On books + literature that I love. I’ll try to update this with reviews of books I’m reading, but let’s be honest; I’m in grad school, and that probably won’t happen frequently.
- Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the opposite of that that is really life.
– What? Says Alf.
– Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
Thanks to a text from my friend David, I was reminded that today is Bloomsday- the day when obsessed Joyceans across the globe undertake their own ‘epic’ (read: drunken) journeys in the manner of Ulysses‘ hero, Leopold Bloom, a man who sells newspapers and whose wife cheats on him. The novel follows one day of Leopold’s life and parallels the events of Homer’s Odyssey (Bloom’s character corresponds with Odysseus). An ordinary man is set against the backdrop of heroic undertakings, and the book begs the question, What is a modern hero? Do we still search for mythic meaning in modern life, and how do we find it? Others interpret Bloom’s son, Stephen Dedalus, as the hero; he seeks a father, whether literal or spiritual, much like a hero pursues a fateful journey in classic epics. Though the novel follows the structure of an epic, its use of language has no precedent.
Ulysses is an attack on the English language and poetic conventions more generally. All novels must in some degree destroy language by inventing new techniques for expression, if their authors seek to be influential. The true brilliance of the novel lies not in its influence on the English language, however, but in Joyce’s ability to convey the complexities of one man, a modern hero, an ordinary man, through the invention of a new kind of writing. Joyce avoids formal punctuation and embraces the stream of consciousness technique, and he uses language to portray both the beautifully sensuous and corporeal experiences of his characters- topics rarely addressed in Victorian literature that preceded Joyce’s. Though Joyce rebelled against the conventions of English language, it doesn’t follow that he would have supported the Irish literary revival- a movement often closely identified with the popularity of Bloomsday- of his predecessors.
Reclaiming one’s native language is an important undertaking in regaining national identity after colonization but not at the expense of progress, and I think Joyce would’ve deemed the movement inauthentic (in some respects it devalues the present moment) and irritatingly sentimental. In contrast to Yeats’ love for Ireland, Joyce wrote in a letter to Grant Richards that Dublin represented to him “the centre of paralysis.” And the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners embody this sentiment; they are alienated, stagnant, and usually unable to better their circumstances.
It seems to me that Joyce did not celebrate Ireland but repudiate it, which makes the celebration of Bloomsday and its inevitable connection to Irish culture all the more ironic. Charles Mudede writes in a recent Stranger article, “For Joyce, all that was left for the Irish was English, the stranger’s words, and it is this that must be destroyed, not for the purpose of returning to the past, but to create a space for the emergence of something new.” I suspect Joyce might say, “Bah!” to all the silly nostalgia and romanticism surrounding today, but I’ll probably still have a drink with friends this evening. I was named after Molly Bloom, and I seem to have taken after her for better or worse.
Just a little selection from a book I love… The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead. A brilliant writer and a favorite of mine. lv, molly
I never got a chance to say good-bye to some of my old buildings. Some I lived in, others were part of a skyline I thought would always be there. And they never got a chance to say goodbye to me. I think they would have liked to– I refuse to believe their indifference. You say you know these streets pretty well? The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone. It saw you steeling yourself for the job interview, slowly walking home after the late date, tripping over nonexistent impediments on the sidewalk. It saw you wince when the single frigid drop fell from the air conditioner twelve stories up and zapped you. It saw the bewilderment on your face as you stepped out of the stolen matinee, incredulous that there was still daylight after such a long movie. It saw you half-running up the street after you got the keys to your first apartment. The city saw all that. Remembers, too.
Consider what all your old apartments would say if they got together to swap stories. They could piece together the starts and finishes of your relationships, complain about your wardrobe and musical tastes, gossip about who you are after midnight. 7J says, So that’s what happened to Lucy– I knew it would never work out. You picked up yoga, you put down yoga, you tried various cures. You tried on selves and got rid of them, and this makes your old rooms wistful: why must things change? 3R goes, Saxophone, you say– I knew him when he played guitar. Cherish your old apartments and pause for a moment when you pass them. Pay tribute, for they are the caretakers of your reinventions.
I’ve been reading a book called Desolation by Yasmina Reza. I like that the cover is an old’s man hand, a gaudy ring on his middle finger, giving me the finger. I feel amused, tempted, and challenged by this man’s hand. As if it’s a dare: Open This Book. And his curved finger is almost an inviting gesture. Read only if you care to confront the cantankerous, the lewd, the unhappy.
And I have been reading it. Quickly, relentlessly. Much like the man on the cover, I’ve been giving my responsibilities the finger, and I’ve been thinking too much about what it means for a person to be unhappy and what causes that unhappiness. I’m not sure why these thoughts are uniquely about men- maybe because my grandfather died, and he was unhappy, and I’ve been wondering about the roots of his unhappiness. I suspect unhappiness doesn’t differ much by gender, though its causes might.
The narrator is an old man who is speaking to his son. As the reader, you become the son, since it’s written in second person. You live in some tropical country eating mangos all day, happy and maybe bored, and you may or may not despise your father for his deep-rooted unhappiness and refusal to accept your apparent joy. Or at least that’s how he sees it. He recounts his friend Lionel’s epic battle against impotence when the prospect of sex with a young waitress presents itself. And he talks about his wife, your mother: Nancy.
It seems odd that she should care so much about a single wrinkle on her cheek but accept humanity as good, life as beautiful, without a second-thought. And her husband is heroic in an anti-hero kind of way; he triumphs against happiness. Or perhaps that’s how he enjoys framing it.
He says to you, “Some idiot schoolboy once wrote, ‘I was walking quietly along the path when all of a sudden, cunningly hidden behind a tree, the picturesque leapt out and struck me.’ Do you remember how we laughed? It was the cunningly hidden behind a tree that was the best. Well, that’s exactly how it’s been for me recently with depression. I’m walking along minding my own business and all of a sudden, cunningly hidden in the scenery, depression leaps out and strikes me. With a force and a weight you can’t even imagine. And what do I do to fight it? I dye my hair. When existential depression attacks without warning, your father dyes his hair.”
I like that quote in part because that’s how students write. They want to write something that sounds smart, and they end up writing things like that, and it makes me laugh and teaches me what not to write. And also because that’s what depression is; something dark and hidden that comes out of nowhere and feels the way you feel as a child when you get the wind knocked out of you. I haven’t been depressed as much as I have been thinking too much about what depression or unhappiness or whatever you want to call it means for others.
And at funerals, that’s all you see, unless someone has no social graces. Unless he does not wish to hide his happiness about the events that transpired that resulted in a person’s death. But I didn’t see any of that (read: the funeral wasn’t a Lifetime movie). Just sadness, fear, uncertainty. And maybe that’s why I like this book so much. It’s my grandfather’s voice, and he’s speaking directly to the reader, to me. I don’t miss my grandfather as much as I am confused by his death. It’s worse when the dead person was young and hadn’t had what we consider to be a ‘full’ life.
But an old man’s funeral is more uncomfortable than it is sad. It causes all of those delicate questions to come bubbling up from the depths, pesky like a small child who keeps asking why, painful like a papercut that’s resistant to antibacterial cream.
I’m not sure I recommend this book. It’s short, if you like short things. But it’s sad, and it’s aggressive. You have to be in the mood to have someone giving you the finger the whole time.
I just started reading bell hooks’Teaching Community and fell in love with the following passage. It’s going above my desk when I have my own classroom.lv, molly
Whenever we love justice and stand on the side of justice we refuse simplistic binaries. We refuse to allow either/ or thinking to cloud our judgment. We embrace the logic of both/ and. We acknowledge the limits of what we know.
Recently I had an assignment for grad school that asked us to reflect on who we are as readers. At the beginning of the course, we created visual representations of how we came to literacy, and the results of the exercise surprised me. Rather than solely focusing on books I enjoyed or to which I could relate, I remembered books that were read to me aloud, books that were integral to my relationships with others.
Who are you as a reader? Here’s an excerpt from my little essay. What we choose to read and what we remember about reading can provide an insight into who we are, and I think it’s fascinating. Would love to hear your thoughts on who you are as a reader, what you enjoy reading, and how you came to literacy. Happy reading, everyone! Book recommendations are always welcome too.lv, molly
When I look at my drawing from earlier in the week, I see books and letters and poetry, but I also see names, places, and coffee cups. Next to Go Dog Go appears a rocking chair and my overweight grandfather with his unfashionable glasses; along sideThe Art of French Cooking appears a pot of boiling water and my mother; adjacent to A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man sit two cups of coffee and a stick figure drawing of my dad. These drawings provoked a thought I’d never lent much credence: reading is as much a social activity as a solitary endeavor.
Plenty of books have caused paradigm shifts in my thinking, but few have been integral to my relationships with others. The books that were important in connecting with others remain fresh in my memory and sit on the top shelf of my bookshelf, so that I can revisit them with ease during nights when sleep evades me.
I see myself as a social reader– one who enjoys the sound of someone reading aloud, for whom context is important (I like a dimly lit room, even if it’s bad for your eyes), and who enjoys the connections books can help us create with others. I realized that this is the framework through which I view text and its significance in the world. Literature and Joyce’s novels in particular helped me see worlds beyond my own, understand how sentence structure and diction influence tone, and connect with my father. Cookbooks imparted a practical skill, and they provided an occasion for me to learn from my mother. Children’s books instilled confidence in my ability to read, and they enriched those evenings when my grandparents babysat me.
Walt Whitman– always a man with some sage advice (excluding his views on the Mexican War…).
I’m reading Bill Ayers’ To Teach and was so happy to read the following Whitman quote in the introduction. lv, molly
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with the powerful uneducated person and with the young and mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
What book changed your life or profoundly affected you? Here’s my rambling answer to that question.
“The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
In the spirit of the NPR’s This American Life’s discussion on books that changed people’s lives, I’ve been thinking about what book changed my life. Perhaps too much credit is given to a piece of art if you can claim it “changed your life.” But I do think that books can offer us insights, help us feel intimately connected to a character or another world, and even inspire us to write. Maybe books can change us or pose questions we need to be asked, and as a result the course of our lives is changed.
That book for me was A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce. I read it when I was a junior in high school, when things weren’t going well with my family, and I remember feeling sad often. I saw myself ending up in the sciences, and I loved calculus and owned a microscope. English was dull and lackluster to me; I hated reading the assigned books, and other students’ essays struck me as terrible and boring. (I dreaded peer-review sessions, and I suspect whatever I wrote on people’s essays was unconstructive and, at times, mean.) I was what some might call “judgmental” and “angsty.” I was 17.
It seemed to me that creativity was suppressed in English, the classroom most likely to foster it. Shortly after my interest in English class began to decline, I learned about Dickens’ paid-by-the-word scheme and began to wonder if writing was a vain and cynical exercise. Not surprisingly, I stopped reading the assigned books, and I seldom went to class. I had found something I loved more, that seemed to teach me what I needed to be taught. The dean of students called me into his office one morning over the intercom and told me I couldn’t waltz in and out of school. This still amuses me because it’s probably the only time I felt truly rebellious (even though skipping class to read Joyce isn’t exactly what I’d consider badass… more like, supremely nerdy).
My dad gave the book to me as my interest in reading waned. I can’t remember how or why, but I vaguely remember him saying, “This book was the catalyst in my life-long love of reading. And it reminds me of you.” As most adolescents are, I was distrustful of my parents, let alone a book my dad gave me. But there was a genuineness in his voice I didn’t recognize, and I was intrigued.
I started reading it the night he gave it to me and stayed up late. I felt moved. I connected to the main character, Stephen Dedalus- a pompous, creative young man who feels disconnected from his family and his surroundings. He questions religion, art, and school. He’s confused by his Jesuit education (what’s so terrible about desire anyway?), as I was about my own. He had what struck me as profound questions, questions I’d asked myself but that never seemed to be addressed in my English classroom or any classroom for that matter. Joyce had articulated thoughts and feelings I’d had but could never put into words. I felt more accepting of my own sadness and my perceived lack of normality and even began to think there might be value in it.
Books can help us combat loneliness and disconnectedness by showing us the feelings of others or of a writer, by confirming the suspicion we have that others feel alienated at times too. And they can do this in a poignant way, a way that moves us beyond our emotions and into the world created by the author.
I read it instead of going to English class. I marked it up, dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, and took notes in the margins. I fell in love. I could look at a painting and be moved and think, “That’s beautiful. It makes me feel this way or question that,” but up until age 17, I didn’t know that language could be art. I didn’t know that it could be beautiful. I had never seen a writer reflect his main character’s maturity through language (not just dialogue, but omniscient narration); it fascinated me.
To fall in love with a book is no small feat. It requires dedication, bordering on obsession, and other parts of my life undoubtedly suffered. My grades, namely, and my relationship with my parents who didn’t understand why my grades suddenly plummeted. True to 17-year-old form, these matters appeared trite to me.
Reading this book caused me to fall in love with reading- a joy I never thought I could feel. I began to wonder if other books could have the same effect on me, and they did. They just weren’t the books we had been reading in class. I became an avid reader, and I felt intellectually and emotionally alive.
I applied to New York University, and my entrance essay was about this book (or rather, my experience reading it). I essentially wrote, “I read this book instead of going to class. Here’s why.” It worked; I got in. I moved to New York, majored in English, and began my love affair with literature, language, and cities. And now I’m in graduate school to become an English teacher. I want my classroom to be a place where ideas, creativity, and critical thinking are fostered. I don’t want students to feel as I felt- that these things are best fostered outside the classroom, in solidarity.
This book didn’t change my life, but it changed how I felt about something I’d previously hated. And it helped me change the course of my life.
December 30, 2010
…It’s been a while since I’ve updated this. I can assure you, however, that I have indeed read a book since May 25th.
I’m currently re-reading Lord Of The Flies because I’m about to start teaching a unit on it. It’s one of those books that everyone reads in high school, but it’s certainly not dull. In fact, it was one of the first books that got me interested in reading. Philosophical, dark, and moralistic, it’s hard to put down. I highly recommend re-reading it as an adult.
What are some of your childhood favorites that you re-read as adults? Did your perspective on the book change?
May 25, 2010
Today I started reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Loving it so far, and as soon as I finish I’ll let you know how it goes. Brilliant, witty dialogue. That Zadie Smith… incredible.
I’m currently working with a student on Thomas Mann’s short story “Tonio Kroger.” It’s so… German. And good. Really good. Here’s a passage:
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read. Here’s a short passage:
“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful… Their love story did not begin until afterwards: she fell ill and he was unable to send her home as he had the others. Kneeling by her as she lay sleeping in his bed, he realized that someone had sent her downstream in a bulrush basket. I have said before that metaphors are dangerous. Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”
Read The Sea by John Banville (winner of the Booker Prize in 2005). The rest of the book is just as wonderfully written as the passage below.
“So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a biding stillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the future as the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in the field, watching for what was to come. [...] The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
I am reading these two totally different books right now, and I love them both. The Bell Jar is lovely and deeply sad and well-written, and Dracula is great too. We’re reading it for my book club.
Here are some books I love that you might love too.
A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Milan Kundera
The Sea, John Banville
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Dubliners, James Joyce
The Stranger, Albert Camus
poems by Patrick Kavanagh
Sophie’s World, Gaardner
Dracula, Bram Stoker
poems by Charles Bukowski
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
The Crock of Gold, James Stevens
Murphy, Samuel Beckett
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol
Men Without Women, Ernest Hemingway
Siddhartha, Herman Hesse