Year-end recap: books I read in 2017

Time to recap the books I completed reading in 2017. I wanted to share some quick recollections, impressions, and reflections. I read 49 books in 2017, one more than 2016. For some reason, in late summer I came to a near-complete standstill with my reading. I was on pace to read well over 50, maybe 60 titles, but I really slowed down. Much of that has to do with teaching load: prepping classes can wreck the reading life. I think something else was going on–perhaps a malaise having to do with the times we live in right now. Who knows. Let’s hope I get back into it in 2018.

Without further ado, onward to the titles!

Counterculture through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Read the ebook version and used it to help prepare an English 102 course themed on counterculture texts. It was most helpful. Goffman writes in an accessible style for a general audience, and he was especially good at showing interconnections between disparate time periods, moving from the ancients all the way up to the present day hacker subcultures. Thumbs up on this one.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. I was steered back to Aeschylus by the Goffman book mentioned above. It was a rewarding read. The Greek dramatists are special. Prometheus is a figure I’m learning more about, thanks to Ken Goffman again. I also read Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and will be re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2018 (as I’ll probably be teaching it next fall). What I’m realizing is how important Prometheus is as a figure for Romanticism and the Modern Age. He’s up there with Faust in the mythic stratosphere.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I taught selected chapters from Defoe’s novel in Literature & Environment in Spring 2017, and re-read the entire novel in preparation for that. There’s a very nice ebook edition at University of Adelaide which includes illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Robinson Crusoe is a great novel in spite of itself. It’s one of the first British novels and important on  that score. But it’s also relevant because Crusoe is one of these mythic figures (like Faust, Don Juan, Prometheus, etc.) who resonate through the years. For my course, we examined how Crusoe tackles nature when on the deserted island. He controls it, manages it, dominates and cultivate it, like a good young Capitalist. He’s about the best example I can conjure to show anthropocentric and Eurocentric attitudes in operation.

Candide by Voltaire. Another re-read for a Western World Lit II course taught in Spring 2017. What can you say? One of the greatest satires ever written. Voltaire rips everyone to shreds with great brio. Honestly, I don’t know what the students thought of it, given our hyper-sensitive times, but I’m glad I exposed it to them again.

Steppenwolf by Hesse. I taught this one in English 102 and this is the third time reading it. It’s a strange book and may be becoming a dated period piece, due to the overwhelming Jungian analytical psych perspectives loaded into it. That being said, I still love the book. It takes chances, and offers students a lighter-weight exposure to Modernist literature.

Faust part 1 by Goethe. Taught for Western World Lit II. It’s tough to teach, and tougher in these current times, though it remains highly relevant. If only people would pay more attention to what Goethe was going for here.

Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. Many of the books I taught in Western World Lit II seemed displaced by our contemporary moment. This was one of them. Here we have a wretched man, self-loathing and massively egotistical, I don’t know, maybe a kind of inverted narcissist. He’s totally insecure, hard on himself and on others. I have no clue what the students really thought about it. My impression was they rejected it as out of bounds. There were, however, one or two (and there always are) who were moved by it, which is why I put it on the syllabus. All about exposure.

An Enemy of the People by Ibsen. I teach this regularly in Literature and Environment and it sparks thoughtful debate every time. I also made a print-on-demand version of the public domain text, available at sprucealley.com. It came out looking great.

The Dharma Bums by Kerouac. Re-read this one for my counter-culture themed course last Spring. Kerouac goes over well, usually, although this time out we paid more attention to the problematic treatment of women in the novel, and some of my better students wrote excellent feminist analyses of the book. In keeping with what is now a running theme of my commentary, I felt like this book is starting to feel dated. I got the strong sense from some students that the idea of running off on the road like that and living on mountaintops is just completely foreign. You mean, he did it without a smart phone? Yeah.

Madame Bovary by Flaubert. This was the centerpiece of my Western World Lit II course, a high point in European realist fiction. I had not read the book since college! I loved getting the opportunity to revisit it, and it was even more impressive to me.

Franny and Zooey by Salinger. I retaught this one in Spring and Fall English 102 courses, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Neurotic, precocious twenty-somethings searching for more meaningful lives. When are the purported new Salinger books coming out, anyway?

Hyperion by Holderin. I was led to this book I think because it was mentioned in my Western World Lit II textbook, and we did a short poem from it. German Romanticism is a pretty interesting space to me, and while I don’t have strong impressions to share about Holderin’s book, I’m glad I gave it a read.

The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Re-taught this book. Every time I teaching a book again, I read it along with the class.

Drop City by T.C. Boyle. I ambitiously tackled this novel for the first time with a class, and though I probably won’t teach it again, it was fun to share with them, and it paired nicely with other things we were reading and watching (Dharma Bums, Into the Wild, for instance).

Hedda Gabler by Ibsen. Taught this one in Western World Lit II. The second time I’ve taught it. Ibsen is always in style for me. We screened the Ingrid Bergman teleplay version on Youtube, which really brought the words to life.

The Pleasure of the Text by Barthes. Why do I insist on reading theory? It’s like an itch I can’t scratch to satisfaction. This short book was OK, I guess. I rather like Barthes’ precious style for what it’s worth, but honestly, I can’t remember much of what it was about.

Oryx and Crake by Atwood. I taught this for the first time in Literature and Environment for the first time in Spring and again in Fall, and it’s now in regular rotation for that course. Great novel, part one of the Maddadam trilogy. Atwood is in vogue again, what with the Handmaid’s Tale TV series being so popular. She’s a sharp, witty, prescient, smart, and effortless writer.

Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo. Ken is a friend and colleague. I really enjoyed his book of ekphrastic poems and reviewed it for Turk’s Head Review.

Selected Cantos by Ezra Pound. In my leisure reading time I’ve been exploring a lot of early 20th century work, so Pound is a big part of that picture. I’m not a huge fan. His poetry is challenging and uneven. His political views were rabid and unhinged. This selection was OK. Wouldn’t rave about it though.

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. I taught this novel again in Spring and Fall, and I’m liking it more and more each time. Excellent counter-culture themed book, and the history is recent enough to be of interest to the students. You can use it to teach 60’s, 70’s, and 90’s cultural history. Music plays a large part in the book too. Spiotta will send you hunting on Spotify and Youtube for obscure tracks.

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. Awesome and timely book that I taught in English 101 this year. I really wanted to get the students’ eyes opened up on just how much our personal technology is affecting us — as individuals, social beings, and citizens. It’s a book anybody should read.

Book of Hours by Rilke. There’s a bookstore in my hometown that I like to support now and then. They sell deeply discounted clearance type titles. The Rilke showed up at a good price so I snagged it. This is a recent translation that I liked a lot, except for the liberties the translator took with the source text. In the notes you’ll find edits confessed to, such as I left out the last nine lines for whatever reason. What’s here was fine, and I got exposed to some new Rilke, but I’m left wondering what got left on the cutting room floor.

Creation Myths by Marie-Louise von Franz. This was an impulse buy at the used book store run by the West Chester Senior Center (I throw a lot of business their way). Jungian psychology applied to creation stories from different cultures. Really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Maybe too much of a good thing though. I got a bit weary towards the end.

Battle of the books by James Atlas. Another used bookstore pickup. Dim memories of this one. It was a polemical history of the early salvos in the culture wars.

Marxism and Form by Fredric Jameson. A used bookstore find. Bought it because I thought I could sell it on eBay or Amazon. Then I read it just for the hell of it, and because, as noted above, I have this perverse attraction/aversion to literary theory. I’d say the first half of the book or so was pretty good, and then (like most theory) it got tiresome. Yes, I sold it! Kaching.

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse. I have been slowly making my way through Hesse’s oeuvre and for reasons unknown I got bogged down in this one, not because it’s bad–I think other books just intruded on my attention. Finally when I got to summer I had the time to push through the second half of the book. Solid Hesse all the way. The Medieval/Renaissance setting gave this one a different feel than his other novels.

Culture is our Business by Marshall McLuhan. This is a weird period piece of a book. McLuhan riffing on magazine ads. It’s fun to try and figure out what the hell his words have to do with the advertisements. I almost feel as if dope was involved in putting this one out. McLuhan can be completely inscrutable, but he’s also rather fun, unlike many theorists.

The Great Ideas Today 1966. I love these Britannica annuals. They are such time capsules.

Nova Express by Burroughs. Really entertaining William Burroughs cut-up style fiction. Who knows what it’s about, but it was a fun ride.

In the Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Part 2 of the Maddadam trilogy. Loved it, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t gotten to it yet.

19th century American poetry vol. 2, Library of America. Took me a while to get through volume 2. So many poets and not enough time! These anthologies are invaluable resources though.

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler’s blog has descended into hackery and older man crankiness. He’s been repeating himself for years, and his comment section is a cesspool of thought crimes. So I don’t go over there much anymore. Geography of Nowhere is an earlier book (when his ideas were fresher) and a smart critique of what went wrong with American community planning in the 20th century. The book has been sitting around for a long time and I decided it was time to finish it and sell it, which I did.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque. I picked up a lovely Heritage Press edition of Remarque’s novel at the used book shop, and listening to Bob Dylan’s description of it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech made me want to read it through. This one may be my highlight of the year. I absolutely loved it. An incredible war novel. Highly recommended.

Literary England Photographs. This was an old photo book we got from a library sale, probably. Fun to leaf through and read the notes. The photos weren’t all that great, however.

I Look Divine by Christopher Coe. This one was a Vintage Contemporaries title. I have been collecting that paperback series. A slight curiosity of a novel, perhaps too precious in the writing. Just OK.

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Over the last decade I have become a Hardy fan, but when I was first exposed to The Return of the Native in high school, I bailed on it. I got stuck in the heaths. I’ve read most of Hardy’s major novels and this one stood out as an unfinished goal. So I tackled it, and loved it! Not quite the same person I was in high school, I guess. That’s a good thing.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I wanted a change of pace, so I read a crime novel. Leonard is great with the dialogue. Ultimately, though, I found the book to be just a notch or two better than a waste of time.

How to Speak How to Listen by Mortimer Adler. Adler is a fascinating figure to me. A nebbish pedant but also a true popularizer and dedicated educator. The theme of my 101 course was Conversation, so I thought I might learn a few things from Adler about the topic. It’s OK. If you liked How to Read a Book, you’d probably like this one.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It’s on my agenda to read more James Baldwin. We did a chapter from Nobody Knows My Name in Western World Lit II, and I often teach “Sonny’s Blues” in Short Fiction, so I pulled this title off the living room shelf and read it in a day. Makes Ta Nehisi Coates look like a great pretender. Baldwin is the real deal.

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust. My journey through Remembrance of Things Past reached a milestone this summer. I got halfway through by completing this book. When I set myself to completing it, I sank deep into its grooves and so many of the scenes were riveting. A lot in this one about the Dreyfus Affair, too. Cool to see Proust tapping into the zeitgeist.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I found a vintage edition of this one that I wanted to sell (and did). Before I shipped it, I read it. Glad to check it off my bucket list.

Vida by Patricia Engel. Came back to this book of linked stories for a English 102 class in the fall. It went over really well, and I enjoyed teaching it again.

Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenter and Seymour an Introduction by J.D. Salinger. Teaching Franny and Zooey made me want to plug a gap in my Salinger reading. Have never read these two stories and made it easily through the book in a couple of days.

What is Zen? By D.T. Suzuki. Nice introductory lectures/essays on Buddhism by the man probably most responsible for introducing Buddhism to the west, at least this century.

To deny our nothingness: contemporary images of man by Maurice Friedman. Kind of an interesting piece of existentialist literary criticism. Friedman covers a host of 20th century writers with insight. The pace was slogging at times, but I made it through eventually.

Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder. Might be Snyder’s most important book. Took him decades to finish.

Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis. Up and coming African-American writer. The poems are opaque and haunted. Difficult read for me, but there’s clearly talent in evidence.

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Another Vintage Contemporaries. I liked this book of stories (her debut, I think) a lot more than the Coe novel mentioned above. Good 1980’s fiction. Gaitskill can write a sentence. Some stories are much stronger than others, but it’s an overall solid collection.

The Somme by Peter Barton. Phenomenal coffee table history book with panoramas of the battlefield then and now, vintage photos, heaps of excerpts from soldiers’ diaries and letters, super detailed maps. Who knew trench warfare could be so absorbing to read about? This is crack for war history buffs.

And now, my top 10 favorites of the year 2017

I define a favorite as a book that impressed me the most, that I remember the most vividly, that changed the way I think, or a book I learned the most from. Drum roll please….

10 -The Fire Next Time

9 – Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction

8 – Madame Bovary

7 – Eat the Document

6 – The Somme

5 – Reclaiming Conversation

4 – In the Year of the Flood

3 – The Guermantes Way

2 – Oryx and Crake

1 – All Quiet on the Western Front

Honorable mentions go out to Bad Behavior, Nova Express, The Return of the Native, Of Mice and Men

Happy New Year of Reading to all!

 

 

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Books I finished in 2016

Time for the annual recap of books I completed in the past year with some brief comments thrown in for added value. I totaled 48 books, not bad, though I was shooting for an average of one book per week and came up 4 short. There’s always next year.

what matters most is how well you walk through the fire by Charles Bukowski.  Borrowed this one from a student.

The Humanities and the Dream of America by Geoffrey Galt Harpham. I can’t recall many details, but I liked this book, and it fed my academic interest in what has become of the humanities in the last half century.

The People of Penn’s Woods by Lee Gutkind. A student recommended this one, and I have taught Gutkind’s textbook on creative nonfiction, so it was nice to read his own creative nonfiction for a change.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. A lot of buzz around this book, all of it deserved. Intriguing hybrid style and very much apropos. The section on Serena Williams stood out to me the most. That and the examples of micro aggressions. I get it now.

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. I was really looking forward to Irving’s new book and have to admit I was disappointed. Not his best effort, although I will say that the characters stuck with me. The novel had a long tail, but so much repetitiveness: it needed to be cut by a third.

The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Re-read this one for my Literature and Environment course.

Eleven kinds of loneliness by Richard Yates. Taught this for the first time in a class and it was a pleasure to champion an author who in my opinion doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He seemed to go over well with the students.

An enemy of the people by Henrik Ibsen.  Another re-read for class. Ibsen never gets old.

The Yellow wallpaper and other stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Another re-read for Intro to Short Fiction. The Dover Thrift Edition is a manageable 9 story collection. Very teachable.

Spit back a boy by Iain Haley Pollock.  Poetry by our visiting writer at Widener in the spring. I taught it in Intro to Poetry.

Innocents and others by Dana Spiotta. Although  I liked Eat the Document better, this novel was well paced and intriguing.

Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz. I don’t generally read horror, but this was by a former colleague whose star is rising, and I have to say he has a flair for rich description and first person narration. All the local Delaware County references were thoroughly enjoyable as well.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Inventive creative nonfiction. Solnit knows how to weave the strands together. Well executed.

Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gassett. A classic I’ve been meaning to read for years. I was reading Christopher Lasch and he brought it up, so I hit the pause button on Lasch until I read Ortega’s book.

Shoplandia by Jim Breslin. Had the pleasure of introducing Jim at the State Street Reading Series last spring. His book consists of linked stories evoking the strange world of QVC with humor and pathos.

Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch. Lasch continues to be relevant today. He basically anticipates all that happened politically this year. Trump’s populism is better understood using him as a lens.

Vida by Patricia Engel. Our fall visiting writer. Engel’s linked stories played very well with my creative writing classes. She’s a formidable talent.

The Peregrine by Baker. This NYRB classic was a compelling read. A man who obsesses on Peregrine Falcons. Nature writing at its best.

Steppenwolf by Hesse.  The last time I read this book I was around 20 years old. I enjoyed it so much that I’m teaching it this spring, so it’s going to make next year’s list too.

Haven  in a Heartless World, by Christopher Lasch. Lasch rocks. I wish more people read him and thought like him. He was an independent minded social critic who made both liberals and conservatives squirm. I also like his critiques of social science and its influence.

How to read literature by Terry Eagleton. I’ve read most of Eagleton’s books and I’m a bit burned out on him. This book didn’t do a lot for me, but I enjoy his wit so much that I keep coming back for the jokes.

A primer for daily life by Susan Willis. The cultural studies approach here seems a little dated now, but at the time, this was probably ground breaking stuff. I completed it on my Nook in a cabin in Tioga County that had no wifi.

The Voyage out by Virginia Woolf. This was her debut novel and it’s totally impressive from start to finish.

Zero K by DeLillo. One of my favorite reads in 2016. DeLillo is pitch perfect here.

Natural Supernaturalism by M.H. Abrams. The kind of literary criticism I adore. Copiously researched, comprehensively synthesized, and written in a style blessedly free of arcane jargon. He actually made me want to read Hegel, and that’s saying something.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Took me years to finally get through it, but it was worth every page. A milestone and a book I plan to reread. The kind of novel that lives inside of you forever.

Education’s End by Kronmer. This was just OK. A little too polemical for my taste.

The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram. Great blend of anthropology, phenomenology and creative nonfiction. Loved it.

Telling Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates. Excellent anthology that I adopted for creative writing this year. Read all the stories and taught a healthy sampling of authors, many of whom I read for the first time.

The Year of Lear by James Shapiro. My local independent bookshop went out of business, alas, and this was the last book I bought from them. I loved learning about Shakespeare in context. The Gunpowder Plot I knew nothing about until this.

Great Conversations 1, The Great Books Foundation. Excellent anthology that I taught in English 101 this past fall.

The Trial by Kafka. I found a used Folio society edition on Ebay from the 1960’s with a far out type design that seemed quite fitting to Kafka’s bizzarro yet all too normal world.

The Hobbit by Tolkien. I bought the Folio society edition, a beautiful volume, and enjoyed this way more than when I last read it, which was junior high school, I think.

The Debut by Anita Brookner. I forget why I picked this up but it’s the first Brookner I read and will not be the last. Quality writing.

Prior Analytics by Aristotle. I continue to plow my way through the Great Books of the Western World, verrry slowly….

Reinventing Eden by Carolyn Merchant. Took notes on this one. Very helpful for my Literature and Environment class.

Phedre by Racine. My first neoclassical tragedy. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it.

American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I hoped to like this modern adaptation but found it tiresome. Illustrations were great though.

The Great Chain of Being by Arthur Lovejoy. This is a classic and deservedly so.

Backing Hitler by Robert Gellately. Read this one around the time Trump won, for obvious reasons. Explains how the Germans responded to the rise of the Nazis. Fascinating and utterly disturbing.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. A reread for class.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass  Reread it for class.

Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac. Memories of youth Lowell Masschussetts. Kerouac’s runon stream of consciousness style is ambitious and the ending of the book is phantasmagorical.

Myths of Modern Individualism by Ian Watt. Mostly sought this out for Watt’s ideas about Robinson Crusoe and Faust to use for lecture notes. He also looks at Don Quixote and Casanova–all literary exemplars of the modern individual.

As You Like It by Shakespeare. Haven’t read it in decades. I was considering teaching it for Literature and Environment, because it’s considered a pastoral comedy.

The Tempest by Shakespeare. Another one I hadn’t read in years. It’s always worthwhile going back to the bard. I was also thinking about this one for Literature and Environment, because Leo Marx covers it in The Machine in the Garden.

A Singular Modernity by Fredric Jameson. I guess I can’t entirely escape wrestling with the angels of high theory. For Jameson, it was pretty readable.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Will be teaching this in the Spring. I put it on the syllabus based on the reviews and a discussion I had with a CliFi scholar. Good dystopian fiction that will play will alongside Dr. Moreau and other texts I’m doing in the course.

Here are my top ten memorable reads of the year. Drum roll please…

  1. The Magic Mountain
  2. Zero K
  3. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness
  4. Revolt of the Elites
  5. The Voyage Out
  6. The Debut
  7. The Trial
  8. Oryx and Crake
  9. The Spell of the Sensuous
  10. Citizen

 

Happy new year to all. Keep on truckin’ and keep on readin’.

The Magic Mountain

A professor in college told our Continental Literature class that there were certain books you should read before you die. Among them I recall the following: The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Madame Bovary, The Magic Mountain. There may have been a few others. I respected Dr. West’s opinion so much, that I inked that mental bucket list note, and have over the years committed myself to reading these great novels, and I’m happy to say that I have finally completed The Magic Mountain.

IMG_20160710_115826Like all great novels, The Magic Mountain is absorbing, works on many layers of meaning, and features unforgettable scenes and characters. The Magic Mountain is not an easy read. It is dense, very long, and slowly paced. But every time I picked up the heavy book to read another chapter, I would get drawn into Mann’s carefully wrought world, so much so that I wanted to be Hans Castorp convalescing for years in that sanitarium at the top of Europe. The book contains vivid characters who are obviously symbolic but no less real: Dr. Settembrini, Naphta, Madame Chaucat, Dr. Behrens, Mynheer Pepperkorn. It’s definitely a novel of ideas and leitmotifs, and the intellectual debates between Settembrini and Naphta were particularly compelling to follow. It’s also full of memorable set pieces, scenes that jump off the page with cinematic scope: Hans’ carnival party dialogue with Chauchat, Hans’ strange vision after getting lost in the snow, the excursion to the waterfall with Pepperkorn, the seance where Joachim’s ghost is conjured, the climatic duel between Settembrini and Naphta, and the harrowing World War battle scenes that finish the book. Mann said he worked 12 years on the book and that we should really read it twice to get the full impact. I’m putting it on the “re-read” pile. It’s that good. You have to be patient with a book of this size, but its rewards are generous indeed. Great works of art are more than immensely satisfying aesthetic experiences. They have an indelible impact on your thinking; they can change your life.

 

Natural Supernaturalism

M.H. Abrams passed away last year at the ripe age of 102. I don’t know how much he is talked about anymore among the trendsetting literary cognoscenti today, but when I was a student, you couldn’t escape his influence. M.H. Abrams was one of the giants. Perhaps best known as the editor of the venerable (and sometimes maligned) Norton Anthology of English Literature and the indispensable reference book A Glossary of Literary Terms, Abrams was largely responsible for dispensing the literary canon to the masses, and he did a fine job at it. Abrams was also one of the premier critics of the Romantic period. His books The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature are classics in the field.

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M.H. Abrams

When I was touring potential grad schools in the 1980’s, I visited Goldwyn-Smith Hall at Cornell, and passing by M.H. Abrams’ office, I went weak in the knees. It was almost unreal. That name on the title page of my Norton Anthology, he lived here. It was a humbling moment, one where I realized that literary tradition is forged by real people. It doesn’t descend from the heavens. It is made by scholars and writers, head to hand, at work in offices and libraries and classrooms. I still have my college edition of the Norton Anthology. It represents something large in my imagination, the idea that there is a continuity, a lineage that connects students to teachers, scholars, critics, creative writers, historians, philosophers, a connection spanning decades, eras, epochs. The Norton Anthology, that bulky mass of thin pages like a Bible, was my initiation to a living tradition.

I recently finished Natural Supernaturalism and can confirm that, beyond the mazy, dead-end twists in literary theory since it was published in the early 1970’s, the book retains its magisterial status.

Abrams first of all establishes the significant influence on Romantic writers exerted by the Bible, and then Milton. The Old and New Testament provided the essential plot and themes for major Romantic works like Wordsworth’s Prelude, Blake’s prophetic books, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Biographia Literatia, Holderin’s Hyperion, Keats’ Fall of Hyperion, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and even the philosophical works of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel–to name a few of the many writers and thinkers represented in this exhaustive analysis. The one writer conspicuously absent is Byron, but then again, Byron’s work doesn’t fit the mold and style established by Wordsworth, who serves as the foundation for everything Abrams sets out to do in the book. This is one indication that Natural Supernaturalism is by no means the only book on Romanticism that you should read. It is necessary but not sufficient.

Christianity in the West was perceived to be on the wane, due to the rise of modern philosophy and science. So the Romantics morphed God into Nature, thereby preserving much of the Biblical template: the Fall, the apocalypse, the Revelation, the paradise regained. They picked up cues from the tradition of spiritual autobiography established by Saint Augustine and focused their attention on the individual’s struggle to reintegrate the self from a state of alienation through the quasi-mystical and transformative engagement with Nature (both external and internal). I’m being way too reductive here, and you really ought to go back to Abrams for the full story; it’s a fascinating journey through British and German literary and intellectual history, a book that kept sending me to the encyclopedia to learn more about the authors and works he quotes so generously throughout the book. To me, this is a sign of great literary criticism. If the critic makes you hungry to know and explore more about the topic, he or she is doing their job.

Another major component of the analysis is the history of revolution in the period, namely the French Revolution, its promise and its tragic disappointments. Romantic writers had to deal with the revolution’s failure to usher in a “New Jerusalem”. They needed to accommodate that failure and think their way into new directions. Abrams also sends us on a head-spinning grand tour of Romanticism’s obsessive interest in apocalypse, cycles, spirals of history, dialectics, and he shows us how Romanticism influenced the writers that would come after: e.g. Marx, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, the Beats, and many more. It’s pretty clear that whatever you want to call the post-Romantic period, we are not done with Romanticism’s influence. One more recent development Abrams doesn’t really touch upon so much is ecocriticsm, environmental writing, deep ecology, etc. Environmental consciousness owes a huge debt to the Romantics, an indication that these intellectual threads run through history to our present moment. That longing to “get back to the Garden” hasn’t left us, and I anticipate it never will. Today we talk in terms of sustainability, of cohabiting, harmonizing with the more-than-human world. We talk about how our fate as a species in in the balance. You can see that the apocalyptic models haven’t disappeared either. If we don’t get right with Nature, the end for us is nigh. An understanding of Romanticism will inform your understanding of these contemporary movements. I can’t imagine a better way for a student to “unlock” and reveal the structuring principles of the period. Can books like this be surpassed? I doubt it. They can be augmented, but you can’t deny the achievement.

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo’s latest novel is a must read. In chiseled, sculpted prose, DeLillo tells a fundamentally simple story about Jeffrey Lockhart (the narrator) who accompanies his wealthy father Ross and stepmother Artis to a remote outpost in the deserts of the former Soviet Union (perhaps Kazakhstan), where the super wealthy have installed a secretive installation called The Convergence. Here people come to die, or as they would have it, to be placed in suspended animation, cryogenic freeze, preserved for the future, in expectation of one day being revived, their body and mind renewed. The stepmother is terminally ill and the father plans to join her, although he is healthy. The Convergence is described elliptically in all its scifi weirdness through Jeff’s skeptical point of view, and the manner of description reminded me of the radio monologues of Joe Frank , surreal, absurd, and stoked with subtle irony. In the reviews of the book that I have read to date, it seems as if the reviewers have missed the wry humor DeLillo has used to leaven the narrative. If you’ve read White Noise, you know that DeLillo has a knack for this kind of black humor. It is a novel about death, about the human longing to transcend it, and the absurd lengths people will go to exert what they think is control over it.

As I said, the plot line is pretty simple. Ross at the last minute changes his mind, choosing not to join Artis in The Convergence. He returns to New York city with his son. To put it mildly, their relationship is strained, and Jeff is dealing with abandonment issues. Ross left the home when Jeff was a child and has trouble even remembering his ex-wife’s name. He had millions to acquire, which took precedence over such petty human bonds. Jeff doesn’t really know his father, and vice versa. The novel jumps ahead a couple of years. We learn about Jeff’s search for a new job. He rejects the offer of working for one of his Dad’s companies. We learn about Jeff’s romantic partner Emma, and her fraught relationship with her son Stak, a troubled adopted youth from Ukraine.

The plot turns again when Ross, in mourning for Artis and unwilling to keep on living, changes his mind again and returns to the Convergence with Jeff, to go through with the process. Jeff gains access to new levels he hadn’t seen the first time, where all the bodies are being held. I won’t reveal the final plot twist and closing scenes. I’ll only say that they are warranted by what has come before and bring the book to a quietly satisfying, rounded conclusion.

But this is not the sort of book you read for plot. You read it to access what a great artist has to say about themes and ideas we face at this point in history: spiritual death, the longing for transcendence, the apocalyptic imagination, the expectation of end times, our conflicted relationship to technology (will it save or damn us), our difficulty in maintaining human connection, the distractions caused by our attachment to technology, the materiality of language and how it conjures meaning, the urge to define and control and identify. Ultimately, it seems to me that the book asks us to think about choices: life or death, accepting the phenomenological reality of material being, our awareness of being in time versus the more extropian fantasy of living forever as subjects of modern science and technology. Even the artistic imagination that can conceive a place such as the Convergence as concept art gets placed under scrutiny here. Is it enough to turn our longings for immortality into pieces of concept art? Are these longings a symptom of a basically tragic human condition? I think so. The tragedy is not that we die and the body decays, but that we fail to see that this world, I’ll call it the phenomenological present (if we could only preserve it and restore the human contact needed to sustain it) is good enough for us. In DeLillo’s world, human beings are drifting in a haze of amorphous expectation and disarray. We get transported, or willingly transport ourselves, out of the here and now, into the there and thereafter. Zero K is a vision of humans literally giving up this world for a next world with no guarantees. DeLillo cleverly refers to this as “faith-based technology.” How perfect. We really are a pathetic and ridiculous species, when you think about it this way.

It’s a cool, spooky, wry, vaguely unsettling book, that puts me in the mind of cinema auteurs like Antonioni (think Zabriskie Point, L’Aventurra, Red Desert) and Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey). I appreciate how the novel is informed by our current moment–burdened by terrorism, distraction, fear, war, post-industrial capitalist expansion, environmental degradation–but is not trapped into petty explanations of those factors. The shit-storms of modern life are the backdrop, playing out on the streets of New York and the TV screens in the hollow hallways of the Convergence, and alluded to in the pep talks given to those about to forego life and make the “transition.” This is the world you long to escape from. Like the questionable balances on the slips of paper emanating from the ATM machine, it’s a world that doesn’t quite add up.

The final scene of the book, which I won’t divulge here, affirms an alternative way of being, a kind of connected, mindful present we could have, if only we could summon the awareness to see it in front of our eyes. Tune out to tune in, as they used to say in the sixties. If we could use our time on earth to appreciate its tactile wonders and to foster the actual relationships that matter: family, friends, lovers, so that by the point at which time reclaims our bodies and souls, we can let it go, let it be, without regrets. This alternative lurks in the novel like a shadow. But instead, we run away, abandon, disconnect, claw our way into dissociative, secondhand, virtual spaces. We get so wrapped up in identity, who we are and what we will become, that we forget where we’re at and why that matters.

The Voyage Out

Virginia Woolf’s first novel brims with ensemble characterization. A cast of privileged Brits journeys across the Atlantic to a fictitious coastal settlement in Brazil, where they while away idle time dining, reading, gossiping, flirting, playing games, doing hobbies, making excursions, and indulging in self-reflection. Woolf’s knack for dialogue blended with omniscient introspection shows a master artist’s touch. How she is able to juggle all of these narrative perspectives is a feat, especially as this is her first book. As I was absorbing the characters and setting, I thought, this is what Downton Abbey wishes it could be. Her narrative camera roves among the ensemble, it picks up telling details, assembling a world that is felt as much as it is shown. Characters are revealed as distinct entities, and the way they play off one another in various combinations is fun to watch. A lot more fun than the ham-fisted, soap opera, costume drama antics of the gang from Downton, because Woolf knows the power of language as vehicle for storytelling. It can get inside the minds of characters like no other art form can.

Eventually the plot centers on a pair of characters, Rachel and Terence. They get engaged, she suddenly takes ill, and after an excruciating decline that rattles the entire cast of vacationers, she dies. Plotting has been downplayed here; it gives way to the textured descriptions, tangents on themes like death, gender, and marriage. Death haunts the book like a shadow. The suddenness of Rachel’s demise is actually foreshadowed quite well. Woolf is executing a narrative chiaroscuro, where dark and light, death and life, are in constant opposition. Other binary dances can be seen working through the story to one degree or another. Men and women. Old and young. Those who don’t work for a living and those who do. The “civilized” English and the “native” Brazilians. Humans and nature. The persona (how people present themselves) and the inner life (what they say to themselves when no one is looking).

Woolf manages, even at this early stage in her career, to weave these threads into a compelling, absorbing tale. At times, we become a little too aware of watching the young artist at work, trying out different techniques, running through her narrative exercises, working out the details. In those spots, Woolf runs the risk of letting the form over-determine the content. This is certainly a feature of modernism, and The Voyage Out is a modernist text, though not nearly as experimental as what would issue from Woolf very soon. She stretches the conventions here, and to a degree she may be constrained by them. What wins the day in the end is Woolf’s masterful prose. Her touch is impeccable. Those beautiful sentences are a joy to read. By comparison her contemporaries Henry James and Joseph Conrad seem a clotted mess. There’s a lighter touch here, a cleaner prose line, capable of insightful introspection and nuanced external description. Here is one of the handful of great English prose stylists in her auspicious beginning. It’s like watching a hall of fame athlete in her rookie season. She takes the stage, announces her presence: here I am, look what I can do. Watch and learn.

I read the Barnes and Noble classics edition on the Nook e-reader, which includes an introduction, helpful notes and supplements. It was evidently pieced together with some care and would serve well equally at home and the classroom.