Friday, February 03, 2012

Reading, Mid December 2011-January 2012

I used to post an end-of-year report on all the books I'd read during the prior year.  I was inspired to do so by Steve Evans, who asks people to send him lists of notable books they've read during the prior year, and Mark Scroggins, an unreformed list-keeper, who used to post lists of his adventures among obscure texts.  I haven't had my act together enough to keep lists of my annual reading, but I've been missing doing the write-ups.  I'm not sure why, unless it's the sense one gets, in making a few comments on each book, that one hasn't entirely forgotten everything from all those hours slumped in a chair staring at words on a page.

So I've started keeping a list again.  The criterion for inclusion is simple: the book has to be something I've read in cold blood (that is, cover to cover).  This means a lot of my actual reading gets left out, including most of the contemporary poetry I read, since I tend to encounter it in journals and online.

This list includes the books I've read since mid-December of last year until the end of January.  I'm surprised that it doesn't amount to more than my usual rate of about two books a week, in part because as of December 15 I've been on sabbatical, in part because I spent about half of the last six weeks with a miserable cold and couldn't do any real writing.  Also, while some of the books were cinderblock huge, some were svelte little books of poetry one could read during a commuter train ride.

There's a pretty heavy skew to lit crit and biography, much more so than during most comparable periods of time for me.  This has to do with my ramp-up to writing a chapter about Yeats for the book I'm working on.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the books:

Literary Criticism

The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats, ed. Marjorie Howes and John Kelly

The Cambridge Companion series is generally quite good, but this volume is a bit uneven.  Or maybe it just seems that way to me, since I've got some pretty defined views on Yeats.  Declan Kiberd wrote a chapter on Yeats as a critic that's as wonderful as everything Kiberd writes, and that makes the fascinating point that "Yeats achieved a real profundity of thought because he was willing to say things that he did not fully understand until long afterward," which is exactly right.  George Watson's essay on Yeats in the 1890s is good, too.

The Reactionaries: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia, by John R. Harrison

One of the things I learned when I was working in a used book store back in the 1990s was that the kind of books of litcrit that professors were likely to dismiss as out of date were often worth looking at, just as a way of breaking with contemporary ideas and ways of writing.  Harrison's book, which deals with Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, was published in 1966, and feels like the kind of book a young scholar would write back then.  Harrison argues with, accuses, and sometimes almost face-slaps his chosen writers with a refreshing directness.  One senses he'd had it with an older generation of critics letting the right-winginess of the modernists slide.

On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word, by Angela Leighton

This is very similar to the book I've been trying to write, if perhaps a bit more concerned with fiction and a bit less with history.  It's very good.  I hear Leighton's a poet — must look her up in that regard.

A Reader's Guide to Edwardian Literature, by Anthea Trodd

This is short, clear, and useful, if you want to get a general sense of who was writing what for which audience during the years 1901-1914 (the Edwardian period officially ended in 1910, but Trodd's willing to stretch it out to the beginning of the war).  The tone is neutral, but one senses that Trodd is on the side of the popular novelists, and against the perceived elitism of incipient modernism and leftover aestheticism.  Also, she takes particular relish in quoting passages in which writers look down on "womanly" writing and praise "manly" virtues, which only means that she's as much a creature of her time's gender norms as those writers were of theirs.

Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry, by Christopher Caudwell

I've got two copies of this book from the man who, had he not died young in the Spanish Civil War, would have been another George Orwell.  One copies is cleanly printed, but I couldn't find it when I wanted to, and I ended up re-reading a print-on-demand copy made from an original with blurry and broken type.  I'd only gone to it to look up a passage, and got sucked into reading the whole thing again. It's an old-school Marxist analysis of the English literary tradition, and W.H. Auden liked it a lot.

The Theater of the Absurd, by Martin Esslin

I wrote a blog post that cited this a lot.  It's the book that named the movement.  Esslin is sharp, if perhaps a bit more of a cheerleader for his subject than I like critics to be.


The Human Web: A Bird's Eye View of Human History, by William H. McNeill and John Robert McNeill

The McNeills are a father-son team of academic historians, turning their hand to a more popular version of history.  Knowing their work, it's interesting to guess who wrote which passages.  Anytime there's an aside on the social importance of dance and ritual, you can be pretty sure it's by McNeill the elder; anytime you read something in a Jared Diamond climate-and-crops mode (about, say, how the Parthians avoided ravage by the Huns because they learned how to plant alfalfa, and so could support big horses that could carry armored riders) you can bet it's the younger McNeill.  I like books that take on a big picture like this, especially when my main research is zeroing in on something quite specific.

Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats by William M. Murphy

This is the most complete biography of Yeats' father you'll ever find.  Murphy has all the virtues I lack: diligence, patience, the instincts of a completists, and the humility to make one single scholarly project the center of his life.  His book is the product of reading every damn scrap of paper by everyone ever associated with any of the Yeats family.  It is also utterly, completely devoid of anything like an idea, a focus, or a shape, other than the paratactic "and then, and then..."  I think Murphy knew too much about John Butler Yeats to do anything so vulgar as to maintain a thesis about the man.  Guys like me need guys like Murphy to put together books like this, which we need as raw material for more speculative writing.  I don't imagine guys like Murphy would much care for the kind of things guys like me write: they'd constantly want to stop us mid-argument and offer qualifications and bet-hedgings until everything collapsed in a pile of careful detail.

John Butler Yeats, by Douglas N. Archibald

Just the facts, ma'am.  And a sense that Archibald really likes the subject of his book.

Yeats: The Man and the Masks by Richard Ellmann

This is the bio of Yeats I used when I taught a seminar on him last year.  I don't think there's a better one.  Some people find Ellmann a bit impatient with some of the hokier elements of Yeats' ouija-board side, but I don't.  I see why Yeats went in that direction — it just solved so many of his problems, such as refuting his father's atheism without falling into the arms of the muscular Christianity of the middle classes from which he felt so alienated.  But it just gets a bit too close to the realm of deliberate self-deception on Yeats' part, and deliberate self-deception ranks up there with overt self-promotion among things to which I am allergic.

Autobiographies by William Butler Yeats

A hodge-podge collection of miscellaneous writings, but it's just gold if you take it less as a statement about the world than as a statement about how Yeats chose to see the world.  This must be my third time though it all.

Letters of John Butler Yeats, edited by Joseph Hone

I think there must be two versions of this, since the pagination of the version I own does not match up with the notes I took from a library edition.  Anyway: JBY was nothing like a systematic thinker, but he loved talking about art and ideas, and he loved making big generalizations, sometimes directly in contradiction with himself ("the artist must be autonomous!" "the artist must serve the people!").  I read these in tandem with William Butler Yeats' letters, though I didn't read the entire volume of WBY's letters, so I'm not listing it here.  Anyway: I can see why father and son ended up in some real shouting matches.  JBY is as charismatic as he must have been infuriating.

On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes, by Keith Tuma

There aren't really that many anecdotes in this: it's more of a daybook of a scholar on sabbatical, cross-cutting items from daily experience with the news, the sufferings of the Chicago Cubs, memories of family and friends, and reflections on the meaning and nature of the anecdote.  It's odd to read it, since Tuma's life, reading, and circle of friends has some significant overlap with my own.


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano

This is a collection of short pieces beginning with the mythical creation of the world and ending with the present, covering the whole world but skewing toward the Americas (Galeano is from Uruguay).  There's a strong thesis, which is that the poor, the dark-skinned, women, gay people, revolutionaries, free-thinkers, and heretics are more or less consistently fucked over by powerful bastards.  I found myself cheering for the good guys so often it became tedious.  I mean, I'm on Galeano's side, but I wanted something more miraculous and less preachy.  The book is all pulpit and no altar.


Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles by Mark Scroggins

I think I'm going to review this, so I won't say much about it here except that you really should listen to John Zorn's album Torture Garden before you read this.  You can probably get by without reading Octave Mirbeau's novel of the same name, though.

Messages by Piotr Gwiazda

If Scroggins' book is crabbed, clotted, and (I mean this in a good way) spastically angry, this book is almost the opposite: meditative and eloquent.  Gwiazda was born in Poland, and there's something of that quiet Wislawa Szymbourska-style interest in history intersecting everyday life going on here.


The Evergreen Review Reader, 1957-1966, edited by Mike Topp

I was poking around with a few old issues of The Evergreen Review that I have lying around, and got the itch for more, so I ordered a copy of this.  There's a lot to like (John Rechy, Frank O'Hara, Robert Creeley, a lot of good stuff in translation) and I even encountered some writers I'd never seen, including Patsy Southgate.  They don't make journals like this anymore, though that's really a function of greater openness: The Evergreen Review was one of the few venues for sexual themes, for queer writing, and for European modernism in translation.  The lack of a similar journal now speaks, in many ways, to improved conditions for the presentation of this kind of material.  Note that I may be cheating by listing this here, since I actually skipped a number of pieces that I'd read before in other contexts.

Horses by Philip Shaw

This isn't a book about Clydesdales and Shetland ponies.  It's about Patti Smith's miraculous album Horses.  Shaw mostly avoids the purple prose of the rock writer, in part because he's an academic.  He does throw a few terms from literary theory around, though, and is a bit loose with regard to what those terms mean.