Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reading, 2009

For the second year in a row, I’m inspired by Mark Scroggins and Steve Evans to list the books I've read over the past twelve months. It was a weird year for reading. I was on leave in the spring semester, but I was also being the chief baby-looking-after officer in the Archambeau household, so I read a lot, but in a kind of sleepless, not-finishing-the-book sort of way. Then, in June, I was in a bike-vs-car accident, and ended up in the hospital, too out of it on painkillers to read much of anything.

So what makes the list? The sole criterion of inclusion is that I only list books I actually read all the way through. Most of what I taught isn’t included, since it either comes out of anthologies (which I don’t list, unless I read the thing cover-to-cover), or is something I’ve read before and only skimmed this year. Most of the poetry I read isn’t included either, since I tend to read poetry in journals or online, or in manuscript. Most poetry I read in book form I don’t end up finishing, either. Sometimes that’s a judgment on the content, more often it’s a matter of simply setting the book aside and never getting back to it. Some of my most athletic readerly achievements don’t make the list — getting through much of Truth and Method and Being and Time took a lot of time and concentration, but I skipped huge chunks of both books. I also left out books I read to Lila, and baby-care guides, though I highly recommend Baby 411 for any 40 year old first time parent. It gets you right to the topic about which you’re freaking, and tells you not to worry.

Anyway, here's the list, in no particular order.


T.W. Heyck, The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England

This is the best book on the mind of nineteenth century in England I’ve ever read. Heyck traces the movement from the world of the generalist men of letters to the rise of specialization and professionalism. Why did things change? A bunch of reasons: the challenge to literary authority by science, the growth of scientific specialization (and then of all professional specialization), the reform of the universities to support research and to divide work by field (and the migrating of intellectuals to the universities), the intellectual discrediting of Christianity (which drove a wedge between writer and reader, who no longer shared a common culture), and the rise of a mass, semi-literate audience (which made literary writing relatively unprofitable). If you want to know how the discursive conditions we as writers face today came into being, there’s no better book to read.

Stephan Collini, Public Moralists

I like Collini, probably because he’s a better literary critic than he is a historian, though I’m sure he’d object to that characterization. Anyway, he can read the hell out of a short passage of nonfiction prose, as if he were pressing the juice out of a sonnet in a classroom. He’s also got a strong argument here about why Victorian writers held public roles denied to later generations of literary people.

Biography, Autobiography, Memoir

W.B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil

I think this must have been cobbled together from various essays. Either that, or Yeats isn’t as careful with his prose as he is with his poetry. Anyway, you get a good sense of milieu here, and catch Yeats at the weird intersection of art-for-art’s-sake and literary nationalism. I mean, those are some deep cross-currents, people. Gotta write something about that in my next book.

Richard Wright, Black Boy

It’s like getting punched in the face, reading this. I mean, it hurts. I think this book is as much of an accomplishment as Native Son, and it doesn’t bog down the way that one does in the second half. If you want to know the psychological torture box into which America put the black man at midcentury, read the scenes where Wright is working for an optical supply company and trying to read Mencken on the sly.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge

You want a one-volume Coleridge bio? Stop your shopping around. This’ll work. Bate gets at Coleridge’s fundamental insecurity, which explains the genuflection to Wordsworth, as well as the opium addiction (it was bad: Coleridge would tell servants to keep him from buying more of the stuff, then sneak out and score anyway).

John Kinsella, Auto

John Kinsella’s early life can only be described as harrowing. This is a memoir of violence, mostly of violence being done to the author.

Mim Scala, Diary of a Teddy Boy

Okay, so this is a memoir, not a diary, and Scala was only a Teddy Boy for a few exhilarating, intermittently terrifying months. It’s really a book about the long sixties, which happened to Scala pretty profoundly. The music industry, the dope-smoking, the trekking around north Africa and Sri Lanka, the acid tripping, the indigenous-artifact collecting, and the epic quest for the perfect mystical third-world music fusion groove. As an added bonus, I kept running across people who were about two degrees of separation from me. Small world.

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Homegrown dada. For real.

Penelope Rosemont, Dreams and Everyday Life

This is a strangely rambling memoir, and I’m glad of that. It gives disproportionate attention to the months Penelope and Franklin Rosemont spent hanging out with the Surrealists in Paris in the sixties (a sign of how formative those months were), but it also shows us the Rosemonts discovering the remnants of Wobbly culture, and being right in the thick of it when the Chicago cops rioted in 1968.

Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Memoirs, (vol. 3)

Prince von Metternich kept the European establishment together against all those pesky people demanding republics and social reform. It’s easy to dislike him, but then again it’s easy to dislike anyone different from oneself. Reading his memoirs gives you the flavor of an utterly alien world — the ancien régime in its final act.

Christopher Ricks, Tennyson

The criticism of Tennyson’s poetry here is so good you forgive Ricks for making this more of an analysis of the poetry than it is a biography. Unless you’re Mark Scroggins, in which case your standards for critical biography are so high you’ll wander the earth forever, thirsting for you know not what.


Lennart Nyberg, A Different Practice

This is about a decade old, and reads a lot like the American elliptical poetry that was going around. He writes in series, and has a fine meditative mind. I wrote about this for Boston Review.

Lars Gustafsson, A Time in Xanadu

This is the kind of poetry we think of when we think of Swedish poetry: quiet, thoughtful, existential. But I think Gustafsson is off his best game here. I wrote about this for Boston Review in the same article I link to above.

Samuel Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes

You've got to read this every now and then, and believe it. It helps counterbalance Byron. And it'll keep you (or mostly keep you) from wanting dumb shit like fame, recognition, promotion, preferment, money you don't need, and all that jive.

John Davidson, John Davidson: A Selection of his Poems

How the hell did I miss this guy? He’s a late Victorian with a deeply materialist outlook on things. I’m sure D.H. Lawrence must have read and admired him: he’s got that buzzing sense of the life force at work in the world. But he can get grim, too. I don’t know why nobody reads him anymore.

Kent Johnson, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

Kent Johnson is a rare thing: an actual avant-gardist. I mean, this book refuses to be at ease with the institutions and conventions surrounding and supporting poetry. The longish poem on the New York school is merciless in exposing the political hypocrisy of much experimentalist poetry — while still loving such poetry. I can see why a lot of people get ticked off at Kent. I admire this book immensely.

Nicanor Parra, Poems and Anti-Poems

Much of the force of these poems probably came out of their rejection of the hothouse conventions of so much Latin American poetry. They’re hard and cold and space, and disillusioned. I can see why Roberto Bolaño liked them so much.

Norman Finkelstein, Scribe

I reviewed this for the first issue of The Offending Adam, which should be out next year.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

I read a big Byron poem every year. I think I read this one last year, too, but what the hell. You can’t have too much self-obsessed narcissistic weirdness, right? (Here I anticipate groans from all who have to put up with my own self-obsessed jive).

Garin Cycholl, Hostile Witness

If Charles Olson had written Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it would be a bit like this.

John Matthias, Working Progress, Working Title

I went back to this for an essay I wrote for The Salt Companion to John Matthias. Matthias really has reinvented himself late in his career, becoming a kind of rhizomatic writer without losing any of those qualities (playfulness, the historical sense) I love about his work.

John Matthias, Turns

This is another one I went back to for The Salt Companion to John Matthias. I’d written about most of Matthias’ major poems, but never really had my say about his “Double Derivation, Association, and Cliché: from The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster.” I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Charles Simic, White

It’s like what he’s writing now, but better. That cryptic-tailor’s-dummy-in-the-window-of-a-shop-that’s-been-abandoned-for-years kind of surrealism.

R.S. Gwynn, No Word of Farewell

I blogged about Gwynn a while back, saying he wrote the kind of poetry I couldn’t get into. He sent me an email saying he was going to kick my ass. We had a good correspondence and traded books. I got into an Augustan mode and really enjoyed “The Narcissiad,” which is worthy of Alexander Pope.

Michael Gizzi, New Depths in Deadpan

Not his best effort. I don’t know why. Maybe the same old game has become too easy.

Ken Smith, Tender to the Queen of Spain

Smith does a kind of Britsy ashcan-realism, and he does it very well, but just when you think you’ve got him pegged he hits you with bits of the sublime, of a sort of beauty opening up to the infinite. The opening and closing poems taken together should make the point, if you want to see what I mean. I should write something about him sometime. He was a good man. May he rest in peace.

George Oppen, Discrete Series

Sincere, restrained, austere. Anxious, too. I mean, William Carlos Williams is suffused with eros, everywhere – everything with him is the sap rising in the trees, and Penelope returning from the underworld bringing spring. But Oppen, who was attracted to the same kinds of scenes and wrote in a not-dissimilar vein, has none of that Williams exuberance. I think he worried a lot about whether he was doing the right thing. On a good day, he earns his “St. George” reputation. On a bad day, it feels like hang-wringing.

George Oppen, The Materials

Still sincere, restrained, and austere.

George Oppen, Of Being Numerous

Sincere, restrained, and austere meets a kind of E.M. Forster-ish injunction to “only connect.” The ending inserts a devastating new line break into Whitman’s Specimen Days, making Whitmanic patriotism problematic. I can see why so many people have been drawn to him lately.

Rachel Loden, Dick of the Dead

You want a book of freaky poems about Nixon? Rachel Loden’s got you covered. (Not all the poems are about Nixon, but my favorites are).

Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, The Rattle Bag

This is a big, catch-all anthology of poetry: some canonical, some not, some folkloric, some in translation, and presented in unconventional order. I spent a good chunk of the spring memorizing swaths of it while reading (later reciting) poems from this book to Lila, my daughter, who was born this February. She seems to like Blake most of all.

Arthur Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer

When I was in my teens I liked Rimbaud, but part of me sort of suspected I’d grow out of him, the way you grow out of Vonnegut or Kerouac (don’t hate me, Vonnegut and Kerouac fans — maybe I’m just missing what you’re getting). But I didn’t grow out of him. Every time I come back I’m more blown away by the audacity of the thing.

Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Compete

What can you say about Rimbaud? I suppose I could say I like Wyatt Mason’s translation. And I liked reading all of Rimbaud in the same book. The very early poems were a revelation: Rimbaud was a sharp-tongued critic of the bourgeoisie from the get-go.

Galway Kinnell, Body Rags

I know I read this recently, but honestly nothing much stays in mind, except that this was the looser Kinnell, not the super-tight work of the Kinnell who read Hopkins and tried to write like him.

Louis Scutenaire, Mes Inscriptions

Scutenaire was a Belgian Surrealist, which is the best kind of Surrealist outside of the Spanish-speaking world. This collection is just what it sounds like: a collection of his philosophical maxims, short (say, 5 line) dialogues, and slogans. Scutenaire’s the guy who said “It’s regrettable, for the education of the young, that memoirs of war are always written by people the war did not kill.” Also my favorite: “An angry cop: the usual, only more so.” I don’t know why American writers don’t often make books like these. The French have been at it for centuries. I translated a bunch of these this year, just for the hell of it.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems

Despite the title, this book is huge. Cinderblock huge. And while there are Tennyson poems I will always love and admire — “The Lady of Shallot,” say, or “The Lotos-Eaters” — these are atypical of his work. In fact, most of the current anthology pieces aren’t like the main corpus of Tennyson’s work. We’ve selected the pieces that suit our taste, and edited out the melodramatic, moralizing, longwinded poems — Maud, Enoch Arden— that are most typical of his work. It’s hard to like them, but they were unbelievably popular in his lifetime. I’ve been working a little on an explanation of why our tastes are so different from those of the Victorians. (We’re actually closer to the Romantics in how we see the poet — on the outside of society, being critical — than we are to the Victorian mode).

Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems

The woman had range. And a real power of compassion. I think she made a particular effort to put herself in the psychological space of the kind of people who would have hated her. And I mean people who would have hated her for reasons of race, class, and politics. The world needs more of this: half the poets I know refuse to put themselves in the psychological space of people with whom they have stylistic differences.

Roberto Bolaño, Trés

Thank god for his minimalist, stripped-down style: it’s all my Spanish can handle. The book consists of three longish poems, with the usual Bolaño obsessions: dislocation, vague disappointment, urges toward some unspecifiable better life, poetry as doomed escape pod from some general disaster, etc. I’ve got to write a proper essay about this guy sometime.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs

It’s the same deal here as in Trés, except the poems are shorter and translated into English.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

I try to read this every now and then. I mean, it’s got everything you want when you look into nineteenth century femininity: anxieties about consumerism, addiction, sexuality, sister- and mother-hood, etc. And the moral at the end of the story is as out of whack with the story itself as is the ending of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


Seamus Perry, Alfred Tennyson

This is quite good on the music of Tennyson’s poetry, which is, after all, the main attraction. But I’ve been trying to think through the discursive situation Tennyson found himself in — you know, the weird moment in literary history where a poet could score big with the bourgeoisie. So I wanted an apple and Perry was serving oranges.

Jean Daive, Walks with Paul Celan

This is sort of a poem, sort of a memoir, and sort of a work of criticism. I loved it, and said why in this post.

Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries

I try to re-read this from time to time. Butler is very sharp regarding the social, political, and literary situation in which the Romantics found themselves.

Andrei Codresci, The Posthuman Dada Guide

Some people would say there are too many made-up anecdotes in this book for it to count as criticism, but that’s just a failure of imagination on their part. Anyway: Codrescu the critic is my favorite Codrescu, edging out the poet, the anecdotalist, the novelist, the editor, and even the media personality. Despite its formal differences, this book reminds me of Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside, which had a great, very personal, history of Surrealism in it. Here, it’s Dada, set against political power. If you ever take the time to go over to the Internet Archive and download an audiofile of Codrescu’s Naropa lectures on Surrealism, you won’t regret it. I wish all critics wrote with this kind of verve.

Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology

I return to this from time to time. It’s the book that first made clear to me how deeply we’re still inscribed within the books the Romantics wrote. McGann wants us to get out. I’m not sure that’s possible, except incrementally.

William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure

I love these old British Pelican books from the forties, with “Not for Sale in the USA” printed on the covers. And they hold up well, too, since they’re smythe-sewn and not perfect bound with glue. Anyway, Gaunt writes a wonderfully embroidered and purplish prose. He’s light on explanatory power, but if you want a vivid, anecdotael history of the Aesthetic Movement in art and literature in France and England, Gaunt’s the guy.

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle

Not everyone likes Wilson’s treatment of the symbolist movement in the closing chapters, but I do. A lot.

Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Victorian Temper

This is an odd book from the midcentury. At the time, Victorianism was on the outs with literary types. A New Critical version of modernism made formalism out to be the big thing, and the Victorians were moralists, through and through (and pretty establishment moralists, too). Buckley was their apologist. I disagree with damn near everything he says here, but he’s a worthy opponent. He occupied a lonely position, too, and I admire that.

Elton Smith, The Two Voices: A Tennyson Study

Wow, this guy’s sharp. His survey of the state of Tennyson criticism at the start of the book is out of date now, but he sees through everyone. He understands not just what the critics believed about Tennyson, but why — usually better than those critics did themselves.

Justin Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Irish Poetry, 1800-2000

This is how you write a theoretically-informed book of lit-crit. The whole project if deeply Foucauldian: an analysis not just of Irish poetry, but of the discourse of Irish poetry, with its powers of classification, inclusion, and exclusion. But Quinn never so much as drops a critical name, nor does he drop in a lot of quotation from the theoretical masters. He just executes the project, with confidence and clarity. I wrote about this for Contemporary Literature.

Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland, 1968-2008

A big, rangy book, kind of rough around the edges. But Kennedy-Andrews knows the territory as well as anyone. Way better than I do. I wrote about this for Contemporary Literature.

John Holloway, The Victorian Sage

I had hoped this would help me understand something about the difference between us and the Victorians. The introduction did. After that, it was all kind of familiar. Maybe his insights have been absorbed into the general culture of Victorian studies over the decades since the book appeared.

E.D.H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry

This is the best book on the conundrums of Victorian poets ever written. Johnson really understands the cross-currents they faced: pulled in the direction of l’art pour l’art but also tempted by the chance of public honor, fame, and riches should they serve as moralists for the establishment (of which they were junior-members, mostly).

John Keats, Letters

I’m classifying these as lit-crit. I know it’s counterfactual, but I think if Keats had lived he’d have taken something like the Coleridge route to old-age Romanticism and become more of a critic. I mean, half his poems are about other poets, and he’s the most literary of the Romantics. Also, that aestheticism of his could get confining after a few more years. Then again, Keats lacked Coleridge’s philosophical background, so he probably didn’t have the chops to really develop his ideas with a whole lot of depth. Maybe he’d have ended up as a kind of Hazlitt.

David Lodge, The Art of Fiction

Lodge wrote these essays on various literary topics for a newspaper audience, and they have all of the journalistic virtues: brevity, clarity, coherence. I particularly like it when he mentions his own novels, but he's too English to do that as often as I'd like.

A.C. Bradley, The Reaction Against Tennyson

Bradley wrote this in 1917, and it tells you as much about the taste of that era as it tells you about Tennyson. Nice.

Alan Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson

This is a first stab at a kind of poststructuralist/Marxian reading of Tennyson. Much of the book actually consists of a patient explaining of the premises of such a form of criticism, presumably for an audience that wasn’t already up to speed. I’m pretty sympathetic to the endeavor.


Roberto Bolano The Savage Detectives

I blogged about this when I read it last year. I had to come back to it. Those short sections are like pretzels or wasabi nuts. You just keep going.

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

This should probably be called a prose poem, not a work of fiction. Montage seems to be the structuring principle. It’s got that weird I-hate-my-loser-city/I-love-my-authentic-city Chicago thing going on.

Anthony Powell, The Acceptance World

Powell is not my normal thing. His ethos is so different: in the big cast of characters that recur throughout his linked novels, the good guys are always the reserved gentlemen, not the guys who seem to want to, you know, accomplish something. I suppose it’s too pseudo-aristocratic for me. I shouldn’t let this bother me as much as it does.

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

I had to wait until the Bush years were over to bring myself to read this book about how fascism could come to America. It’s chilling how plausible it seems. When it comes here, it’ll look folksy and friendly and be media savvy and hook into the people’s resentment, patriotism, and anti-intellectualism, says Lewis. I believe him. I miss some of the fantastically painful imitations of banal American speech Lewis gave us un Babbitt and Main Street, though we get flashes of all that here and there.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

Weirdly, I’d never made it all the way through this before. It gets that naturalist thing down — showing how economic forces determine so many aspects of our existence. But I don’t think the man’s really got an ear for language.

Samuel Beckett, Fizzles

Short little prose pieces, rhythmic, and emblematic of a despair just barely held in check by the darkest humor. You expected something different?

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

I hate to think Pynchon might be fried out. Please, Tom, come back with something good next time out.

Thornton Wilder, The Cabala

I read a very sharp-seeming essay on Wilder’s early novels in The Believer and rushed out to grab a copy of this, his debut novel. It clanks. It clunks. I like the idea (the past stays with us, etc.). But you can get that from Faulkner and not have to feel like you’re reading a goddamn phone book.

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varinasi

There are two options here. Either this is a dreadfully bad novel, which was praised highly in the British press only because Dyer is a journalist and he’s hooked up with all the appropriate writers and editors — or it’s not so bad, but my experience of it was effected by the conditions under which I read it (gooned on oxycontin in the hospital after a bike accident).

Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de Bohême

I don’t know why so much French prose of the mid-nineteenth century reads like it wants to be a play. This, of course, became more famous on the stage than it ever did between hard covers.

Bram Stoker, Dracula

It had been a while since I read this. It’s bourgeois as all hell. I mean, you leave modern England and head east, and you’re not just moving through space, you’re moving through time, into the primitive, irrational past — like in Heart of Darkness but without all of the self-reflexiveness you get in Conrad. And then there’s the nature of the threat: Dracula as the remnant of a traditional aristocratic society, who must be destroyed by a coalition of bourgeois professional men, with the help of technology. Franco Moretti’s reading is a bit different, though: he says that while Stoker thought of Dracula as a hold-over aristocratic threat to the middle class order, Dracula actually represents a capitalist threat to the middle class. He runs a socially-unsettling Ponzi scheme, and it’s the professional classes, not the business classes, who bring him to heel. Worth a look (Moretti, I mean. And Stoker, too).

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Gotta read this every year. Can’t do without it.

Philosophy and Critical Theory

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre de d'Alembert

The really good part of this comes at the end, with Rousseau’s famous argument against the establishment of a theater in Geneva. Theater may be harmless for the degenerates of monarchial France, says Rousseau, but in a republic like Geneva it can only do harm. It’ll reduce the population to a silent, isolated audience. What’s needed are participatory folk festivals, where the group dissolves into a Dionysian whole. It all sounds a bit North Korean to me.

St. Augustine, Confessions

If you make a conscious effort to transpose the Christian thinking into a language with less baggage attached to it, there’s much here about the nature of being that still speaks to us. And the bits where Augustine is truly culturally alien to us are fascinating, too, for the difference. Also, the satirical barbs aimed at the Manichees are still fun, even though no one’s needed to satirize a pompous Manichee for 1500 years.

Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II

I read this last year, and came back to it again this year. The piece on Anglo-American literature is fantastic.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature

I consumed this while riding the Septa trains between Bucks County and Philadelphia. The notion of minor literature — of a kind of writing that, instead of articulating the values of a civilization, messes with said values — is very much with us. In fact, I think it’s our (that is, we literary type people’s) embrace of minor lit over major lit that makes it so hard to like the main run of Tennyson’s work. Or, for that matter, makes us skeptical of Whitman’s patriotism. We no longer think of ourselves as a cultured minority leading the nation — we’re a minority culture, griping from the margins. You know, like in highschool.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, On the Line

This is a slick little semiotext(e) edition of some classic stuff, including the essay on rhizome.

Auguste Comte, Plan de Travaux Scientifiques Nécessaires pour Réorganiser la Société

One of my favorites of all the books I read this year. I mean, everybody talks about positivism, but people in English departments only seem to do so in order to sneer at it dismissively. So I went to see for myself what it was all about, and lo, Comte turns out to be a serious intellect. The division of history into theological, metaphysical, and positive phases, and the working out of the meaning of both the French and the (then incipient) industrial revolutions are fascinating. And Comte had a true historical imagination before most intellectuals did (okay, most still don’t). Anyway, I blogged a bit about some of his ideas in another context.

John Stuart Mill, Mill on Bentham and Coleridge

Mill’s an interesting guy, in that he’s a representative of Utilitarianism who nevertheless takes the German metaphysical tradition seriously. I don’t know if there’s a comparable figure in Germany, though maybe we could argue for Marx as the union of Hegel and British political economy, which would be sort of analogous.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution

I keep coming back to Williams, despite his flaws. I suppose it’s because he really does see the continuity of literature with the wider world.

Gherasin Luca, Dialectique de la Dialectique

I was turned on to this by Andrei Codrescu, who talks it up in The Posthuman Dada Guide. It’s an eccentric piece of work, more erotic-surrealist than Hegelian.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction

Critchley’s the man who explained the gist of Heidegger’s Being and Time in a half-dozen articles in The Guardian, and did a pretty solid job of it, too, considering the limitations. This book’s really written for a reader different from me: Critchely seems to assume the reader is a fan of Anglo-American analytic philosophy who needs to be talked into the continental tradition. Me, I’m the other way around.

Milovan Djelas, The New Class

Djelas explains the different kind of social evolution the Eastern Bloc underwent compared to the west, and does a good job of it. Long story short, the bourgoisie in Russia were too weak and too beholden to Western powers to form a power capable of modernizing the country and pushing for political reform. A new class of ideological technocrats had to be conjured for that. He got thrown in jail for his views.


Lorainne Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

The first African-American play to be produced on Broadway. It’s got a lot going for it: deep insight into the different psychological needs of different generations of African-Americans, a sense of the way real social constraints shape even the most intimate details of our lives, but in the end I think it’s just a bit too issue-y, a bit too talking-heads-ish to be a real favorite of mine.

David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

Recently a colleague told me he thought the play was less elaborate than the movie. I checked it out. He's right.

Graphic Novels

David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

I didn't read many graphic novels this year, which is unusual for me. This one's good: the artwork is incredible, the story fine until the end, the meditations on the nature of creativity aren’t bad.

Gilbert Shelton, The Complete Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (vol. 1)

When I was a kid I would sometimes find some of Shelton's underground comics lying around in the art students' lounge at the University of Manitoba, where my dad taught. Reading Shelton's crazy-ass hippie comics again proves that, by and large, they hold up pretty well. I wish the long-projected Freak Bros. movie, Grass Roots, would get finished, but I'm starting to think it's not going to happen.

Gilbert Shelton, The Complete Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (vol. 2)

Volume one collected all of the black and white Freak Bros. comics, this one gives you the full-color ones.


Adolph Reed, Jr., Class Notes

The essay on “Posing as Politics” more or less demolishes as ineffective pretention a lot of the left’s multiculturalism. That Reed does this demolishing from the left of the people he attacks may surprise some people.

Franklin Rosemont, An Open Invitation to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

Like the title says, it’s a book about dialing and receiving wrong numbers. In accord with the great tradition of Surrealism, Rosemont looked on chance and error as a kind of poetry and as possibilities for micro-revolutions in consciousness. Rosemont died this year, a real loss. His edition of Breton is still the best one in English.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods

A book about the state of India, which does away with the lingering Orientalist trope of India as a land of spirituality not materiality. There’s some fascinating stuff on the odd way India is going about modernization. The classic order is industry, then middle class, then democracy. In India, the order’s been democracy, then the middle class, with industry left out. Luce tells you why.

Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On

After I broke my leg, a friend suggested I read this account of Sack’s own leg injury. I enjoyed the book, but really it should have been an essay. It came right after Sacks’ big hit with Awakenings, and I’m pretty sure his publishers found the right buttons to push to make Sacks think it would be a good idea to take a small amount of material and make a (very marketable) book out of it.

Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism

Tanenhaus is half-right about things. If you want to know why, and don’t mind me going on for too long about Comte, Metternich, and Sarah Palin, you could check out this post.


I think that averages out to a bit under two titles a week, not including whatever books I read between now and the end of the year. I think, though, I'll be settling down to about three months worth of unread copies of the TLS before I crack open another paperback.


  1. Such a lovely list, it brought me both inspiration and smiles. Thank you for sharing! And the picture, oh dear! Where is that? Such a nice place, the light, the walls, the shapes, there's no other word for it, I love it!

  2. Hi Morrica,

    It's the British Museum reading room -- not where I do most of my reading, sadly.



  3. Re John Davidson: Absolutely right and your saying so makes my opinion that much less hobbyhorsical. Good to read Davidson against the early Pound and ask which is 'modern'...

  4. Glad I'm not alone about him! The "Testament" poems are weird as all hell, especially the "Testament of a Vivisectionist," but that just makes them interesting. And those depictions of London street life make Wilde's versions look tame.

  5. Hey Bob,

    What's your criterion for whether you've read a book in its entirety? I'm quite serious--it's an issue that's always troubled me.


  6. I never trust anyone who's quite serious, John.