Monthly Archives: December 2006


I’m taking a break from summing up my year (more on that to come though!) to write about Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, of which I have now read about 35 pages, and 35 captivating pages they are. I’ve found a new quotation for my blog (see above) and have become convinced I need to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Holmes is following in Stevenson’s footsteps and writing about his travels and also about his devotion to Stevenson and to the genre of biography.

In one scene, Holmes describes how he has become so obsessed with Stevenson, he feels that Stevenson is actually there, and as Holmes walks through towns and looks at faces, he searches for Stevenson’s likeness. But then he experiences a disappointment: although he has tried to follow his footsteps exactly, he realizes that the bridge on which he crossed a river is not the one Stevenson had used; instead, he finds an old crumbling bridge a little further upstream that marks his path. His response is powerful: “The discovery put me in the blackest gloom. It was stupid, but I was almost tearful.”

What he realizes is that he cannot follow in Stevenson’s literal footsteps — the route has changed over the course of the hundred or so years that separate them — but also that he cannot find Stevenson himself; he cannot perfectly follow the traces of his life. A biographer can only approximate the life, can only follow in the subject’s footsteps at a distance; there is always a gap between biographer and subject:

Even in imagination the gap was there. It had to be recognized; it was no good pretending. You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe. There had to be another way. Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance — the critical distance, the historical distance — had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic….

… it was the first time that I caught an inkling of what a process (indeed an entire vocation) called “biography” really means. I had never thought about it before. “Biography” meant a book about someone’s life. Only, for me, it was to become a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past, a following of footsteps. You would never catch them; no, you would never quite catch them. But maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present.

I’m a sucker for travel metaphors and I like this one — to write a biography is to travel along with the subject, following in that person’s footsteps on his or her life’s journey. Holmes is physically acting out his life’s work, covering the landscape Stevenson had crossed, attempting to see the things Stevenson’s saw, but seeking Stevenson’s mental and emotional landscape as well as his geographical one. And he both succeeds and fails in this attempt — time and change create a space between Holmes and Stevenson that can’t be bridged. I like that it is a journey that teaches him this lesson and that he has turned this lesson into a book; Footsteps is a travel book in two senses (but all travel books are this, aren’t they?), physical travel across a landscape and an intellectual and emotional journey as well.

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My year in books continued

When it comes to books, it’s been a year of changes. First of all, of course, this year I began blogging, and this has changed my reading life — my life, period — pretty radically. I used to keep a wimpy list of potential books to read that was about 10 books long and I hardly ever looked at it, and when I was in the store, I’d often have trouble finding something I wanted. No more, let me tell you. Now my list of books I’d like to read is something like 250 books long and growing fast. I’ve found dozens of blogs I read regularly, and I’ve learned so much about books and authors I’d never heard of before from them. I think about books and the publishing world differently now that I blog and read blogs.

And I read differently, knowing that I will write here about everything that I read. I’ve always felt that my reading should have some purpose; with my well-developed Puritan work ethic and sense of guilt, I can’t just read purely for pleasure very easily. Being an English teacher is one way of “doing something” with my reading, but I’ve discovered that blogging is another. My reading doesn’t stop with me; instead I write about the experience and people read me and sometimes write back. Something of my reading experience gets circulated back out into the world in a more direct and immediate fashion than it used to, and I like that a lot.

Blogging has meant that I’m now involved in conversations about books I never was before, and I’m part of books groups — online and in-person — that are new to me. I’ve made some great online blogging friends, and one of them, Emily, turns out to live near me, so we can be — what do you call them, in-person? traditional? regular? — friends too. I’m reading Proust because of blogging, and I’m reading more short stories, and I’m reading new books because of the Slaves of Golconda. As other people have said before, it’s like being in a very fun literature class, or like being part of a literary salon. It’s class without the grading and where I write all the “papers” effortlessly.

My reading habits have changed this year as well. I’m now reading poetry again, which I’m very happy about. I don’t read it very fast, but I do read it regularly. I’m reading multiple books at once, which means I feel able to read more challenging things — if I have only one book at a time, I’m much less likely to pick up something long and difficult because I don’t want to find myself stuck with it and bored. I can tackle something difficult for a while, and then put it down for my fun novel or nonfiction book. This means I’m not finding it difficult to read Proust. Rather than driving myself crazy trying to read it and it alone, I’m reading it along with a lot of other books that provide some variety.

What else … I found Book Mooch, which means I have whole shelves full of books strangers have mailed me, and I mail books out to strangers now and then. Half of the books on this year’s list I might not have read if it weren’t for blogging. I’ve taken to accumulating books at a frightening rate. I never used to do this; I generally bought books at the pace I read them, but no more.

I’ve developed some unexpected obsessions this past year — for books about books and reading, for example. I’ve read 4 of these books this year — by Jane Smiley, Alberto Manguel, Sara Nelson, and Nick Hornby — and I am looking forward to reading more. I had a brief but intense love affair with footnotes after reading The Mezzanine and Dracula (the editor’s footnotes were wonderful). And I’ve recently gotten excited about books on walking, with Rory Stewart’s book and now Footsteps, and with Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost on my shelves, and W.G. Sebald and Bruce Chatwin waiting for me. I also discovered the joys of reading diaries — Virginia Woolf’s and Frances Burney’s in particular.

All this feels like a lot in one year. It makes me wonder what next year will bring.

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My year in books

I suppose I can resist no longer — it’s time to begin summing up my year in books. I think I’ll do a couple posts on the topic and at least one on my year in cycling. But for now, here’s a list of the books from 2006 I liked the best. I only read maybe 2 or 3 books published this year (some of them I’m not sure if they are this year or last), so it’s by no means a guide to this year’s books. It’s just a list of things I liked.

  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I loved these books and flew through them. I haven’t read young adults books in forever, and these books made me think that’s a shame. I’m certain I’ll re-read them at some point when I need something fun. I found the plot absorbing, but the ideas were too.
  • Mary Oliver’s American Primitive. This is the first book of poems I picked up when I decided to try reading poetry again after years of not doing it, and I’m so glad I did. The poems are beautiful and moving, and — if you like poems about nature that aren’t sentimental (in the bad sense) or sappy, give this book a try.
  • Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. This short book inspired me to write about it on this blog so many times, I was afraid you all would get tired of hearing about it. I found it a beautiful book, as befits the title, one that I read through slowly because I wanted to stop and think about its ideas so often.
  • Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. West captures childhood so well in this novel. The narrative voice is irresistable. It’s a portrait of a troubled family, and it seems to me to describe a young girl’s experience of such a family perfectly.
  • Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. Many thanks to Stefanie for starting the Proust blog and inspiring me to tackle this book — actually, I’ve tackled all of In Search of Lost Time, which I should be able to finish in 2007. Without the group blog, I may never have read this book, and I’m so glad I did.
  • Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Another one I posted about often. This novel follows the main character’s thoughts as he travels up an escalator on his way back to work after his lunch hour. And that’s the whole plot. It felt more essayistic to me than novelistic, complete with footnotes as it was. And it got me off on a long string of posts about footnotes.
  • Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between. I was enthralled at Stewart’s sense of adventure and his bravery and his ability to write about his walk across Afghanistan. I finished this one only recently, and it’s inspired me to read more contemporary travel writing, particularly books about long walks.

I could list more, probably, but as I will have read 56 or 57 books by the end of the year, listing 7 favorites seems about right, if I’m trying to focus on the ones I thought were the best. Actually, it’s 9 favorite books because I counted the Pullman books separately in my year’s total. As I was coming up with the list, I didn’t try to pick different genres, but I’m happy to see there was variety, with some poetry and nonfiction on the list, and it makes me think I should make sure to read lots of both next year, along with tons of novels, of course.

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Books I’ve begun

I began Orhan Pamuk’s Snow a week or so ago and I’m enjoying it. I’ll probably wait to say anything substantive about it until I’ve finished it (I’m maybe 2/3 of the way through), but it’s an interesting follow-up to Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, since both books deal with Islam, although in very different settings and in different ways. But Snow is very much about the conflict between secularists and fundamentalist Muslims and the changes Islam has undergone and the changes it’s brought about in the last few decades, just as Stewart’s book is. I like the way Pamuk deals with the political issues — largely through his hapless main character Ka who wanders rather aimlessly around the Turkish city of Kars, trying to woo the beautiful Ipek and getting himself into trouble. Political and religious conflict is all through the novel, and we see a lot of it directly, but we also get it filtered through Ka’s experience, which helps balance out the serious tone and subject matter. I will say I find it a tiny bit slow-going. It doesn’t have much narrative drive. But that’s okay, I think, as the ideas and the characters are so interesting and well-done.

Last night I began Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, and I’m really excited about it. I’ve only read about 5 pages, but I can tell this is going to be just the kind of book I like — it’s a mix of personal narrative, travel book, and biography. It starts off telling the story of Holmes’s journey through part of France, following in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps. Both of them traveled mostly on foot, sleeping outside many nights and getting fed by local villagers. It reminds me once again of Rory Stewart, although again it’s a very different experience. But Stewart was also following someone’s footsteps, in his case, Babur, a 16th century man who founded the Mughal dynasty of India. Both Holmes and Stewart are looking for traces of history as they travel through and write about the modern world.

Holmes will go on to write about Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and Gerard de Nerval — in this book, more exactly, he’ll be writing about the experience of traveling in their footsteps as well as writing about the people themselves. It promises to be a great mix of the historical, the critical, and the personal.

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On Writing

I most likely will never write a novel or even a short story, but this post on Kate’s Book Blog tempts me just the tiniest bit to give it a try — not because I think I can write a good novel or story, but because it makes me realize just how much I’d learn from the attempt. If I did it (which I almost certainly won’t — I’m just playing with ideas here), I wouldn’t show it to anybody, but would do it solely for my own educational purposes. Because Kate’s post makes me realize how little I pay attention to the technical details of what I read. I’m aware of some things like plot structure, point of view, creating scenes, showing vs. telling, etc., but I don’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. If I tried creating my own scenes, though, or if I had to worry about how to get characters from one place to another or had to choose what details to include and what ones not or if I had to struggle to get the point of view right, I’d be seeing the matter in another way entirely. I’m a believer in the value of learning by doing; don’t you think this would be a fabulous learning experience?

Kate is writing about Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which I haven’t been interested in up until now, because I’m not that kind of a writer, but now I’m intrigued. Perhaps I’d learn a lot about reading even if I’m not exactly Prose’s intended audience, although Prose’s subtitle, “A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write them,” leaves open the issue of audience, implying that the two groups of people mentioned might not necessarily overlap completely.

The Hobgoblin is writing a novel, of course, and I’ve got a good friend who’s a novelist, and I read other bloggers who write fiction, and I’m interested in the insights they have into the craft of fiction and I find myself wanting those insights too.

And one more point about writing, unrelated to the above: I’ve been thinking about Litlove’s post on the way we compare ourselves to others and how easy it is to get jealous of what other writers can do. I don’t get jealous of fiction writers or poets, as I don’t write in those genres, and although I write academic criticism now and then, I don’t get jealous of other people’s ability to write that sort of thing, maybe because I don’t feel like that kind of writing is all that important to me, but I sometimes get jealous of what other bloggers can do. When I began blogging and spending a significant amount of time reading other people’s blogs, I’d get overwhelmed sometimes because I found so much good writing of the type I could never do myself. I really don’t understand those who think there’s no good writing on blogs, because if you look around just a little bit, you’ll find tons of it.

Blogging has been interesting for me because I’ve found I care about my writing in a way I haven’t before. I’ve had moments of feeling so inadequate as a writer that I’ve thought to myself, either you stop writing entirely to get rid of the bad feelings or you accept that you will never be able to do what those other people do and instead begin to enjoy their ability. And it’s possible, at least in moments, to accept that some people are just outrageously talented and to appreciate that rather than get jealous. As I wrote in a comment over at Litlove’s, surrounding oneself with fabulously talented people makes it easier to get to the point of no longer wanting to compete because the effort is just too exhausting. And it’s probably at that point that a person can do their best work.

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Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

I have a copy of Kafka’s Complete Stories; it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever read all the stories in it, but I would like to read more, as I enjoyed “A Hunger Artist.” I feel like I’ve read a lot of Kafka, but when I think about what, exactly, I’ve read, I realize it’s only The Trial, and that I read over a decade ago. Maybe I’ve read a lot about Kafka and that makes me feel like I’ve actually read a lot of his work. The term “kafka-esque” is very easy to throw around in conversation, and so it’s not hard to begin to think I’ve got him all figured out.

I don’t think I’ve got him all figured out, but “A Hunger Artist” didn’t upset my expectations of what I’d find in a Kafka short story — you could call it “kafka-esque”: it feels like a parable; it deals with ideas as least as much as characters and more so than plot; it’s absurd, and yet the story is told as though it weren’t; it’s about darkness and suffering and yet there’s something fine and admirable about it.

At the center of the story is the paradox of the “hunger artist” himself — how can one be a hunger artist? What’s artistic about not eating? The narrator tells us the hunger artist believes in “the honor of his profession,” and we learn that no one but the hunger artist can know for sure he is not cheating, so “he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.” So there is something mysteriously artistic about fasting, and not only that, but the hunger artist is the only one who really understands it. He also says that although no one else knows it, fasting is easy, further undermining the “artistic” element of it. And there’s the twist at the end where we learn that he fasts because he can’t find food he likes to eat. So in what sense is fasting artistic?

I don’t know, really, but it defines art as a complex give and take between artist and viewer. The artist knows fasting is easy, but the viewers won’t believe it, so they insist that they are witnessing an act in one sense or another — the artist is either “out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy,” i.e., he managed to sneak food into his cage. So part of the “art” is simply doing nothing and then letting viewers make what sense of it they will. The more the artist insists he’s doing nothing, the more “artistic,” partly as in “artifice” and “artificial,” the viewers think it is.

Art in this story is nothing — it’s negation and refusal. It’s about letting the body waste away, until it disappears at the story’s end. And yet the art is nothingness that creates an event. It’s a refusal of the body that’s also a display of that body — a weird denial of and celebration of the body. If art here is about nothing, it’s also about death — the artist makes his living off of dying.

No wonder taste is changing and people pass him by to head for the menagerie, and no wonder they prefer to see the panther, so full of the joy of life. And yet I don’t think the story is leading us to sympathize with this changing taste; the hunger artist seems to be an admirable figure, and the people who refuse to appreciate him are refusing to see something real and true about life. It’s like the hunger artist is the one who can recognize the true nature of things — that everything ends in death and nothingness. He is an artist because of the way, simply by placing himself in a cage and refusing to eat, he can turn nothing into something — he makes some kind of meaning, difficult and distressing though it may be, out of emptiness.

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Books, books, and more books

I’ve written before about not mooching more books, but I haven’t kept that resolution. Surprise, surprise. How can I resist when they are free?? I know I have to mail books to other people in order to mooch books for myself, but it still feels free. I still have four points left, which means four more free books. There are lots of things that look good, but I’m trying to keep the points for books I really, really want, ones I just can’t resist. I was this close to getting a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, for example, but somebody else mooched it before I could put in my request. Sigh.

But, in addition to Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary and Edmund White’s biography of Proust which I mentioned in a previous post, I recently received a Penguin Classic with some of Jane Austen’s lesser-known work: Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Books by Jane Austen that I haven’t read! What’s taken me so long?

I also received just today Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit is one of my literary heroes. I was reading her book Wanderlust a year or so ago and took it with me on a plane trip and noticed a woman in the airport watching me reading the book with some curiosity. I realized later that the woman looked suspiciously like the author photo of Solnit. I can’t be sure, but it might have been her, noticing me reading her book. I wish I could have told her how inspiring I thought her book was.

And, thanks to a mention by Litlove, I have Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade on the way, which will do very well when I’m looking for something outside of my usual reading pattern, and also Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, which will help satisfy my interest in books about walking.

On another topic entirely — I read Franz Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist” the other day, and I’m planning on posting about it on the short story blog A Curious Singularity, but I haven’t quite had the time — or maybe it’s that I haven’t had the energy and the courage? — to write about it yet. I need to re-read it for one thing. And for another, I’m not sure what I will say. It’s a great story though, wonderfully strange.

And one more random note here — I’ve been trying to decide if I want to do the Winter Classics challenge, but I’m unsure. Part of the problem is time — I want to finish up the From the Stacks challenge, and I’m not sure I’ll have time to do both of these. The other is that I tend to take reading plans and challenges very seriously and if I did it, I’d probably read dutifully through the list, and I think it’s better if I keep some room for spontaneity in my book choices. Challenges are fun and I like being a part of a group and they are so tempting because books plans and reading lists are fun, but I’d probably better stay away.

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