is sort of a perfect book, for me. It's got formalist balance, a powerfully articulated sense of the bildung of the heroine (who has to undergo a kind of Schillerian inner balancing to become self-policing and escape externally imposed order), and a lot more. I'm especially fond of how Bronte is clearly dealing with issues she intuits, rather than conceptualizes — she's clearly twigging to new developments in society before they can be fully understood and mapped out in any way other than the strange, contradictory way she gets at them here. And the love/hate business between Jane and Rochester — yow.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
You really see how Freud wasn't the only guy cooking up notions of id and superego. Also, this book can be filed with Dracula as a prime example of Victorian middle-class heroism: only the professionals, acting, for the most part, in accord with their professional values, can save us.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
If you know anyone who does cosmic pessimism better, let me know. Oh: if you're looking for good sport while reading this, mark the book every time Hardy gives a vivid description of Tess' mouth. Hardy's a bit obsessed with it. Yep.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
I re-read this for a graduate course on Romanticism I was teaching. It really pulled the themes from the course together — how couldn't it? Mary Shelley was at ground zero of the movement.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
When I teach this book, I draw a chart of the structure on the board. And every year there's someone in the class who really responds to that sense of symmetry. "It's like some kind of magic trick," said one of my students this year. He's not wrong.

Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Short Stories
Does anyone remember where one can find E.M. Forster's little parody of Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall"? It's in a letter, I think.

Jerzy Kosinski, Being There
I liked Steps, which was less like reading fiction and more like reading a set of illustrations to the ideas in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. This one didn't do much for me.

Octave Mirbeau, Le Calvaire
You want misogyny? You've come to the right place. This guy does misogyny like he's Emile Zola. If that's not your deal, stick with the chapter dealing with the protagonist's experiences in the Franco-Prussian war. You don't get a better treatment of the chaotic pointless evil of it all anywhere.


Steve Halle, Map of the Hydrogen World
I wrote some jacket copy for this several months ago, and now it's actually out. See my previous post for some remarks about this one.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
Genius, in every sense. Especially the Kantian sense. Every weird Victorian anxiety you can think of about sex, gender, consumerism, addiction, and commerce finds its way into this little fable.

Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music
I reviewed this, along with Hass' Time and Materials for the Notre Dame Review.

Robert Hass, Time and Materials
See above.

Jessica Savitz, Hunting is Painting
Coming soon from Lake Forest College Press!

Karl Shapiro, Bourgeois Poet
Shapiro seems to die inside a little every time he realizes that the poet-as-professor is also, in some sense, the poet-as-bourgeois. A lot of us prof-poets still seem to hate facing this truth. I once tried to discuss Robert Hass as a 'bourgeois bohemian,' which I thought was a description, not a judgement. Then I found a critic quoting me in the American Poetry Review, claiming I was so exacerbated with Hass that I'd slung this nasty label at him. Anyway, some of these prose poems of Shapiro's are really wonderful, especially the ones where he describes a now-lost Chicago.

Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
I love the first half of the book. I don't know whether the problem with the back half had to do with the work itself, or with my increasing jitteriness after five cups of coffee. I'd liked it more the first time I read it. Maybe it's a younger guy's book.

Sam Greenlee, Blues for an African Princess
By the man who wrote the screenplay for the classic of black-radical film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It took me forever to find a copy of this. It's like reading Amiri Baraka, in that it shows how incredibly concerned with community this kind of 70s identity poetics stuff was.

John Matthias, Kedging
I reviewed this for the Cincinnati Review, and, in the process, finally learned how to spell Cincinnati. Anyway: Matthias continues his move into rhizomatic, intertextual, pan-historical splendor.

Mary Biddinger, Prairie Fever
I wrote some jacket copy for this a while back, when I had it in manuscript. It's always different to read the thing when it's between covers. Suddenly it has more gravitas or something.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Sad stuff. Not quite as sad as De Profundis, though: in that one you can see that the bastards really got to Wilde, and tormented him into recanting everything that made him special. It's painful to see.

P.B. Shelley, Selected Poems
Word on the street is that John Kinsella is editing a new edition of Shelley. This makes perfect sense: who else, among contemporary poets, could wear the Shelleyean mantle (radical, haunted, manic, living one's beliefs) so well?

Stephen Fowler, Thing Happen Hole
I discovered Fowler via an article he wrote on betel-nut chewing (not a bad pastime, I discovered, except for the great gobs of red spittle). Turns out he's a very good poet, in a kind of understated, Eastern Europe in the 80s way.

William Butler Yeats, Selected Poems
No one but Yeats could ever pull off so very well the trick of assimilating every poetic trend and fad around while remaining entirely himself.

Isabelle Baladine Howard, Secret of Breathe
From the ever-cool Burning Deck press, a two-voiced suite of poems written in a kind of whisper. Reminds me of Edmond Jabès.

Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Au Dela Des Gestes
You want Belgian Surrealist prose poetry of the mid-twentieth century? The Piqueray bros. have you covered. Much of this is really funny, uninhibited, and weird, in the great tradition of Belgian Surrealism, which tends to be a bit less full of itself than the Parisian variety. And I'm sure the Deleuzian concept of a "minor literature" applies here. If you ever write an essay about that, send me a copy, okay?

Mark Yakich, The Importance of Picking Potatoes in Ukraine
So funny and political you're surprised it's published by Penguin.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems
When I was in grad school, my profs seemed to think of Tennyson as a kind of laughingstock. I'm going to work up a big section of my next book on him and, I hope, prove them wrong. He assimilates so many of the anxieties of his age. And it's interesting how the moralistic, utilitarian values that surround him clash with his innate sense of poetry as something beyond utility. By instinct Tennyson is like Keats, but he feels like he's supposed to make poetry into something good for us, and the tension makes for some incredible loops and twists. Some of which, I admit, are ghastly ("Locksley Hall" is truly weird stuff).

J.H. Prynne, Poems
I think it took me longer to get through Prynne than any other poet this side of John Peck. Worth the effort.

John Keats, Favorite Poems
I'm a bit disappointed with myself for loving the canonical Keats, and being cool toward the Keats poems everyone's cool toward.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
I'm convinced that there's something terribly wrong with Bryon, and with anyone who doesn't love him.

Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day
I blogged about some of these poems when they were coming out in magazines. Subtle stuff.

Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival
When I read this, I thought Bidart must be dying. It had that feel to it. Such, it turns out, is not the case.

Simone Muench, Orange Girl
I think I understand the kind of woman who likes horror films better, now that I've read this. The thrill of being vulnerable permeates this book.

Adam Fieled, When You Bit
There are some great poems about Wicker Park bohemia in Chicago. Which is strange, since Fieled lives in Philly.

Jackye Pope, Watermark
Sad, quiet poems about a failed pastoral life-plan in Amsterdam. You have to listen carefully to these.

Kevin Prufer, National Anthem
Prufer's as angry about the political situation of the past eight years as the rest of us, and knows how to make poetry out of it (unlike most of us)

Robert Kroetsch, The Sad Phonecian
I used to read Kroetsch a lot: he was something like the godfather of western Canadian postmodern poetry back in the 80s. This one's a bit of a disappointment: it's structured like Joe Brainard's I Remember, with a lot of anaphora, but it lacks Brainard's charm. It deals with a dead/dying relationship, and it wallows in gloom.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads
They wrote this book to raise money for travel. Somehow I don't think that plan works for poets anymore.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
I'm looking forward to reading these to my soon-to-be-born daughter. Yep.

William Blake, The Book of Thel
This too.

Joe Brainard, I Remember
Why, why why is this book as good as it is? I can't figure it out. Something to do with deadpan?

Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village
I thought this was harsh stuff...

George Crabbe, The Village
...until I read this.

Don Share, Squandermania
This is the kind of eclectic, smart book that makes me proud to be published by Salt.


Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art
The attack on the emptiness of what we call the 'art world' is fair enough. I wish he'd gone into what we find in the next book on this list, though.

Howard Becker, Art Worlds
A classic in the sociology of art, to which my colleague Dave Park hipped me. Becker sees aesthetic activity all over the place: a nice antidote to the claustrophobia of the official art world.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music
Man, can Nietzsche synthesize German idealism.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
Okay. So I skipped some parts of this tombstone-sized tome. It's got all of Russell's charm, and all of his Romantics-hatin' idiosyncracy. He'll never be fair to Rousseau.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction
I skipped a lot of the charts. But this is the book we all crib from when we talk "cultural capital." The parts about the psychological perils of the autodidact are heartbreaking, and they get to me every time I read this book. Heartbreaking. In an abstract, conceptual way.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement
I don't think any other book has been as important to me as this one. I spend a lot of time hanging out in its pages.

Aristotle, Poetics
I used to love the clean, clear, systematic qualities of Aristotle, and I still respect them.

Plato, Republic
I used to despise this authoritarian, poet-hatin' thing. And I still despise those qualities of the book. But Platonic idealism has been opening up for me lately.

I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden, Principles of Aesthetics
Richards' first book, and a bit of a train-wreck in terms of the writing. If you've read Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, you can probably skip this one.

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
My pals in the social sciences look down on this, but I like the middle bits, with their super-abstract history of Marxist thought. Debord: right on the borderline between pretension and innate coolness. Sort of the Johnny Depp of critical theory.

Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II
Deleuze didn't want to present this as a book of interviews, because he doesn't believe there can be a coherent subjectivity expressing itself as if in a vacuum, so it's not Deleuze who speaks here, but Deleuze-in-conversation-with-Parnet, or Parnetdeleuze, or something like that. Nice.

Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class
Gouldner is some kind of lost gem of social theory. Anyway, I cribbed a lot from this book for my essay on poetry and politics in the November '08 issue of Poetry.

Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art
I went back to this after sensing that Adam Kirsch had addled its argument a bit. It was as strange as I remembered it: aesthetics as ontology, I suppose you'd call it.

Garrick Davis, Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism
I've been rooting around in the New Criticism a lot. Just yesterday I scored an old copy of Wellek's Discriminations, and I'm going to devour it like it's a ham sandwich. Oh, I wrote about this for Pleiades.

Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man
You've got to get the right translation of this or you're doomed. My favorite is in the cheapo little Dover edition.

Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative Circles
Never has plodding, slow exposition been so interesting. It's about the conditions under which creative vortices come into being.

Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature, Volume One
Worth the price for the essay on Beckett alone. And I don't even agree with what that essay has to say.

George Steiner, Martin Heidegger
I like almost everything Steiner writes, but I have a strong feeling we'd hate each other in person. I first came to this conclusion when I read an essay in which he claimed that kids today (the 'today' in question being, I think, the 70s) didn't understand that paperbacks were no substitute for well-bound uniform sets of an author's work. When I used to be a clerk in an antiquarian bookstore, I always thought these first-edition-and-bound-set people were like the people who chose their wine on the basis of the label, not the liquid.

Clive Bell, Art
It's amazing: only a Bloomsbury Brit could lay down Kantian ideas in a kind of charming, reader-friendly banter.


Samuel Beckett, Endgame
Funny and desperate.

Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

Howard Brenton, Bloody Poetry
I blogged about this.


Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement
Taibi seems to want Hunter Thompson's mantle, which is sad, since Taibbi is good on his own terms. He notes the irrationalism on the right (religious fanatics) and the left (conspiracy theorists), and sees both as phenomena that come about when the government really doesn't do much for the people.

Chris Hedges, American Fascists
Scary stuff — he traces the deeply authoritarian tendencies of American fundamentalists.

Andrew Gelman, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State
Gelman is a professor of statistics, and it shows in the writing.

Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus
This puts a human face on the weird right-wing views of some parts of the blue-collar south. It continues the work Thomas Frank did in What's the Matter with Kansas, but this time the anthropologist is one of the tribesmen.

Graphic Novels

Craig Thompson, Carnet de Voyage
Quiet thoughts, quiet draftsmanship. Not his best work. I think his publisher pressured him into letting this be published.

Joe Sacco, Palestine
I would pay, say, a thousand dollars to be as cool as Joe Sacco. I'd also pay a grand to legitimately, and without charge of pretense, be universally referred to by Robert Louis Stevenson's college nickname: Velvet Jack. For real.

Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ: On the Ground
I would have loved this when I was twenty. Now I find it a bit slick and a bit cynical.


Howard Zinn, A People’s History of American Empire
It's a bad idea to read this while getting tanked up on coffee before attending a political rally.

William Doyle, The French Revolution
For a book this short, it gets at the complexity of the phenomenon. Thanks to Dan LeMahieu for sending it my way.

Olwen Hufton, Europe: Privilege and Protest, 1730-1789
If you want a picture of Europe during the period when Enlightenment ideas were percolating but hadn't yet transformed society, this is as good a book as any. You really get a sense of how the society of the era was organized on particularist rather than universalist principles. People didn't experience themselves as similar subjectivities with more or less the same rules and laws pertaining to them: rather, they were defined in terms of very localized obligations and privileges. You know — not "we all pay sales tax and can go to local schools" but "the peasants from Presdelay have the right to pick Lord Mugo's blackberries along the roadside from May to June, but the burghers of Bregnant have to give the local seigneur two piglets and a shoeshine every other Whitsunday." All this before liberté, égalité, fraternité, the Rights of Man, and all that erased the gothic complexities and left the big clean sheet of universality and reason.


Peter Stansky, William Morris
Just the facts, ma'am.

Stephen Burt, The Forms of Youth
I reviewed this for the Boston Review.

Angela Carter, The Sadean Woman
She's smart. And her notion of the patriarchal ideal of a "good bad girl" — a woman who has “a wholesome eroticism blurred a little round the edges by the fact that she herself is not quite sure what eroticism is” really cracks the patriarchal ideal of woman open (it's Marilyn Monroe, right?). I'm surprised it isn't a more prominent notion in contemporary feminist thought. Well, no, I'm not surprised. Just disappointed.

Ronan MacDonald, The Death of the Critic
I liked this book until he got into areas where I have (ahem) some expertise. Maybe the limits have to do with the brevity of the book.

Richard Kerridge and Neil Reeve, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne
These guys understand the most obscure of English poets, and write decent expository prose, too. They do seem like True Believers, though. Then again, almost everything written about Prynne looks like it was written either by apostles or by sworn enemies. He's that kind of poet.

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years
The stuff on Henri Rousseau is wonderful, the stuff on Satie even better. And the opening chapters really characterize the era. Still, I like the essays in The Innocent Eye better — especially when Shattuck talks about Dada and Surrealism.

Gene H. Bell-Villada, Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life
I'm torn, here: part of me wishes that more people would read this book (because he really understands the implications of aesthetic autonomy); then again, part of me wishes it would magically disappear (because I'm writing a book that takes on the same material).

Wendell Anderson, The Heart’s Precision
A neglected study of a neglected poet, Judson Crews

Marc Dachy, Dada: The Revolt of Art
I read this on the way to the Modernist Studies Association conference, and the juxtaposition led me to conclude that the difference between Dada and the study of Dada is the difference between tigers and National Geographic.

Tony Hoagland, Real Sofistakashun
The essay on the "jittery poem of our moment" is sharp, though not everyone's going to like it.

Bonnie Costello, Planets on Tables
I reviewed this for the Boston Review, but I don't think it's out yet. The review, I mean.


Herbert Gold, The Age of Happy Problems
I scored a copy of this here in New Orleans, and devoured most of the essays in the quiet courtyard of the Royal Blend coffee joint on Royal Street. Nobody writes about bohemia, in all its glories and imbecilities, better than Gold — the central trio of essays on hipsters of the 50s is the highlight of the book. No, that's not true. His essay on teaching at Wayne State is even better. I don't know why Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe became more famous than Herbert Gold: they're good (well, Wolfe is, or was), but neither's fit to tie Gold's sneakers.

Heather Sellers, The Practice of Creative Writing
A good example of its kind, but I can't quite make myself into a fan of this kind of book. I'm trying.

George Plimpton, Edie
If you want to get a view of the Warhol world, but you don't want the impression that the whole world revolved around Warhol, this is your book. A sad, poor-little-rich-girl junkie story, too. You kind of want to give Edie Sedgwick's father a beat-down when you're done with it.

So there it is. But I'm already skeptical about the exercise of listing these things as a kind of census of one's reading: I mean, it reminds me of that bullshitty NEA report, the one that claimed reading was in crisis because people seemed to be reading fewer books. When you looked at the study, you saw that the definition of what counted as a book was narrow, and reading online (which has truly exploded) didn't count at all. Then again, I'm kind of glad I don't know how much time I've spent reading things I found via Silliman's blog, the Huffington Post, and Arts & Letters Daily. If I saw all that quantified, I'm sure I'd conclude that I should go outside more often. Like maybe now: the snow's melted, and my favorite flanneur shoes are right by the door...