Monthly Archives: July 2006

Vacation report

The vacation was fun; getting back into regular life this morning was not. I was very close to not going in to work today, but I thought if I stayed home, I might start fretting about work things that I need to take care of, so I’d be better off going in and doing something about them. I’ve done that, and now I can begin to catch up on blogging.

I did all the things I expected to do: I rode my bike, went on a hike, did some reading, bought some books, and walked around Asheville, NC — we stayed in a cabin about a half hour north of the city. The bike ride was great: 1 1/2 hours or so of long, gradual NC/TN hills (we were a few miles from the border between the two states). On that ride, we discovered an Appalachian Trail access point complete with parking, so the next day, we drove the few miles up to the trailhead and hiked 6 1/2 miles to the top of Big Bald Mountain, my first experience of a bald. This has rekindled my obsession with the Appalachian Trail; I really, really do want to hike the whole thing at some point in my life, not necessarily all at once, but in small sections, a bit at a time.

The hike reminded me, however, that I haven’t been doing many long hikes lately; I walk a lot, but not 13 miles up and down mountains. I had sore quad muscles for two days afterwards, and I hurt my foot wearing shoes without enough arch support. The hike was most definitely worth the pain, but I have to remember once again (I forget this over and over) that being in shape for one sport (cycling) does not mean I’m in shape for something else (hiking).

Bcause of my sore foot, I didn’t get the chance to walk around Asheville as much as I would have liked, although I saw a bit of the city. This weekend was Bele Chere, a large street festival with tons of music, vendors, food, street performers, etc., so a perfect weekend to visit. I saw some of the festivities, and spent a lot of time in used bookstores, one of which specialized in rare books, although it had some affordable books too, and another a bit more downscale with a big selection of cheap paperbacks. I prefer the latter type of store; while it’s fun to look at old, rare books, I’d rather spend my time checking out books I might actually buy and that I’d feel free to write in.

I came back with three books, although I saw others that were interesting. In used bookstores I feel torn between my habit, beginning to fade away, of not buying books until I’m ready to read them, and my desire to snap up everything that looks good. I don’t want to spend money on something I may not get to for years, but I also don’t want to regret not having gotten something enticing. Anyway, I picked up a hardcover copy of Cynthia Ozick’s essay collection Quarrel and Quandary; she is someone I’ve never read but have been meaning to for quite a while. Also, Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, a recommendation from bloggers, and Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps, a book about writing biographies. I read something recently that said Holmes is a wonderful writer of biographies, someone worth reading no matter what his subject is, and this book about writing biographies seemed fascinating, and it focuses in part on Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, two people who interest me very much. It’s also about Robert Louis Stevenson, whom I hardly know anything about at all, and I’ll be glad to find something out. So, some good stuff, I thought.

I also spent an evening with a friend of mine I’ve known since college who lives in the area. We spent part of our time browsing through books in yet another bookstore, this one with new books, talking about what books we like and what we don’t. It’s a very nice way to spend time with a bookish friend, don’t you think?

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Riding and reading report

A dreaded thing happpened yesterday. I was riding my bike, about 25 minutes from home, when a bee, or some kind of stinging insect, flew into my mouth and stung me. I managed to spit the thing out, or it flew out of my mouth, I’m not sure. I rode home in pain, trying to figure out if my throat was going to swell up and make it difficult to breathe. I haven’t had allergic reactions to stings before, but still, one never knows. If necessary, I was ready to flag down a car to drive me to the hospital. But nothing like that happened; I hurt a lot, but I made it home and took some benedryl and spent the afternoon dozing and reading. I guess there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, right?

In between my naps, I read Elizabeth Taylor’s novel In a Summer Season and enjoyed it, with some reservations. Has anyone else read Taylor before? I’m not entirely sure what to think. It seemed a little slow getting going, and still, even though I’m 2/3 of the way through, not much is happening. I’m usually fine with plotless novels, but I’m the tiniest bit skeptical that there are other rewards here to make up for the lack of plot. But I’m not sure yet. There is some subtle wit, some excellent characterization, some quiet humor, some great analysis of conversation. Part of the problem, I think, is that I picked this up after Saramago’s novel Blindness, which dealt with such large issues and had a much broader scope of character and event. In contrast, Taylor’s description of upper/upper-middle class people with money problems just doesn’t seem that important. This isn’t really being fair to Taylor, I realize. I like novels with a smaller scope too.

And last evening, when the soporific effects of the Benedryl had begun to wear off, I felt up to tackling some more of Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. She is pulling together a definition of sorts, although perhaps I should say she is describing some of the qualities of beauty, since she doesn’t claim to offer anything as definitive as a definition. She began the book talking about how beauty replicates itself:

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replications and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.

And these replications don’t stop; they continue on and on appearing in many different forms — in a drawing, in print, in a conversation. An object of beauty, then, can become immortal in the sense that it inspires unceasing replications.

A little later, she gives us two more qualities of beauty, its sacredness and its lack of a precedent, and then goes on to discuss another quality:

These first and second attributes of beauty are very close to one another, for to say that something is “sacred” is also to say either “it has no precedent” or “it has as its only precedent that which is itself unprecedented.” But there is also a third feature: beauty is lifesaving. Homer is not alone in seeing beauty as lifesaving. Augustine described it as a “plank amid the waves of the sea.” Proust makes a version of this claim over and over again. Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.

Beauty also incites deliberation. It has the effect of stopping us in our tracks and making us want to stare at the beautiful object, but beauty also:

prompts the mind to move chronologically back in the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it.

I love the idea that beauty incites a feeling of life and action; it can make us stop and stare but it also makes us create things ourselves, in whatever medium we choose to do so, even in a medium as ephemeral as a conversation. Haven’t we all read a book and felt energized while doing so? Haven’t we all gotten excited at one time or another by a beautiful sentence and felt inspired to write our own, or to copy the beautiful sentence so that someone else can enjoy it? Doesn’t that make you feel happy and joyfully alive, if only for a moment?

Scarry has begun to talk about beauty and truth; I will have to describe her argument in a later post.

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Vacation alert; and, my further adventures in cycling

So today it wasn’t a bee sting, but I did get lost. The Hobgoblin and I set out for a 50 mile ride, and my ride ended up being 56.5 miles and his 53. I took off first, expecting him to catch up with me, which he would have if we hadn’t encountered construction and a badly-marked detour. Chaos ensued. We never found each other until I arrived at home, although I did stop at a farm market to call home (yes, yes, I should carry a cell phone, I know…and carrying an ID and my health insurance card is a good idea too, yes, I agree…) and leave a message. It took me a half hour to find my way back to the correct route; the Hobgoblin, with his better sense of direction, was much quicker.

We’re off to North Carolina for a long weekend tomorrow; I’ll be back on Monday. We plan to … well, ride our bikes, read books, and go on hikes. The same things, it seems, just in a new place. But it’s nice to be in a new place, isn’t it?

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Scarry on beauty

I have begun Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just, a short book that looks to be utterly fascinating. I’m particularly excited because she has already quoted from Proust twice (in the course of the first 20 pages), and I’ve become interested in what Proust says about the function of beauty and art (see yesterday’s post). Is there a function of art and beauty, and, if so, what? Scarry has not answered this yet, but she has said some wonderful things about how beauty operates and has begun to analyze errors we make when it comes to recognizing beauty.

These errors include, among others, thinking something is beautiful when it is not, or thinking something is not beautiful when it really is (she discusses one of her own errors: thinking that palm trees are not beautiful when they are). Here is what she says about Proust:

Proust, for example, says we make a mistake when we talk disparagingly or discouragingly about “life” because by using this general term, “life,” we have already excluded before the fact all beauty and happiness, which take place only in the particular: “we believed we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either.” Proust gives a second instance of a synethic error:

“So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation … would not enable him to discover.”

(I am sorry if you do not like or do not want to hear more about Proust; I’m quickly discovering that so much of what I read that’s not Proust ends up connecting back to Proust after all.) I really like this idea: don’t talk about life or beauty in purely abstract terms because the terms then become meaningless. The terms must relate to something particular. And Scarry does a wonderful job of discussing the particular in the course of considering the abstract; she references many authors, she gives her own examples, she calls on the reader to provide his or her examples, and she is particularly attune to the way beauty works on the body:

A visual event may reproduce itself in the realm of touch (as when the seen face incites an ache of longing in the hand, and the hand then presses pencil to paper), which may in turn then reappear in a second visual event, the finished drawing. This crisscrossing of the senses may happen in any direction. Wittgenstein speaks not only about beautiful visual events prompting motions in the hand but, elsewhere, about heard music that later prompts a ghostly subanatomical event in his teeth and gums. So, too, an act of touch may reproduce itself as an acoustical event or even an abstract idea, the way whenever Augustine touches something smooth, he begins to think of music and of God.

And, finally (can you believe I’ve only read 20 pages in the book, with small pages and big print!, and have come across all this already?), Scarry has wonderful things to say about beauty in the university:

This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky. The arts and sciences, like Plato’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer great clarity on what already has clear discernibility, as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none … By perpetuating beauty institutions of education help incite the will toward continual creation … To misstate or even merely understate the relation of universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.

I don’t tend to think of the work of a university as perpetuating beauty, but I really, really like the idea.

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Proust and art

I’m about 100 pages into Swann’s Way and noticing how often Proust talks about art, and how he even more often talks about reading. His descriptions of the experience of reading are among the best I’ve ever read. (I feel, as I’m reading this, that I find something blog-worthy on just about every page. How do people who try to write something large and definitive about this book do it?) When it comes to writing about Proust, what I most want to do is give you a quotation and say, isn’t that great? And then another quotation and another, and say, isn’t that just brilliant? Don’t you love it?

On the narrator’s grandmother and books:

Though she judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries, it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have a more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.

That’s the wonder and the danger of books, isn’t it, that you just never know what effect they will have. Yes, children should read great works of genius, and, no, you absolutely cannot control how they read them or what they will learn. This lesson seems worth learning, though; again, about the grandmother:

In fact, she could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially that which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.

The novel describes a tension between art for the sake of beauty and art for the sake of moral edification. The tension appears in the grandmother’s attitude – she wants art to teach an anti-materialistic lesson and yet she thinks in terms of “intellectual profit.” The language of materialism is still there. Are we supposed to “gain something” from art? Or are we supposed to seek out beauty for beauty’s sake? Or, in seeking out beauty for beauty’s sake, do we gain something, perhaps unintentionally? The narrator (and presumably Proust) comes down on the side of art for art’s sake. This is about the narrator’s mother reading aloud from a George Sand novel; Sand’s prose:

always breathes that goodness, that moral distinction which mama had learned from my grandmother to consider superior to all else in life, and which I was to teach her only much later not to consider superior to all else in books too …

What the narrator wants is not moral distinction, but beauty. For him, any lessons to be learned from art begin with beauty, not with a moral sense.

The narrator often thinks in artistic terms, in terms of how a novelist or a painter might see the world. He thinks about his childhood view of Swann, so different from the Swann he knew as an adult, and says about the mistaken, childhood version of Swann that he “resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality.”

This reminds me of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where every portrait Mr. Lloyd paints comes to look like Miss Jean Brodie rather than the ostensible subject. The artists in both examples see what they want to see, paint what they are really thinking about rather than what appears in front of them. The way people make sense of their lives, then, the things they are willing to see and the things they aren’t, what they choose to focus on and what they block out, is similar to the way artists take the materials they have around them and transform them to fit into their own vision. It’s all an act of interpretation, and we all do it, all the time.

This interpretation, this transformation of the everyday, can happen in conversation too. Describing the “lady in pink,” the narrator says:

She had taken some insignificant remark of my father’s, had worked it delicately, turned it, given it a precious appellation, and encasing it with one of her glances of the finest water, tinged with humility and gratitude, had given it back changed into an artistic jewel, into something “completely exquisite.”

An “artist” can be found anywhere, transforming the seemingly insignificant into something beautiful. I can see why Virginia Woolf admired Proust; this scene reminds me of Mrs. Ramsay and her dinner party; Mrs. Ramsay is another artist whose medium is people and conversation, an artist who can transform a meal – a thing that happens every day – into something exquisite and perfect.

I haven’t even gotten to the reading scene, so I must return to it later, or perhaps someone else will write about it. It is a wonderful description of the way the book, the mind, and the outside world blur when one is reading.

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I finished Blindness by Jose Saramago recently; this is the first novel of his that I’ve read, and I liked it very much; it’s a powerful novel that is dark and violent but profound and moving too. The story is about a plague of white blindness that hits an unnamed city; it begins with an old man driving, stopped at an intersection, who suddenly can see nothing but white. The blindness spreads from person to person, eventually reaching nearly everybody. The city government desperately tries to do something to fix the situation; it quarantines the earliest victims in a mental hospital. They are essentially abandoned. Since no one knows what causes the blindness or how it spreads, except from person to person like a virus, everyone is terrified of contact with another blind person, and the blind people in the hospital are left to organize themselves, receiving only semi-regular deliveries of food from soldiers who stay as far away from them as possible.

For most of the book we follow a small group of internees as they struggle for survival in the hospital, which quickly turns into a vision of hell. They try to organize themselves to find their way around, to distribute the meager food rations, to find beds for everyone, to stay healthy, but how do you organize a hospital full of blind people? Even simple things like counting how many people are in a room become complicated, especially when these people have no reason to trust each other, beyond the idea, which not everyone shares, that trusting each other might help them survive. It becomes a question of deciding whether to trust other people, and risk being taken advantage of, or trying to make it on one’s own.

As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about what it would feel like to be blind, and, in a testament to how engrossing this book can be, imagining that I was blind, so that I would have to look up from my book and remind myself that I can see after all. I became so absorbed in trying to understand what life in the mental hospital was like, that I had to remind myself, no, you won’t have trouble walking out of your study and down the stairs, because unlike these characters, you can actually see. The book inspires a level of empathy that can be frightening at times.

None of the characters are named; they are known by some short description, the girl with the dark glasses, for example, or the doctor and the doctor’s wife. And their dialogue isn’t clearly separated either. Saramago doesn’t use quotation marks or new paragraphs for new speakers, and he doesn’t separate the dialogue out into separate sentences either. Everything blurs together, so that it’s difficult sometimes to know who is speaking what. He writes in long sentences, with many run-ons. I haven’t settled on a good reason why he does this, and I’d be happy to hear other readers’ thoughts on this.

But I suppose all of these techniques heighten the sense that this horror could be happening anywhere, to anybody. It’s not really important to have a specific city and specific characters’ names (although the characters themselves are well-drawn and distinct), and even to know who says what all the time. What are important are the power dynamics among the groups of people: the soldiers and the internees, the various groups formed among the internees, the men and the women, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. Another blogger asked me what I thought of the book’s portrayal of women; I noticed the narrator drawing on gender stereotypes now and then, but it’s difficult to sort out what to make of this because the narrator is an elusive figure. The narrator moves in and out of the characters’ minds, giving us their thoughts, but at times, that narrator seems to speak for the city itself, and I don’t think I would conflate the narrator with Saramago. And at one point one of the women in the hospital, knowing she is about to be raped, worries that she will find some pleasure in it. This moment was jarring, a false note, I felt, but the rape itself is pure violence, as the woman immediately realizes. One of the novel’s main characters, a rape victim, finds a way of subverting the power dynamic involved in the rape, and this becomes an important turning point in the novel.

This is most definitely a dark and emotionally difficult read, with plenty of insights into just how depraved human beings can become. But it has a lot to tell us about what might happen in an expected disaster – both the atrocities people are capable of committing, and the beautiful, compassionate actions they are capable of as well.

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Writing and authenticity, part II

I got such great comments in response to yesterday’s post, I thought I could respond to some of them here instead of responding in the comments. This is what I don’t like about complaints that there is too much “meta-blogging” — obviously, people like blogging about blogging, based on the response it gets. So why not do it? Why not do a little thinking-through of this new genre occasionally? Bloggers are experiencing some new and interesting things, and it deserves some thought and discussion.

One of the most interesting things people talked about (it feels natural to say that people “talk” on a blog rather than or in addition to “writing” on a blog — commenting on a blog is a mix of talking and writing?) is the way they like who they are on the blog, and this “blog self” helps them deal with their “real self.” It’s like the blog is a chance to create or recreate yourself in a space that’s more easily controlled than any “real-life,” physical situation. In that space — with a pseudonym or not — you have more freedom to experiment with who you are without all the usual markers that label you in some way — one’s body, clothes, possessions, job, etc. And what you learn in the space of a blog can be carried over into the rest of your life.

For me, I’ve been learning a lot about how much fun writing is. The writing I did in grad school did not teach me that lesson. Well, that’s not entirely true; I learned that, for me, critical writing is satisfying in the way that riding a century (100 miles) is — it’s hard and painful and I wonder why I began at all, and then I find moments of exhilaration and pleasure. Sometimes those difficult-but-rewarding things are worth it — the pleasure outweighs the pain — sometimes they’re not. But the blog is teaching me that writing can be like an easy spin on a sunny, spring day: a little effort, and a lot of joy.

I like the story of Dr. Crazy, who wrote a blog and created a voice she decided she didn’t like and that didn’t suit her, and who then decided to create a new blog with a new persona to find a more flexible, more “authentic” voice (see Casey if you want to discuss that troubling term “authentic”). She carried her readers along with her from one blog to another, so it wasn’t the kind of starting over that involved cutting all ties to the old self; it more about claiming a new “space” in which to write in a new way, declaring that she’s starting over. I love it that on a blog a person can say, okay, now I’m giving you a different version of myself than the one you saw before, and readers will understand and appreciate what’s going on.

Thinking about how one’s blogging self can change one’s “real” self makes me curious about how people deal with having family or friends read their blogs. Because if the blog self is in some sense an experiment, then what do you do if people who know you know about your experimentations? Does that bother you? This is a difficult question for me, since I tend to be extremely self-conscious about how others see me (more so than other people? I’m not sure). I don’t really want to be “caught” self-consciously experimenting. People wrote about this yesterday actually, about feeling self-conscious when family or friends read them.

I’ve got a few friends whom I’ve told about the blog; I felt both that the blog is something important that’s happening in my life and that my good friends should know about that and that the things I write about are the things I want to discuss with them, and I can’t do it naturally while pretending I don’t write about those things here. I’ve dealt with this largely by declaring to myself that this space is my space and I’ll do what I want in it and I’ll refuse to feel the need to defend anything I write here or to explain what I’m up to. No one is asking me to defend anything going on here and I don’t expect them to, but that’s not really the point — the point is the declaration I’ve made to myself that this is a space to get a little free of the usual constraints I place on myself. Doing so under a pseudonym is easier, even when I’m dealing with people who know the real “me.”

Finally, Danielle, the great asker of questions, asked me about the origin of my pseudonym, and Stefanie guessed it correctly. I was looking for a woman writer or a character from one of “my” periods, 18C or early 19C who was writerly but also athletic in some way. I’m not finding any cyclists from the period, for obvious reasons, and women weren’t often known for being physically strong in the time period, or if they were they were “amazons” or something similar (yes, there’s Mary Wollstonecraft who theorized on the importance of physical strength for women, but I didn’t want to call myself Mary W.). I settled on Dorothy Wordsworth as someone who wrote (and who wrote a diary, no less) and who was known for her amazingly long walks. I’d like to be known for my amazingly long walks too, so she seemed perfect.

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Filed under Blogging, Writing

Writing and Authenticity

Litlove’s post from yesterday on self and image, intimacy and authenticity has sparked some great comments. Litlove discusses our image-obsessed celebrity culture and then considers what happens in blogs, arguing that while blogs often contain images, they don’t tend to become places to enshrine images of the self in the manner of our celebrity culture, but instead are places to explore identity and voice, places, in fact, that resist the reduction of people to image. Blogging is a way to explore an authentic voice and “reconnect with a more complex, genuine sense of self.”

And in the comments Litlove says this: “I think that fiction is very much the friend of truth and authenticity, and to create a fictional personae may well be a circuitous route to telling a more genuine truth about the self.” There must be bloggers who are making it all up – who aren’t in the least interested in telling any kind of truth about themselves – and bloggers who write in order to create or foster celebrity. But most bloggers, surely, write to explore a subject, or to connect with other people, or to practice writing, or to write for some reason that would strike readers as genuine and authentic.

I’m interested, though, in the ways fiction and authenticity connect in blogs. I feel that my own blog is very much “me,” it feels genuine and authentic, and yet I’m also aware that I have a blog “persona,” that it’s a specific part of me I reveal here, or perhaps I should say it’s a version of me I reveal. And hiding myself a bit is a way, paradoxically, of being able to write more openly.

I decided to use a pseudonym when I first began blogging, and I made that decision mainly because I wasn’t sure what the blog would be about, and I wanted to protect my ability to write about anything. For example, to have a pseudonym meant that I could complain about work if I wanted to and (probably) get away with it. I pretty quickly figured out that I wasn’t going to write about that sort of thing, and I think the posts here are such that I wouldn’t mind just about anybody reading them. I’m retaining the pseudonym now mainly because I don’t want people to be able to google my real name and see the blog at the top of the list (I don’t imagine there are many people googling me, but I’m thinking about hiring committees or other people who have some power over me in some way and who might not “get” blogging), but I don’t mind telling people my real name if I have a reason to do it. A couple bloggers mailed me books recently (thank you!), and I had a strange moment when I had to decide if I was going to give them my real name along with my address. It didn’t take long to decide to go with the real name, but it was a moment of two worlds crossing that felt strange.

But my point is that I’m somehow mixing the “real me” with the blogger pseudonym version of “me,” and that mix feels perfectly natural.

Of course, there’s a limited number of things I write about here. I had to go through a process, when I first began to blog, of deciding what I would include and what I wouldn’t, and I’m guessing every blogger has to do something similar. I thought I could make it just a book blog, or I could make it a book and academic blog, or maybe a personal blog that included a lot of book talk. I feel like I’ve mostly settled on what I like to write about – mostly books, now and then on the nature of writing and reading, occasionally on bikes, because cycling is (one of) my other obsession(s) and it gives me a bit of variety.

Somehow establishing these limits feels freeing to me. I’m not even trying to give a complete picture of myself; it’s clear to everyone reading me that I’m not giving a complete picture of myself – if such a thing were possible. Creating boundaries enhances the feeling of authenticity, at least from my end of things; I can write about books and reading with openness precisely because I’ve closed off other subjects. Strangely enough, creating some artificiality, saying I’m going to make up a name and write about only two subjects, lets me write authentically.

So, kind of like in a personal essay, a blog can be about experimenting with identity – playing around with what you’ll reveal and what you won’t, deciding what voice you’ll use among the voices you have available to you, shaping your experiences and thoughts based on what you want me to know – and I can know you’re experimenting but still feel like I’m reading something authentic.

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More on the essay

Many thanks to those of you who suggested essay collections in response to yesterday’s post. You all reminded me of some of my favorite works and gave me quite a few names I hadn’t heard of. My to-be-read list is now that much longer.

I decided to take a look at the Introduction to Phillip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay and was reminded of how great the intro is and how wonderful essays are. Here are a few quotations:

The essay form as a whole has long been associated with an experimental method. This idea goes back to Montaigne and his endlessly suggestive use of the term essai for his writings. To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed. The experimental association also derives from the other fountainhead of the essay, Francis Bacon, and his stress on the empirical inductive method, so useful to the development of the physical sciences.

There is something heroic in the essay’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found. One would like to think that the personal essay represents a kind of basic research on the self, in ways that are allied with science and philosophy.


The self-consciousness and self-reflection that essay writing demands cannot help but have an influence on the personal essayist’s life. Montaigne confessed at one point that “in modelling this figure upon myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” Thus the writing of personal essays not only monitors the self but helps it gel. The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self.

In the final analysis, the personal essay represents a mode of being. It points a way for the self to function with relative freedom in an uncertain world. Skeptical yet gyroscopically poised, undeceived but finally tolerant of flaws and inconsistencies, this mode of being suits the modern existential situation, which Montaigne first diagnosed. His recognition that human beings were surrounded by darkness, with nothing particularly solid to cling to, led to a philosophical acceptance that one had to make oneself up from moment to moment.

Still, we must not make excessive claims. The essay is not, for the most part, philosophy; nor is it yet science. How seriously ought we to take its claims of being experimental? It lacks the rigor of a laboratory experiement; it does not hold on to its hypotheses long enough to prove them. But it is what it is: a mode of inquiry, another way of getting at the truth.

It strikes me, upon reading this, that blogging can be very much like writing personal essays. Can’t writing a blog be a mode of inquiry? Can’t it be experimental, maybe even more so than a personal essay? It is like a personal essay in the sense that the writer can try out ideas, experiment with ideas, create and shape the self like Lopate says an essay can, and it is unlike the personal essay in the way it can be communal, a group form of inquiry, or, at least, a form of inquiry that allows input from others. What else is a blog, but a way of making oneself up from moment to moment?

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Essay recommendations?

Have I written about how much I love essays? Danielle has been writing about them, reminding me that I’m always on the lookout for good essay collections. She’s got some interesting questions about defining the genre, which, no surprise, turns out to be troublesome to pin down. There are essays that are highly personal, some that are highly factual, some that are highly philosophical or theoretical, some that do all of these things. Some are close to journalism or history, others are close to memoir, others close to polemic. As usual, I have more questions about the genre than answers.

The truth is, however, that what I really care about when it comes to an essay is not the type of essay it is, but the voice it contains. The essay can be about absolutely anything, as long as it’s written in an intriguing way with a strong sense of personality behind it. That’s what’s really so great about essays: that they give you a sense of the writer lurking behind them. That writer must be companionable or witty or sympathetic or brilliant or entertaining, or something enjoyable, and as long as the writer is one of those things, he or she can write about nail clippers for all I care — as Nicholson Baker does in his book The Size of Thoughts. (But good lord has anyone read his essay on lumber? There are limits to these things.)

My favorites include the great and wonderful Michel de Montaigne, whose complete essays I will one day read in their entirely (Stefanie has a wonderful series of posts on these essays). I adore a Virginia Woolf essay. My favorite essay of hers is “Street Haunting,” which you can find in The Art of the Personal Essay, my favorite essay anthology ever. Woolf’s Common Reader series is excellent. I’ve read many a George Orwell essay with pleasure: this collection is particularly good. And I know I’ve mentioned how fond I am of Mary McCarthy’s essays, particularly “My Confession” and “Artists in Uniform.”

I’ve read Addison and Steele’s essays with pleasure; I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-up” (found in Lopate); I find James Baldwin’s essays powerful; and I’ve read several Richard Rodriguez essays that I’ve loved. I’ve read my way through The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

Does anybody have a favorite collection of essays? I’m particularly interested in single-author collections, but if you have a favorite anthology, I’d love to hear about that too. Any other essay enthusiasts out there?

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My books are talking

Emily asked in a comment a few days ago whether, since I’ve taken to reading a bunch of books at once, the books are in conversation with one another — whether I’m finding that the books connect. Well, yes I am, as a matter of fact. I’m finding that (and this will probably surprise no one) Proust is the most voluble among them.

Stefanie wrote a post on the Proust blog Involuntary Memory about the way memories are wrapped up in objects, and encountering an object, such as the madeleine, can involuntarily conjure up a powerful memory. Objects hold the key to our past; Stefanie says:

The taste or smell or feel of an object can unlock a memory in such a way that one is transported back in time to relive it. But finding the key is purely chance, if we don’t encounter the right object before we die, then we will never experience whatever memory that object is the key to. We don’t even know what the keys look like though so we can’t even search for them.

For Proust, objects can tell us who we are. We look to them to hold our memories and we are indebted to them for the way they reveal things about us.

I also came across this passage from Proust in his long and beautiful description of the church at Combray, and particularly the steeple, the thing in the center of his town, what holds it together and unifies it. He talks about what the steeple means to him and to his grandmother:

Without really knowing why, my grandmother found in the steeple of Saint-Hilaire that absence of vulgarity, of pretension, of meanness, which made her love and believe rich in beneficent influence not only nature, when the hand of man had not, as my great-aunt’s gardener, shrunk and reduced it, but also works of genius. And certainly, every part of the church that one could see distinguished it from all other buildings by a sort of thoughtfulness that was infused into it, but it was in the steeple that it seemed to become aware of itself, affirm an individual and responsible existence. It was the steeple that spoke for it … And looking at it, following with her eyes the gentle tension, the fervent inclination of its slopes of stone, which approached each other as they rose like hands meeting in prayer, she would join so fully in the effusion of the spire that her gaze seemed to soar with it …

Here, the steeple comes alive or seems to come alive; it seems to become self-aware, it speaks for the church. And the grandmother responds emotionally, effusing with the spire, seeming to soar with it. Objects and people blend; people experience memories through objects and their emotions are evoked and strengthened through them. And objects participate, or seem to participate, coming alive as they inspire people to life.

Then I read this poem by Jane Hirschfield, called “Rock”:

What appears to be stubbornness,
refusal, or interruption
is to it a simple privacy. It broods
its one thought like a quail her clutch of eggs.

Mosses and lichens
listen outside the locked door.
Stars turn the length of one winter, then the next.

Rocks fill their own shadows without hesitation,
and do not question silence,
however long.
Nor are they discomforted by cold, by rain, by heat.

The work of a rock is to ponder whatever is:
an act that looks singly like prayer,
but is not prayer.

As for this boulder,
its meditations are slow but complete.

Someday, its thinking worn out, it will be
carried away by an ant.
A Mystrium camillae,
perhaps, caught in some equally diligent,
equally single pursuit of a thought of her own.

How different are the objects in this poem than in Proust! The rock resists getting pulled into the world of the human; it is merely itself, nothing else. It is not stubborn; it does not refuse; it merely does its one job, to be what it is. In doing this job, it may look like it is praying, but it is not. Rocks have no self-consciousness; they simply “fill their own shadows,” unlike humans who must think about what it is they are doing and why they are doing it.

So Proust seems to be interested in the ways objects help people experience the world and blur the boundaries between human and non-human, and Hirschfield in the ways objects are separate from the human world, as entities unto themselves. And yet this distinction isn’t quite true either; Proust keeps using the word “seems,” the steeple seems to become aware of itself, as if to recognize that this “seeming” comes from Proust’s imagination, and Hirschfield says that the rocks ponder and meditate and think, as humans do. Perhaps it is the rocks who have the greater degree of aliveness, since for Hirschfield they are doing a job; their existence is a form of work. The steeple begins to take on meaning when humans get involved; the rocks have meaning in and of themselves.

So this is what my books are talking about: the line between humans and objects, the existence of objects outside the world of the mind and the way objects enter the mind, somehow, to tell us who we are.

Proust has been talking with Muriel Spark, too; one of these days I’ll write about that conversation.

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Filed under Books, Fiction, Poetry

Race report

My legs ache. I’m glad to be home, sitting in my study in the air conditioning with some ice water, catching up on blogging.

The race today was a road race back in my old neighborhood, run by my old cycling club. It’s a really pretty area, with beautiful countryside and great riding roads, which is the only reason I was sorry at all to move, 1 1/2 years ago. My new place is good for riding too, but it has more traffic and more hills.

Anyway, the bad news is that the Hobgoblin crashed again. The good news is that he’s okay (and we think his bike is okay too). I’m sure he’ll write about it, so I’ll leave it at that and let you read him.

As for me, I did just about as well as I expected, which is to say, I didn’t finish with the pack, but I stuck with them for a decent length of time. My race was 30 miles, 2 laps of 14 miles each and a two-mile straight uphill finish. The course, excluding the uphill finish, is only fairly hilly; it has some flat sections, but a few hills that are just long enough to cause me trouble. I’m learning that my weakness is hills; I can keep up with the pack fine on flat stretches and even short hills, but those long ones wear me out. I was feeling perfectly fine until a long hill near the end of the first lap when I fell behind a bit, although that time I was able to catch up at the top of the hill. Then, a couple miles into the second lap, I fell behind again on another long hill. This time another woman who had also fallen behind raced on ahead when we got to the top of the hill, and I was able to grab her wheel and follow her back to the main pack. So far so good.

But around mile 21, we hit another long hill, and that was that. So I was by myself for the last 9 miles and very tired. I was very close to skipping the final hill, but kept going anyway, and while I’m glad I finished the entire race, let me tell you that hill was no fun. I was going up it at about 5 mph in the worst parts, barely fast enough to stay upright. I was starting to get worried about heat stroke and thinking I might just fall over. Somehow, I didn’t, and I finished, and there were a few people cheering at the top, and I was glad it was over and feeling just fine about the whole thing. I was all out of water at that point, and no one had water at the top, so I almost immediately rode back down the hill and back to the car.

This will almost certainly be the last weekend race I do this year; after this point, the races are mostly too far away. I will still have the local Tuesday night races, however, and a new goal — to get ready for the centuries (100 mile rides) that begin in late August and continue through September. It’s time to start piling on the miles.

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Reading Proust

Writing about Proust makes me nervous, just like the thought of reading him once did. But now I’ve read enough to know the reading is not so very, very difficult. And now’s the time to learn that writing about him isn’t so very, very difficult either.

For me, the trick to reading Proust is patience; I can’t read too many pages at once, or I’ll feel like I’ve got too much to absorb. What this means is that I’ll be reading Proust forever, which, at this early point at least, I’m thinking isn’t so bad. Because what a companion the narrator is turning out to be! I love following his thoughts wherever they lead, and they do lead all over the place, from one time to another, one story to another.

Most of the first section is taken up with the narrator’s memories of his childhood, and especially his childhood attempts to claim his mother’s attention – specifically, to make sure she gives him his goodnight kiss. The pain he feels when he can’t have her attention is overwhelming – I feel his despair and sadness very strongly. It reminds me that children, with very little experience of the world, have no larger context with which to understand their sufferings. The narrator as a child has nothing else in his life but his family; they are his universe, and when the universe doesn’t follow its regular patterns, it is, truly, a catastrophe. The novel begins with the narrator as an adult looking back on his childhood; this structure leads us to wonder what the true meaning of this childhood suffering is. Is it really that the child lacks a larger context with which to make sense of pain and loss, and when he gains one, this suffering at his mother’s absence will subside? Or does gaining a larger context change nothing, so that one’s childhood sufferings really become the defining moments of one’s life? This passage leads me to think it is the latter:

But for a little while now, I have begun to hear again very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs that I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that broke out only when I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is now becoming quieter around me that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamor of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.

In the midst of the child’s suffering, however, I found humorous scenes, particularly of the narrator’s great-aunts. When Swann gives the family a case of wine (for those of you not familiar with the novel, Swann is a friend of the narrator’s parents, and a frequent visitor at their house), the aunts thank him in a manner so obscure Swann could never recognize the thank you for what it was, but the aunts are confident they have done their social duty. They comically refuse to recognize Swann’s true social status, much higher than they give him credit for. One of the great-aunts:

Had him push the piano around and turn the pages on the evenings when my grandmother’s sister sang, handling this creature, who was elsewhere so sought after, with the naïve roughness of a child who plays with a collector’s curio no more carefully than with some object of little value.

This mistake leads the narrator to consider the uncertainty of identity:

None of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.

The “Swann” that the narrator’s family sees is very much their own construction – they see only parts of him, the parts they are comfortable with and that make sense to them – and the “Swann” that other people see will be very different.

Not only is our perception of other people incomplete, contingent, shaped by what we are willing and able to see in them and not what is really “there, ” but our perception of ourselves is equally uncertain. It is this idea that introduces the famous “madeleine” scene. About our relationship with our own past, the narrator says:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.

The narrator then goes on to discuss the madeline dipped in tea and the memories this suddenly and unexpectedly invokes in him. He has no control over these memories; they are involuntary, coming to him without any foreknowledge or effort on his part. Because of the tea and the madeleine, consumed at just the right time, memories flood him, memories that, as I understand it, he will spend many of the following pages describing. But he might possibly have missed this experience entirely; it is chance that allows us to access our own pasts, our chance encounters with objects that can suddenly unlock memories held unknowingly in our minds. When the objects that surround us do speak to us in this way, telling us something about who we are, then we can only accept it as a gift we are giving to ourselves – a gift of ourselves to ourselves.

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It’s been a long week

And I’ve had some trouble concentrating on my reading. So here’s a short post summing things up and wishing you a happy weekend.

  • As I wrote about yesterday, I’m working my way through Vincent Carretta’s biography of Olaudah Equiano who wrote a narrative about his life in slavery and after. He’s a very interesting writer, dealing with a lot of important things going on in the mid to late 18C: slavery, of course, and travel, exploration, colonialism, trade, economic theory, political theory, sensibility, autobiography, dissenting Protestantism.
  • I’m also in the middle of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I’m finding powerful and moving. It’s unlike most novels I’ve read; it’s a fable of some sort, and I’m still figuring out exactly what it all means. None of the characters are named, although they all feel lively and real. The sentences strike me as strange — does anybody know why Saramago uses run-ons as he does?
  • I’m about 40 pages into Swann’s Way, working my way slowly towards the goal of reading the entire Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, whichever you prefer. So far, I’m loving it. I like very much Proust’s slow, careful descriptions of detail and nuances and moods, and I like his digressiveness, moving about in time, following one thought to the next, wherever they might go. So, I keep a list of books I’ve read, and I’m unsure how to count Proust. What do you think? Should the entire thing, In Search of Lost Time, count as one book, or can I count each volume separately?
  • I have also begun, but barely dented, Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters. The edition I have is only selections from the journal and letters, but it quite lengthy anyway, at something like 500-600 pages. I’m still in what the editor calls her “apprenticeship” years, her late teens, and I’m impressed by the quality of thought and writing. I can see her developing her eye for the details of social life she would satirize so well in her novels.
  • Still plugging away at Jane Hirschfield’s poetry, which is as good as ever. I get a good number of hits from people googling Hirschfield; she must be fairly popular.
  • Some things coming up: I’ll be buying John Updike’s new novel Terrorist soon for my in-person book group which should be meeting in the next month or so, and I now own a copy of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau for the Slaves of Golconda discussion at the end of August. It sounds like a number of people will read a second Wells novel, but I’m not sure I’ll have time. We’ll see about that one. As for other reads? I’m not entirely sure. I like to save some of my reading choices for a spur of the moment feeling. And I don’t want to give away everything that might appear around here — to give you a reason to come back.

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Olaudah Equiano

I’m reading Vincent Carretta’s recent biography of Olaudah Equiano, an 18C slave who bought his own freedom, traveled around the world, learned navigation and became literate, wrote a narrative of his life that became very popular and influential, and became an anti-slavery advocate in London. The narrative (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789) is a very interesting read, telling his story from his boyhood in Africa, to his abduction by slave traders, his journey to the West Indies, his travels in various ships as a slave, his adventures in buying and selling commodities, his religious conversion, his attempted journey to the North Pole, and a bunch of other adventures.

The narrative is a mix of genres. It’s history, autobiography, and religious tract; it’s an early example of the slave narrative to become very common in the 19C, an economic tract (Equiano makes arguments about the economic value of Africans as trading partners, not as potential slaves), and a travel narrative. Combining all these elements, it doesn’t always hang together as one coherent narrative, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting — it’s a book that draws on a lot of important trends in 18C literature and makes its own sense of them, becoming something entirely new.

One of the most famous passages from the narrative occurs when Equiano begins to learn about books and literacy; it’s the “talking book” scene:

I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning: for that purpose I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.

He watches and listens to other people reading out loud, and tries it himself; he talks to the book and expects an answer, not understanding how the book communicates its message. The power of the passage lies in the way it describes his eagerness to learn about the world, his naivete about reading, and his disappointment when he can’t make it “work.” All this makes his eventual triumph as a reader and writer that much more moving. He gains some formal schooling here and there, for short bits of time, but mostly he relies on people who are willing to tutor him privately and, beyond that, he relies on his own intelligence and resourcefulness.

Equiano is not the only writer who describes the “talking book” experience; in fact, he’s drawing on a trope that a number of other African writers (James Gronniosaw and Ottobah Cugoano) had already used and that others would later pick up on. He’s writing about an experience that is important to him as an individual, but he’s also claiming his place in a community of writers exploring the importance of literacy to Africans trying to survive in England and America.

But Equiano’s status as “African” is a question that Carretta takes up in his biography; Equiano claims to have been born in Africa, but there’s some evidence to suggest he was actually born in South Carolina, and that he might be fabricating the early part of his “autobiography.” Carretta writes about the possibly made-up story of origins not as a flaw in the truthfulness of the narrative, but as an ingenious rhetorical ploy, done in order to make his abolitionist argument stronger. According to Carretta, Equiano probably realized that the abolitionist cause, which was just gathering strength in England when the narrative was published, needed a spokesperson who had actually experienced kidnapping from Africa and who had endured the “middle passage,” the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionists who were trying to end the British slave trade had made arguments about the horrors involved in slavery, but they were white men who had not experienced them first hand. So Equiano could fill an important gap: he was in a position to tell his “experience” directly to better convince readers that the slave trade needed to end.

We’ll probably never know for sure if Equiano was born in Africa as he claimed, or if was born in America, but the possibility that he was born in America makes the narrative that much more interesting — it, possibly, combines very realistic and convincing fictional passages along with all the other forms of writing Equiano had already found useful.

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More on “the writer”

I got a lot of interesting comments on my post yesterday about how we define the term “writer” and whether we consider ourselves writers, which tells me that I’m not the only one interested in the problem. A lot of people (including me) said something along the lines of, “well, a writer is anyone who writes and cares about the quality of the writing, but even though I do those things, I still don’t call myself a writer.”

Two of the comments helped explain this phenomenon. Kate says, “we tend to think of being a writer as something more exalted than writing when in fact it’s the reverse.” I think this is absolutely true. I have an image of “the writer” as someone much smarter, much more creative, much more driven, and much more talented than I am, and so I will never live up to those standards and be a writer. And yet this is the wrong way to think about the situation; Kate says, “It’s the writing that’s important, not the standing back and taking credit for it. ‘Being a writer’ without the activity of writing is just a pose.”

Victoria explains the skittishness of many when it comes to calling themselves writers by asking, “Perhaps it’s because we want to distinguish ourselves from the authors whose books we read and who we come to idolise/idealise? For example, even if, when I pushed, I admitted that I ‘wrote’ I wouldn’t feel like I *wrote* in the same way that Ishiguro, McEwan and Rushdie do.” This gets to the point a lot of other people made, which is that everyone writes in one way or another, even if it’s just email or a grocery list, so there is a huge range of writing activity that goes on, and calling ourselves “writers” rather than “people who write” places us a little too close to the “writing genius” end of the spectrum that great novelists or poets occupy. Who wants to do that? I think we do, as Victoria says, want to keep some distance between ourselves and the writers we admire; we enjoy idolizing writers from afar and we maintain that hero worship by maintaining the distance. And we also preserve ourselves from accusations of pride and an unrealistically high self-image by maintaining that distance. A number of people said that even though they do get published, they still don’t call themselves writers. The label “writer” is, it seems, most comfortably bestowed upon someone else, not upon oneself.

I like, also, what Kate says about how “we give fiction the exalted place at the top of [the writing] hierarchy even though it is one of the least lucrative types of writing. Or poetry, which is less lucrative still. I’m not sure why that is — perhaps some sort of mystique around the typic of creativity that is involved in these forms.” I think we do privilege forms of creativity used in fiction or poetry and overlook the creativity involved in writing nonfiction and in other less lauded forms of writing such as blog posts. Students in my writing classes tell me sometimes that they hope to do “creative writing” in my class, and I tell them that the class isn’t “creative writing” in the sense of poetry or fiction, but that they can bring creativity to whatever they write, including academic essays. It’s easy to forget that most forms of writing (excluding things like grocery lists) require creativity. I have a strange block against writing poetry or fiction — I couldn’t do it if my life depended on it, I’m pretty sure — but I like nonfictional forms of writing because they allow me to draw on my creativity in a way that feels natural.

Danielle commented on writing in a chatty, informal way, and says that because of this she doesn’t feel she can call herself a writer. And yet it takes talent and creativity to write in a chatty, informal way, and not everyone can do it well. This makes me wonder about the role of hard work in writing. Just because someone can dash off a few paragraphs quickly doesn’t mean that person isn’t a writer, right? Some people we have no trouble calling writers claim that they write quickly and don’t revise (examples are eluding me now … but I know they exist).

Finally, Victoria says she’s a “reader” before a “writer.” Yes, I’d probably say the same thing about myself, but … aren’t the two linked? Don’t we, when we write about books, do our reading as we write? Don’t we, when we think critically about our books, do our writing as we read? That’s the fun of being a lit blogger — it’s a way of connecting the reading and writing we do more closely and deliberately.

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On labels

What is your definition of a “writer”? This question interests me because I’m someone who writes regularly, and yet I feel uncomfortable claiming the label of “writer.” I’ve read other bloggers who say they are not writers, and I’ve retorted, “yes, you are!” and yet I’ve said the same thing about myself, quite recently even. It feels easy enough to call someone else a writer, but to call myself one is different.

I think claiming the label is difficult because of all the associations I (we?) bring to the term — a writer is someone who writes for a living, or someone who aspires to write for a living, someone, at least, who is working toward that status. A writer is someone who gets published, or who aims to get published, in print or online places that have some kind of selection or peer review process. A writer … I don’t know … is a much more serious person when it comes to language and writing habits than I am.

And yet, what does it mean to be a blogger exactly? Bloggers write regularly, many of them take a lot of care with their language, some of them aspire to write for a living. Can one call oneself a writer, if writing is a hobby? If it’s done purely for fun, with no professional interest? I suppose claiming the label indicates a kind of seriousness and a certain self-regard that I, and I suspect others, tend to shy away from.

I have the same question about the term “athlete.” I don’t feel like I’m an athlete, exactly, and yet … I compete and I train and I take my riding seriously. I devote a lot of time to it, and I care about it. But I’m not a professional athlete, and there’s the trouble with claiming the label. It’s not a career or something I do full-time.

I have no problem saying I’m athletic, or saying that I write; the problem is saying “I’m an athlete and a writer.” It’s the amateur status, the fun of it, the free time I use for it that makes both endeavors seem not quite serious enough to justify the label.

As far as blogging goes, I wonder if this discomfort with the writer label has something to do with the strange and new status of a blog. When someone blogs, it can be for a range of reasons — from keeping in touch with friends to honing a writing voice or attracting new readers, sometimes to the blogger’s published writing — to increase sales of a novel, for example. And people can write fiction this way too — purely for personal pleasure and kept private or for the sake of publication. But blogs are available to the public from the beginning, and so bloggers are blurring the line between writing done for private pleasure and writing done for a reading public. And every time I post something, Blogger calls it “publishing.”

So does blogging automatically make one a writer? Is being a writer the same as writing regularly?

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I keep writing about diaries even though I don’t keep one

And that’s because I’ve been reading such interesting examples. I began Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters over the weekend, and I’m only about three entries in, but already I am coming across some wonderful passages. I wrote a while back about feeling uncertain about audience and having trouble finding a voice that felt comfortable and honest while trying to keep a journal. Burney has something to say about this as well. This is an entry from 1768, when Burney is not quite sixteen:

To whom, then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising and interesting adventures? — to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? the secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections and dislikes — Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved — to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection, Time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear, the secrets sacred to friendship, Nobody will not reveal, when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favorable ….

From this moment, then, my dear Girl — but why, permit me to ask, must a female be made Nobody? Ah! my dear, what were this world good for were Nobody a female? And now I have done with preambulation.

I think this is a pretty good way around the audience problem (if, indeed, you have an audience problem, which I know many of you don’t). I am always happy when I find that the writers I’m reading have the same problems and preoccupations I do. She’s both keeping the journal private by writing to “nobody” and creating a sort of character, “Nobody,” to whom she can write. This character is one who appears in her fiction as well: Evelina is a “nobody” too, with no name and no place in the world. She refers to herself as a nobody, and she signs her first letter, written to her guardian:

“Evelina —-

I cannot to you sign Anville [a made-up name], and what other name may I claim?”

And her journal entry identifies “nobody” with women, pointing out that women have no real legal or political status. They are both necessary to the world and without any stable identity in it. (For a critical treatment of this theme, see this.)

Here’s a bit of wisdom from Burney, now just barely 16:

Those who wander in the world avowedly and purposely in search of happiness, who view every scene of present Joy with an Eye to what may succeed, certainly are more liable to disappointment, misfortune and sorrow than those who give up their fate to chance and take the goods and evils of fortune as they come, without making happiness their study and misery their foresight.

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Our town library is having its book sale this weekend, and so, of course, I checked it out. In an earlier post a month or two ago I said something about being disciplined and not buying books until I’m ready to read them. At the time I think I owned maybe 18 books that I hadn’t read. Well, that’s changing. I now own 33 books I haven’t read, which by the standards of a lot of you probably isn’t that many. But you can see where I’m heading. Library sales are hard to resist, and the books here cost only between 50¢ and $3, with most of them priced at $1 or $2.

I am sometimes a little uncertain what to buy at these things because I’m tempted to get a lot just because they are cheap, but then I wonder if I’ll actually, really read them. In a lot of cases I come across authors I want to read but not necessarily the book I’m most excited about. Should I go ahead a buy it because it’s only a dollar? Or should I not, because I’ll really be wanting that other book that sounds better than the one before me? I’m not always clear on my criteria for owning a book either. In order to buy it, should I have definite plans to read it at some point? Should I get it if I only might read it, just because it’s a dollar? And I like to have pretty-looking books too, which isn’t always what you find at library sales. Should I buy the older, ugly edition because it’s cheap, or should I be a bit silly and buy the new, pretty edition with the great cover? I can’t stand the mass market size books, so I’ll definitely pass over a cheap one of those for a trade paperback that’s more expensive. It probably shouldn’t matter what the book looks like, but … it does sometimes.

So, although I found many interesting things, I only bought five books:

  • Alice Munro, Runaway. I’ve been wanting to read more short stories in general, and some Munro in particular, since she gets such high praise. In this case, I’m not sure if this is a great book to begin with, but … it was cheap.
  • Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women. A novel this time.
  • Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight. This was a recommendation from a number of bloggers, who told me The Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t her best one, and that this one is better.
  • Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters. I read about this in Jane Smiley’s book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and I remember reading and liking an essay by Tanizaki and so thought I’d give it a try. I’ve read a decent amount of Japanese fiction and have liked it a lot.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. This one sounds like fun — a 14C collection of stories with the plague as their backdrop.

The sale continues today, and books will be half price. I’m tempted to go back …

Also, if you are interested, you can check out my latest post on Involuntary Memory, a blog dedicated to Proust.

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Reading pleasure

What does it mean to enjoy reading a book? For me, this is not such a simple matter. I’d been thinking about this question a bit when I came across these posts from This Space and Book World, both about the various kinds of enjoyment people find in their reading. Steve from This Space writes: “I read what I need to read; that is, what gives me pleasure (but what is pleasure? Maybe that’s the key question here).” I like this question; it makes sense to me, a person who can spend a lot of time analyzing emotion, to ask what pleasure is. And Sandra from Book World wonders how to direct, and whether to direct, her daughter toward more challenging books — the question here is whether she should let her find more challenging books on her own or guide her a bit.

There are so many ways to enjoy a book, so many kinds of pleasure to be had out of books, that to say I enjoyed a book or liked it becomes kind of meaningless. If someone were to say to me, just read what you like, I’m not sure what I’d do. I like … almost everything, or if I didn’t like it, I might very well have enjoyed not liking it. There’s pleasure to be had from dissecting exactly why I didn’t like something. I can enjoy a book because I got absorbed in it and had trouble putting it down — as happened when I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy earlier this year — and I can enjoy a book that isn’t absorbing exactly but is super smart and complex and beautifully written — as happened with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. And I can enjoy a book that’s downright boring in parts, like The Tale of Genji, but which has a compelling atmosphere, a dream-like, quiet quality to it that stayed with me through the weeks I was reading it. I like books with a strong emotional pull; reading Prep was that kind of experience, where I felt something for the main character. But I also sometimes like books with another kind of emotional pull — not the kind where I feel something for the characters or story, but the kind where I’m loving what the author does with language. Pale Fire is one example of this. It’s not a book where I came to care about the characters or story; rather, I loved the word play, the exuberant voice; I responded emotionally to Nabokov’s love of language.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had out of reading books that are difficult, the intellectual pleasure of struggling with a text. I have no idea how to teach this to other people, though, or if it’s teachable at all. I grew up reading and re-reading things that were fun and easy and felt like pure pleasure (Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder), and also picking up difficult things now and then, things that were a bit beyond me at that point, and I was the type of child who would stick with the book and struggle with it pretty much no matter what. I think I did this for a number of reasons, some admirable, some not: it’s good to want to challenge myself, good to try new things, probably not so good to stick with a book just to be able to say I’d finished it — for bragging rights — or to prove that I’m a certain kind of person, a certain kind of reader.

I’m interested when people say they had another kind of experience, one that involved finding more difficult or challenging books on their own, at their own pace, and that this didn’t involve the kind of struggle I described above. I’ve heard people say they wished they’d been introduced to “better” books earlier on rather than spending so long reading whatever they came across, mainly not-so-good books and coming across more “serious” books at a time that felt late to them. In a way, finding the “good” books, the canonical books, later like this sounds to me like a positive thing — it could, perhaps, lead to a simpler pleasure in reading them, to a more direct relationship to them, so that they don’t feel like a duty or like a training course in reading. But I’ve also heard people with this kind experience lament their years spent reading “trashy” books and express insecurity about not having a long history of reading the books people consider worthy.

I’m not sure what my point is here, except that, for me at least, reading pleasure is a complicated thing. In a way it would be nice if my experience of reading were simpler and more direct — if I didn’t have a rather complicated relationship to books. But that’s just not my personality.

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