Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine

51k5gwwbcgl_aa240_.jpg Thank you, Litlove, for recommending this book to us! Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who Waited was the Slaves of Golconda group read this time around; it’s a short novel about a woman, Vera, waiting in a small Russian village for her lover to return from the war. She’s been waiting for 30 years. Actually, what the novel is really about is the unnamed narrator’s attempts to tell Vera’s life story. The Woman Who Waited is the story of how he tries to understand who she is and why she has waited so long, instead of leaving the decaying town and forging a life elsewhere. She’s a mystery the narrative dances around.

The narrator has come to Vera’s town, Mirnoe, on a research project; he is supposed to write reports on “local habits and customs.” His instructions are to “go and jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests” and on the side he will gather material for an “anti-Soviet satire.” And so, befitting this project, he comes to the town with a detached and ironic attitude, ready to observe and pass judgment on the simple villagers clinging to their old ways.

When he arrives in Mirnoe, however, he quickly finds that the reality of the place will not let him keep his distance or maintain his ironic pose. In one episode, the narrator and Vera travel to a nearby village to persuade its last inhabitant to leave her home and move to Mirnoe. The narrator finds himself shaken by what he sees:

I went over to them, offered my help. I saw they both had slightly reddened eyes. I reflected on my ironic reaction just now when reading that sentence about Stalin ordering the defence of Leningrad. Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident intellectual circle. A humour that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it.

He sees the real human suffering that lies behind historical events, events he had only understood before in their broad sweep.

But it is the narrator’s changing feelings toward Vera that really shake him out of his detachment (some spoilers ahead). He cannot understand what motivates her to continue waiting; he cannot pierce the mystery that he sees whenever he observes her. And much of the novel is exactly that — the narrator watching Vera, following her every move, trying to figure out what she is doing, where she is going, what she is feeling and thinking. The novel’s opening portrays his attempts to understand her and the way that language fails him; we first get a sentence of description in quotation marks, as though it’s from a journal or an essay, followed by this:

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But once their secret has been decoded, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorizing … The other one’s mystery has been tamed.

The statement and commentary that comprise the novel’s first page show the limits of language one encounters when trying to understand another human being. The novel is a kind of unraveling, moving from this certainty toward uncertainty and surprise. The narrator never does really understand Vera, and he tries in many ways, spending time with her, talking with her, stalking her, finally becoming her lover. She always eludes him, and ultimately she proves herself to be much more sophisticated, rational, and in control than he could ever be. She may seem foolish and pathetic for having spent her life waiting for a lover who will never return, and yet she has found peace and beauty and a kind of contentment.

The novel’s writing is beautiful, spare and suggestive; it captures the landscape of northern Russia with its forests, lakes, and snow. It makes me long to be there. I must admit that this is one of those books that I’m liking more and more as I write about it; at first my reaction was admiring but a little dispassionate. The more I think about it, though, the more I appreciate what a wonderful creation Vera is and what a powerful evocation Makine has given us of one person’s fumbling attempts to grapple with the mystery of another life.


Filed under Books, Fiction


I rode 100 miles today — woo hoo! There’s a century route that leaves from my town with arrows pointing the way painted on the roads, so I followed it, for the most part. There’s a northern loop of 80 miles that I did first and that returns me to my town, and I figured that if I felt up to it once I returned home, I could head out again for the remaining 20 miles, a loop that heads south over roads I’m very familiar with. I’m rather proud of myself for heading out again after having ridden 80 miles — it’s not so easy when the comforts of food and a hot shower beckon.

I had a bit of a hard time on the first 40 miles, as it was quite windy, and I was heading straight into it. There’s little that’s worse on a bike than riding straight into the wind, especially for a distance as long as 40 miles. Things turned around completely, however, the minute I hit the halfway point of the northern 80 miles and started to ride with the wind at my back. My pace picked up considerably and so did my mood. I’d rather have it this way — a rough section early on and then ease after that.

It was on September 1st that I decided I’d try to do a century this fall. I was aiming for late October or early November — I had no idea at the time that by the end of the month I’d be able to complete one. I guess what this means is that my health is fully back to normal, and I can’t use it as an excuse to wimp out on anything I don’t want to do. This is the first time I’ve done a century all on my own, without the support you get from an organized century, and I like doing it this way — no driving to the start point, no crowds, no people passing me, just me and the road and a couple markets along the way. (Although organized centuries have their benefits too, not least of which is people to draft on.  I’ll be doing one of these in two weeks.)

Here are my stats, for the curious:

  • Distance: 101.2
  • Time ridden: 6:29:27
  • Total time, including breaks: approximately 7:00
  • Average heart rate: 147
  • Maximum heart rate: 170
  • Calories burned: 3,355
  • Average speed: 15.6
  • Maximum speed: 36.5

You’ll see from the numbers that I didn’t rest for terribly long; if I remember correctly, I stopped 7 times (not counting traffic lights), and each time was quite short. I stopped twice at a market to resupply with food and water, three times to eat bites of Cliff bars (eating a whole one at once would be too much), once to find a water bottle I accidentally dropped, and once at home. I hate stopping for long because then my muscles get cold and it’s very hard to warm them up again. So I’ll stop, wolf down some food, and start pedaling again while I’m still chewing. Seven hours is plenty long to spend on a bike ride anyway, no need to make it longer.

And all those calories I burned? I’ve replaced them already. Emily, Hobgoblin (who did his own long ride today), and I just got back from dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I stuffed myself with pasta. I had a lovely time hanging out with Emily, and now I’m very sad because she’s moving this week and will no longer live up the road from me. I’ll miss you Emily!


Filed under Cycling, Life

A book meme!

Stefanie tagged me for a meme, and how, on a pleasant Friday evening, can I resist such a thing? You’ll find the source of the meme at Kimbooktu.

  1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Either one. What I really hate are mass market paperbacks. I’ve read a number of people complaining about trade paperbacks and how expensive they are and how they are just a way to make more money, but I’m willing to pay a bit more for a book that falls open easily and has decent font size and margins.
  2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it… Black Dog Books. Hobgoblin and I have discussed this fantasy a number of times and have it all worked out; of course we’d have to name it after Muttboy who would be a shop fixture, and ideally we’d have an adjoining bike shop called Black Dog Bikes.
  3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is… I don’t have one! I’m not a quotation collector.
  4. The author (alive or dead) I would love to have lunch with would be… Jane Austen. We would sit around, sip tea, and make fun of the other customers.
  5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be… Probably the collected works of Shakespeare or the Bible. I’d want something rich and long and full of things to think about. That’s a boring answer, I’m afraid, but it’s the truth.
  6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… would allow me to do a word search in every book I’ve got. You can look up words in books online, of course, but what about when I’m reading a regular book and am desperately trying to find a particular passage?
  7. The smell of an old book reminds me of… Hanging out in libraries, studying and doing research. Or hanging out in used book stores trying to decide what I should buy.
  8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be… Well, right now (my answer to this would change from day to day) I’d kind of like to be Maisie Dobbs from Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery novels. She’s so intelligent and intuitive both; she understands how people work and she’s expert at getting them to reveal their secrets.
  9. The most overestimated book of all time is… The Da Vinci Code. It strikes me that with so many people living on earth right now, and with a decent percentage of them having read and liked the thing, my claim might well be true.
  10. I hate it when a book… gives away too much of the plot, either on the back cover, the inside jacket, or in the introduction. How could publishing people do this?

I’m tagging whoever would like to do this one!


Filed under Books, Memes

Anna Laetitia Barbauld; or, women in politics

I’ve been reading some of the poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) and enjoying them quite a bit; she’s an interesting figure for a lot of reasons (you’ll find many of her works here). She wrote some poems like “To a Lady, with some painted Flowers” with very traditional views of women and lines such as these, comparing the lady to a flower:

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these ;
Your best, your sweetest empire is—to please.

Mary Wollstonecraft criticized this poem in a footnote in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman for its stereotypical view of women. But Barbauld also argued for the importance of women’s education and equality. She wrote lines like these:

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy Right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest …

She wrote on a range of subjects, including domestic themes, for example in the charming poem “Washing-Day“; the natural world, as in “A Summer Evening’s Meditation“; and pregnancy, in a poem called “To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible.” And she wrote poems and essays on political themes, including slavery and empire. She was known as a political radical, arguing forcibly for the abolition of the slave trade and pointing out the injustices of imperialism.

One of the most interesting things about Barbauld is the story of her poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” her most famous poem, which argues that Britain would suffer decay because of the sins of imperialism. Of Britain she writes:

But fairest flowers expand but to decay;
The worm is in thy core, thy glories pass away;
Arts, arms, and wealth destroy the fruits they bring;
Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.
Crime walks thy streets, Fraud earns her unblest bread,
O’er want and woe thy gorgeous robe is spread,
And angel charities in vain oppose;
With grandeur’s growth the mass of misery grows.

It’s interesting to think that while British imperialism was yet to hit its high point when she wrote this poem, eventually what Barbauld predicted did come true.

I’ve been writing a bit about how women writers were relegated to women’s subjects — love, domesticity — and when they wandered into other territory — politics, for example — they were sharply criticized. Well, Barbauld obviously stepped over a line with this poem because the reviews were vicious, and they were gendered in their viciousness. One review by John Wilson Croker has this to say about “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”; in this passage he refers to some of Barbauld’s earlier writing for children:

But she must excuse us if we think that she has wandered from the course in which she was respectable and useful, and miserably mistaken both her powers and her duty, in exchanging the birchen for the satiric rod, and abandoning her superintendance of the ‘ovilia’ [lambs] of the nursery, to wage war on the ‘reluctantes dracones’ [struggling lawgivers], statesmen, and warriors, whose misdoings have aroused her indignant muse.

We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author … Not such, however, is her opinion; an irresistible impulse of public duty — a confident sense of commanding talents — have induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles and to sally forth …

and it goes on in this vein for quite a while. In other words, the reviewer is saying, get back to the nursery where you belong and stop meddling in politics.

This, unfortunately was a common response to women who wrote about “male” subjects. It hit Barbauld particularly hard, though, and although she kept on writing, she chose never to publish anything again. I suppose one could say she should have let the controversy wash over her and kept on publishing, but with a long, long history of such misogynistic criticism, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do so.

So there’s a double bind going on here — how could women experiment and write about dangerous topics when the wrath of the publishing world could fall on them (although many did this anyway), and how could people learn how to read and understand the things women were writing when aesthetic standards are defined by men?


Filed under Books, Poetry

Women and the Novel

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments on my post from the other day about women and the 18C novel, and I wanted to pick up on some of the ideas. Danielle asks:

I wonder if the reason some of these writings are not in the canon, or really available now is that these women’s writings are not seen as valid as men’s — or to say it a different way–a woman’s experience as valid as a man’s?

My short answer — that’s exactly it. Or perhaps I would say that for much of the last 200 years critics, most of them male, have tended overall to see women’s experiences as less valid than men’s and so have not taken women’s writing that expresses women’s experiences as seriously. In the last 20 years or so there’s been an explosion of interest in women’s writing and an attempt to think about what makes this writing valuable, but for so long 18C novels by women didn’t get attention because of a long tradition of criticism that wasn’t interested in understanding them.

Dale Spender writes about how it wasn’t so bad for women to write in the 17C and 18C as far as their reputations were concerned, but to publish their writings was risky. Here’s what she says about the 17C, before the novel took off:

The public world of letters was already by the seventeenth century a world of the ‘men of letters’, because so many women decided that the price of publicity was too high to pay, and made few or no attempts to encroach on this area of male territory. And this absence of women in print still has ramifications today, for, apart from the fact that it gave men a free hand to decree the literary conventions of the time (conventions which still make their presence felt), there is also the additional difficulty which is encountered when it comes to tracing the origins of women’s literary traditions. Women published much less, and what they published was more likely to be anonymous, little favored, and easily ‘lost’. This is in contrast to the extensive, varied public heritage of men which has been more readily preserved.

This is part of the story, that women writers struggled because entering public discourse was such a dangerous act, which meant that male writers could influence literary trends and decide what constitutes good writing, and women didn’t have much say in the matter. (I just can’t believe in objective aesthetic standards!)

The other part of the story is that once novel writing took off in the 18C and women writers began to publish in greater and greater numbers, male critics started to get dismissive about the value of novel writing. Yes, they said, novels are hugely popular, and yes women are successful at writing them, but the novel isn’t a serious genre, it’s just light entertainment, and so we’ll let women have it. Here is the dismissiveness about women’s writing and experiences that Danielle was asking about. For the longest time I don’t think we had the tools to understand and appreciate 18C novels by women because we didn’t have a tradition of thinking about them and trying to understand them.

As far as romance is concerned (another topic that has come up in the comments), that is more complicated, not least because “romance” can mean a number of things, including novels with marriage plots and novels that follow in the tradition of courtly romances with high-born characters, adventures, etc. But about the marriage plot, men and women both were writing about it — and the marriage plot is really about money and property and status when it comes down to it. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is about a servant girl trying to break into a higher class through marriage and Austen’s plots are about love but also about how women of marginal status survive and about who is going to end up mistress of the big estate. It seems that everyone, men and women alike, were obsessed with what to do about young women and marriageable young men.

Oh, I could go on and on. I’d like to write soon about Anna Laetitia Barbauld who is a great example for thinking about how criticism and canon-formation hurt women writers.


Filed under Books

On not liking books

I thought about giving Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia a proper review — oh, not really, I never review things properly, but I mean as proper as I get — but I just don’t have the energy or interest in it. I didn’t like the book very much. I found myself bored with it, and I only finished it because I’m obsessive that way and it was short, only 200 quick pages.

I think my problem with the book is that I never learned much about Chatwin himself, or his persona, to be more accurate about it. The book’s focus is not on the traveler, but on the people he meets, the places he sees, the stories he comes across, and the history of the land he travels over. Now those things shouldn’t be boring, should they? But I found myself not caring much. The stories he told tended to be short ones, and they tended to focus on externals — what people did and what they looked like. Without some attention paid to internal things — emotions, thoughts — I remain unconnected.

It’s curious that I wouldn’t like this classic of travel literature, since the scholarly work I’ve done is on travel writing. But here’s the thing — I’ve studied “sentimental” travel, meaning travel writing that focuses on emotions and on internal states (see Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey for a prime example). In a way, this is an odd type of travel writing, since one would think the genre is valuable because of what it can tell us about the world, not so much because of what it tells about the traveler (although of course it does both). But, although I like reading about the world, I want to know about the traveler too, or if not the traveler, then I want to know about the people that traveler meets, and I want to know not just brief summaries of their lives, but something about who they are and why they are the way they are. If there’s no emotional element or if there are no ideas, then I’m left cold.

And In Patagonia didn’t have anything in the way of emotions and not much in the way of ideas either. It had a lot of cool facts and some interesting speculations about things like the inspiration of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the Patagonian sources of Darwin’s theories. But this wasn’t enough.

This is not to say that you won’t like the book. You may love it; it’s probably a great book for people who like this kind of book — and I don’t mean to sound judgmental when I say that. In some cases when I don’t like books it’s because I think they are genuinely bad, but in this case, it’s simply that this was not the book for me.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

Mothers of the Novel

I have begun Dale Spender’s book Mothers of the Novel, and I have the feeling I’ll be posting on it regularly, as it’s full of interesting information. The book looks at women’s novels in the time period before Jane Austen, arguing that while we tend to think of Jane Austen as the first great woman novelist, it’s really the case that Austen drew on a long tradition of women’s writing as she created her own work. Mothers of the Novel was published in 1986 and there’s been tons of critical work (tons!) done on women novelists of the 17C and 18C since then, but this book is still a valuable overview. I’ve already added a couple writers to my reading list, including Amelia Opie and Mary Brunton.

Here are some interesting things I learned:

  • The majority of novels in the 18C were written by women, and the novel was so closely associated with women that some men used a female pseudonym when they published their books. This caused a backlash against women writers which was at least partly successful, so that by the 1840s, the situation was reversed and women were adopting male pseudonyms when they published. This backlash is partly why the “canonical” novelists of the 18C are Fielding, Richardson, Defoe, Smollett and Sterne, a list which, of course, doesn’t include any women.
  • Scholars have concluded that women today constitute only 20% of published writers (I don’t know how dated this figure is), which makes the statistic about women writing a majority of 18C novels even more interesting. Spender says this is evidence that the publishing world wasn’t always so unfair to women. I’m fascinated by the fluctuations in women’s status and the quality of their lives over the years; it hasn’t been a steadily upward trend by any means.
  • Spender argues that women were successful at and interested in writing novels because novel writing is “a logical extension of women’s role” — many novels of the time were epistolary, and letters were a form of writing women were encouraged to participate in. She says letters are a good form in which to explore emotional and familial concerns, both subjects of the novel.
  • Spender says her research into the novel has turned up over 100 women novelists before Jane Austen and no more than 30 men. So to end up with 5 canonical novelists all of whom are men doesn’t make much sense, unless it could possibly be the case that those 5 are better than over 100 women writers, which seems highly unlikely (assuming we could establish what “better” means). This is a perfect example for thinking about how the canon is flawed.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Ordination; on church attendance

I just returned from the ordination service for fellow-blogger Emily’s husband Bob; it was a lovely service — I’d never attended an ordination service before and didn’t know quite what to expect, but in the Presbyterian Church, at least, it includes many of the usual elements of a church service plus the presentation of the ordination candidate and series of questions for him about whether he’ll uphold the beliefs of the church. It ended with a “charge” to the candidate, which Emily gave herself. I think the idea is that someone close to the candidate gives some personal advice and encouragement, and Emily did a wonderful job, giving a moving speech complete with a funny story about Bob’s childhood and a reference to Dostoevsky.

I’m not a church-goer these days, but I have a long history of church-going, and attending church nowadays, on those rare occasions I do, is a fraught experience. I’ll resist it the whole way there, complaining about the prospect of having to listen to a sermon and having to hear about a God I don’t believe in. But once the service has begun, I find myself tearing up. I find moments like the passing of the peace moving, and in this ordination ceremony I was touched by the “laying on of hands” part, where Bob knelt and priests and elders stood around with hands on his shoulders, praying for him. There’s something wonderful about the physical touch, an embodiment of the human and spiritual connection among members of the congregation.

I don’t miss being a believer, and I’m fairly certain I’ll never be one again, but I do miss the communal part of church-going; my parents are part of a church that drives me crazy in lots of ways, but I’m also aware that my parents have a solid group of friends who are committed to sharing in their life and taking care of them if they need it. For me, this is what church is (or should be) all about, really — people working together to take care of each other and to bring out the best in each other.

I grew up attending a series of conservative Protestant churches of several different denominations (socially conservative, as in no women pastors, for example), and although I attended a liberal Episcopalian church for a while as an adult, I still tend automatically to think of churches as conservative entities, so I’m pleased when I find out otherwise. The church I attended today has a woman minister, which always makes me happy, and the Prayer of Confession we all said had this interesting opening:

O Lord our God, as we come before you now, believers and doubters alike …

which made me feel right at home, the doubter that I am. It also had this sentence:

Forgive us all our wrongs and help us to understand that the profit and pleasure we pursue lays waste to the land and pollutes the seas.

Growing up I would not have encountered such a sentiment in church, partly because the environmental movement wasn’t so widespread but also because the churches I attended thought of “sin” as a purely personal matter, not something that had anything to do with the earth.

I won’t be attending church regularly, I’m quite sure (church would interfere with bike racing, for one thing — can I say I attend the Church of the Bicycle?), but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to be a little less resistant to the experience, since once I’m there, I often find something meaningful in it.

Oh, and I got to meet two of Emily’s siblings, Lindsay and Ian, and Emily’s parents; they are a wonderful family, let me tell you. Aren’t you all jealous of me?


Filed under Life

Sharing knowledge

I liked this bit from Seneca:

Nothing, however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone. If wisdom were offered to me on the one condition that I should keep it shut away and not divulge it to anyone, I should reject it.

I agree with this idea, and I think that it informs my decision to be a teacher and is part of the joy I find in blogging, not to say that I’m a dispenser of wisdom, exactly, but that I need an outlet of some sort for sharing the things I learn. I’m happy learning things on my own; I always liked school but don’t feel that I need it to learn things and often think I can learn better by myself. But what to do with knowledge I’ve gained? There’s something depressing about learning things and doing nothing with them. I think I’ve said this before, but still, it doesn’t hurt to say it again: blogging is a wonderful way do something with all the books I read and the ideas I encounter.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Essays

Bike rides and new books

I went on a lovely 76-mile ride today. The weather was perfect, in the 70s, clear and dry, and I headed up north into the countryside to enjoy seeing some hills and fields and horses. I used to live in the area I rode through today, and although I love my current town, I do miss the quieter more solitary place I left behind. With the exception of a few hills near the end that made me grumpy, I felt strong and content to sit on the bike for the approximately 5 hours it took to cover those miles. As I neared home I felt as though I could have kept going, if I’d had the time; perhaps when I do my long ride next weekend I will keep going and do a century. At this rate, I’ll be ready to do this century on October 13th with no trouble whatsoever, and I’ll get to ride with racing friend Fendergal! (She should be warned, though, that I’m not particularly fast …)

Okay, now I have or will soon have some new books to tell you about; I’ve been on a Book Mooch binge, using up lots of my points. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. A book personally recommended by Litlove — how could I not get a copy of this? I really liked Lively’s novel The Photograph, and so am eager to try something else.
  • William Maxwell’s The Chateau. Also personally recommended by Litlove.
  • Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. I’m in need of a book that’s sure to be a delight — perhaps I should begin this one? I’m certain I’ll like it.
  • Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal. I’ve read so many rave reviews of this book that I snapped it up.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s Dispossessed. Stefanie and Emily both recommended this, and after thoroughly enjoying The Left Hand of Darkness, I felt I had to have another Le Guin.
  • Heather Lewis’s House Rules. Recommended by Jenny D. (You see how seriously I take blogger recommendations?)
  • Georgette Heyer’s Lady of Quality. Another Jenny D. recommendation. This looks like a fun regency romance.

And I got two books recently from Amazon, Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel, to learn a little more about 18C women novelists, and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, for the Outmoded Authors challenge. There’s lots of good reading here, don’t you think?


Filed under Books, Cycling

Walter Scott on Reading

First of all, have you ever wondered how not to write a paper?

Now to Walter Scott, who has made a contribution to the debate going on here about what one should read and how one should read it; here’s a description of his hero Edward Waverley’s reading:

With a desire for amusement, therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or rudder. Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading, especially under such opportunities of gratifying it … Edward … like the epicure who only deigned to take a single morsel from the sunny side of a peach, read no volume a moment after it ceased to excite his curiosity or interest; and it necessarily happened, that the habit of seeking only this sort of gratification rendered it daily more difficult of attainment, till the passion for reading, like other strong appetites, produced by indulgence a sort of satiety.

Waverly has suffered the fate that many heroes and heroines from 18C and 19C novels suffer — he is without sufficient parental supervision of his reading material; his mother died when he was young and his father doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention. In novels from this time, trouble is sure to develop if young people are allowed unfettered access to libraries. I haven’t gotten all that far in the novel, so I’m not sure what direction it’s heading in, but I’m certain that this lack of reading discipline foreshadows some sort of trouble for the young man.

Now, I believe both in young people having unfettered access to libraries and in teaching them (somehow) to develop discipline in their reading. How do you accomplish both of these things though? I’m not sure. But discipline is important to me, just as reading purely for pleasure is. I think I’d be suspicious of someone like Waverley who never, ever finished a book he wasn’t entirely enthralled with or someone who never challenged him or herself with something difficult.

Maybe it’s good I don’t have children so I don’t have to worry about such things …


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

Reading the Canon

There were lots of interesting comments on my post from yesterday about Seneca’s advice for reading — thank you readers! I wanted to pick up on a few ideas here, one of which Jenclair pointed out, which is that the publishing environment we have here today is surely very, very far from what Seneca experienced. But I couldn’t really tell you what type and amount of reading material was available in his day, and I wish I could. What in the world would he (and others from ancient times) make of the abundance of books we enjoy today? When he says “a multitude of books only gets in one’s way,” what does he mean by a “multitude”? That he feels anxious about the effects of having a multitude of books available shows that the similar worries we have today are nothing new at all.

The other thing I wanted to consider was the issue of the canon; some people felt we should read largely from the canon and others that more variety was better. I liked Hepzibah’s questions on the subject: “who does get to decide what is canonized and what is not? What makes one author more worthy than another?” Very good questions indeed. It’s because of questions like these that I am suspicious of the whole idea of the canon. Danielle’s question is relevant too: “If Seneca were here today do you think many women authors would make his cut?” I’m guessing they wouldn’t.

I don’t think that canons get created solely on the basis of literary merit, although it would be nice if they were — but even here we’re on shaky ground because I think definitions of literary merit shift over time. What people valued in the 18C, for example, isn’t what we value today. I think what ends up in the canon gets there partly because of aesthetic merit, however it gets defined at any particular time, and partly because of publishing trends; political and social forces (racism and sexism, for example); literary scholarship, created by people with biases and blind spots; the literary context, i.e. what other people were doing at the time that readers can later identify as a trend that then becomes a movement and is taught as such; educational trends, meaning what sorts of texts educators want to teach at a particular time; and surely a host of other factors unrelated to merit.

Canons also have a self-perpetuating factor to them, meaning that works that are perceived as important get passed on and on, not necessarily because they are “great” works of literature, but because they are what’s taught and what the people coming before us knew. I realize this is beginning to sound circular, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between the canon defined as a collection of the best literature that’s out there and the canon defined as “the things people have paid most attention to in the past.” I think this second definition is a more accurate description of what we are referring to when we mention the canon; I don’t think the canon defined in the first way really exists.

The marginal figures are the interesting ones to think about — why is Walter Scott in and out of the canon? Or James Fenimore Cooper? Or Aphra Behn? Or Mary Shelley? Writers like these make it clear, I think, that the canon is a shifty, uncertain thing, always subject to debate and controversy.


Filed under Books, Reading

Advice on Reading

The very first essay in my book of Seneca’s letters-which-are-really-essays is advice about reading. What fun!

Let’s see if we agree with what he says:

Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.


A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, “But I feel like opening different books at different times,” my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.

Hmmm. I’m guessing Seneca would not approve of my reading. I do like the food metaphors in this passage, as I like to think of reading as a kind of eating, but I don’t see the problem with variety in one’s meals.

I can’t really agree with him, at least not fully. I see nothing wrong — and, in fact, I see a lot of good — in reading new things and a variety of things. And I don’t like the idea of reading nothing but “well-tried” authors either. I want to read well-tried authors, but I want to read little-known ones as well. What Seneca is calling for is reading within a very traditional canon, and I’ve spent way too long hearing about the virtues of opening up the canon to new authors to buy Seneca’s argument. I’d question his idea of “unquestionable genius” — okay, Shakespeare is an unquestionable genius and so are some other authors, but with some exceptions in mind, is it always so clear who is a genius and who is not?  Who gets to decide?

I do like the idea of taking your time with authors, to fully digest their writings. There’s something very satisfying — and surely very healthy — in knowing some writers well because you have absorbed their words into your being.

Do you agree with Seneca?


Filed under Books, Essays, Reading

The Left Hand of Darkness

7798497.gifI wrote earlier about how much I liked Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and I’d like to try to explain why a little further. I’m generally not a science fiction reader, and that may not change, but I did enjoy this book enough to be open to other recommendations, or perhaps to reading other Ursula Le Guin books (thoughts, anyone??).

Ultimately what did it for me is the personal relationship the novel describes. I’ll always go for the social and personal dynamics in a novel, rather than for its other attractions — in this case, the political dimension Le Guin develops. I can’t really describe the relationship that develops between the two main characters, Genly Ai, the alien visitor on the planet Gethen, and Estraven, a Gethenian political leader, because it would give too much of the story away. But the novel opens with an encounter between these two, and as they meet and interact throughout the novel, their ideas and feelings about each other change in dramatic and satisfying ways. It’s through these two that Le Guin explores most deeply what it’s like to confront “otherness” in someone else and to try and understand that person, in spite of cultural obstacles. There is much they say to each other that the other misinterprets, and it’s a pleasure to watch them realize their mistakes and try to overcome them.

But the political element of the novel is fascinating too; the two countries on the planet Gethen that we hear about, Karhide and Orgoreyn, are going through a transformation, within themselves and in relation to each other. Karhide has modernized itself in many ways but has not yet developed some of the problems our modernized countries on earth experience, such as war or the consequences of the industrial revolution. Its citizens are not nationalistic in their thinking. And yet these things are changing; Karhide finds itself under new leadership that seeks to foster fear and hatred of other peoples and countries in order to consolidate power. Orgoreyn is a much harsher place; it has a system of surveillance and a powerful government reminiscent of fascist states here on earth. Tensions between these two countries are rising.

Into this political situation comes Genly Ai, a representative from the Ekumen, an alliance of planets dedicated to furthering, as Genly puts it:

Material profit. Increase of knowledge. The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life. The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God. Curiosity. Adventure. Delight.

The members of the Ekumen have left behind many of the problems Karhide and Orgoreyn are only now beginning to face; they do not understand patriotism or nationalism and do not participate in war. The story, then, is about how well Genly fares in his quest to get the countries of Gethen to join the enlightened Ekumen, which can potentially change the course of their development.

So there’s all this going on, which is a pleasure to read, and there’s also an adventure tale of a trek across glaciers that’s incredibly exciting. And there are also sections interspersed between many of the chapters that tell of Gethenian myths, legends, and historical events so you get a sense of the history and culture of the people who inhabit Gethen. And there are the fascinating sex practices and gender dynamics that are so different from those on earth, which I wrote about here.

It took me a little while to get fully involved in the story — I supposed I’m not used to learning about a brand new world as one usually must when reading science fiction — but once I got a little ways into it, I was hooked and didn’t want it to end.


Filed under Books, Fiction

On Noise

1127397.gif My book Letters from a Stoic — essayistic letters by Seneca — arrived the other day, and I’m reading through the introduction now. But what I want to write about today is an essay from Lopate’s book, Seneca’s “On Noise.” He begins the essay this way:

I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be.

As I’d written about this very subject recently, this opening caught my eye. If what Seneca says is true, then I am wrong and this is a flaw of mine, since I need quite a bit of quiet to concentrate. Seneca goes on to argue that a person with a well-ordered mind should be able to block out distractions:

For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighbourhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?

He talks about how people often don’t find peace even when it’s perfectly quiet — even when they are sleeping — which shows that it’s not so much outside noise that is the problem, but inside turmoil. To a certain extent I agree with this. I have trouble concentrating sometimes because my mind is often not at peace. I’m not very good at forcing the kind of “self-absorption” Seneca is describing, and perhaps if I practice I could improve. This would be a good thing.

But I also think, particularly when we’re talking about noise produced by people, that distractableness can be a sign of something more positive: it can indicate an interest in people, a quality of tuned-in-ness to others. I can’t shut voices out very easily because I love to eavesdrop on conversations and observe how people interact and how they sound. If I’m continually distracted from my book by the kids playing outside that may indicate my lack of mental calm, but it may also indicate a irresistible curiosity about what the kids are saying as they play their games.

To me, there’s some connection between being good with people and being unable to shut out their voices. By being “good with people” I mean something like being focused on others, wanting to take care of them, wanting to keep things peaceful, wanting everybody to be happy. I often feel responsible (rightly or wrongly) for making sure everybody is content and everything is okay, and listening to people’s voices, even if they’re not directed at me, is a way to make sure that happens.

As much as I don’t fully agree with Seneca, I do, however, like this line from the essay:

The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.

This I can agree with.


Filed under Books, Essays, Reading

The Fun of Blogging about Books

I was interested to read this post from The Literary Saloon about the panel “Grub Street 2.0: The Future of Book Coverage,” which was part of the NBCC’s symposium: “The Age of Infinite Margins: Book Critics Face the 21st Century.” I don’t want to write about the future of book coverage, exactly, but a few of Literary Saloon blogger M.A. Orthofer’s comments caught my attention. Orthofer notes that the panel’s participants didn’t seem to recognize one value of book blogs vs. print reviews that seems crystal clear to me: that book blogs deal with older works as well as newly-released ones, and that even when it comes to newly-released books, book blogs offer more variety of coverage:

the fact that the big newspaper (and magazine) book sections tend to have an awful lot of overlap in what titles they cover was not raised — and the fact that the reach of the online sites is, if nothing else, much deeper seems to have gone unnoticed by all.

Well, duh, right? Anyone who has read even a few book blogs for a little while will notice that a broad range of books gets discussed and you never know what you’ll find, but you are almost certain to find something new. Isn’t it clear that if a reader wants to find out about books published in the past, even the recent past, print reviews are not the place to go? And might not blogs be a good place to start such a search?

The other thing I noticed is a comment made by one of panelists, paraphrased by Orthofer as the suggestion that:

unlike someone writing a novel or poetry and finding satisfaction in creating something like that, even if it was never published, no one writes book reviews just for their own pleasure and satisfaction.

Orthofer disagrees with this idea, and I do too, at least to a certain extent. Now, I’m quite certain that I would never write a book review if I knew no one would see it ever. But I’m happy to write about books without attempting to publish what I write in any traditional venue (recognizing that publishing them on a blog is a sort of publication). I write this blog purely for my own pleasure and satisfaction; I’ve never wanted to use the blog to try to find myself some other kind of writing work and I know I’ll never make any money from it – and I don’t even try.

In fact, the writing I do on the blog is, depending on how I look at things, possibly keeping me from doing other kinds of writing that would help my career, in some way. The time I spend writing for this blog I could actually spend writing scholarly articles, if I were interested in spending more time on them. Or I could spend the time writing specifically for non-academic types of publication – review articles or maybe even a book of some sort. I write about 300-800 words just about every night for this blog – if I wrote for some other, more “useful” purpose, those words would accumulate pretty quickly into publishable work (in the traditional sense). But I’m not terribly interested in doing more of those things than I do now, so I don’t.

(I’m not pretending to be a book reviewer on this blog, let me clarify; if I thought of myself as a “book reviewer” I’d work harder on writing more thorough posts. But I do write things that could be considered related to book reviews, and so do most of the bloggers I read.)

There’s something wonderful about producing writing about books for no reason other than the enjoyment of it — if I were paid to blog, I bet it wouldn’t be as much fun.


Filed under Blogging, Books

Bullets for Friday

  • My plan was to ride 60 miles this weekend, which I have already accomplished — yay me! This means that the rest of the weekend I can sit on my ass. Okay, maybe I’ll go on a short ride on Sunday. And walk a few miles. Otherwise, I’m resting. The ride was nice — hilly, of course, but the weather was beautiful, upper 60s, lower 70s, a little breezy, smelling like fall.
  • I finished listening to the audio version of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and can I just say that I loved this book? I won’t write a whole post on it because I think most people know what it’s about if they haven’t read it already, so I’ll just add my voice to the chorus of people who have praised it and leave it at that. The first person voice is immensely appealing, and I liked getting into the mind of an autistic character and seeing what it’s like in there. I’m definitely hunting down Haddon’s latest book, preferably on audio if I can find it.
  • I finished reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and can I just say that I loved this book? I really did. Thanks to those of you who recommended it; trust me — book bloggers don’t lead you wrong. More thoughts on the book later.
  • I’m off to a cycling party tonight; it’s for people who raced in the Tuesday night races in my town. It should be fun — a last chance to see fellow cyclists for a while (as I don’t usually participate in group training rides with them).
  • Enjoy your weekend!


Filed under Books, Cycling

I forgive you Walter Scott

Remember how I was complaining that the opening of Waverley is a bit slow? Well, Walter Scott has read my thoughts and kindly apologized:

I beg pardon, once and for all, of those readers who take up novels merely for amusement, for plaguing them so long with old-fashioned politics, and Whig and Tory, and Hanoverians and Jacobites. The truth is, I cannot promise them that this story shall be intelligible, not to say probable, without it … Those who are contented to remain with me will be occasionally exposed to the dulness inseparable from heavy roads, steep hills, sloughs, and other terrestrial retardations; but, with tolerable horses and a civil driver … I engage to get as soon as possible into a more picturesque and romantic country, if my passengers incline to have some patience with me during my first stages.

Thank you for the warning! I’m not quite to the “picturesque and romantic country” yet, but I’m certain I’ll get there and this novel will be fun — it surely was so popular for a reason. Can you imagine a contemporary author asking for the reader’s patience in this way? Yes, the novel will be dull in places, but bear with me; I promise there’ll be good bits.

Actually, there are good bits even in the introductory chapters; the very first chapter doesn’t begin the story at all but is a discussion of the novel’s title, and if you know me, you’ll know I can’t resist this kind of novelistic navel-gazing. What he’s doing in discussing the title is placing his novel in its context amongst other novels of the period. He found the choice of “Waverley” relatively simple, but his subtitle plagued him for a while. He considered “Waverley, a Tale of Other Days,” but that sounded too Radcliffean; if he had used that subtitle:

… must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited, and the keys either lost, or consigned to the care of some aged butler or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts?

He considered “Waverley, a Romance from the German,” but then readers would have expected:

a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trap-doors, and dark-lanterns.

“Waverley, A Sentimental Tale” would have meant (this one is particularly good):

a heroine with a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage, although she herself be sometimes obliged to jump out of a two-pair-of-stairs window, and is more than once bewildered on her journey, alone and on foot, without any guide but a blowzy peasant girl, whose jargon she hardly can understand.

And the last one, “Waverley, A Tale of the Times,” which must have involved:

a dashing sketch of the fashionable world, a few anecdotes of private scandal thinly veiled, and if lusciously painted, so much the better.

Sorry for all the quotations, but I find them irresistible. Scott gets away with both establishing what his own work does and doesn’t do, and making fun of the stereotypes of the fiction of his time. What he settles on is “Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since,” a time not so long ago as to be exotic nor so recent as to make people think they are reading a commentary on modern times. Instead, the time period allows him to put the focus on his characters and on their passions, instead of on their context. He wants characters likely to be seen as universal types, and he decides this is the best way to achieve them.

So, yes, after that wonderful opening chapter and with the promise of excitement to come, I’m willing to put up with a little dullness.


Filed under Books, Fiction

More essays

My essay project is taking off in unexpected directions, which isn’t a bad thing, not at all, but it means the project gets a little bigger every time I give it a little thought. I feel like Tristram Shandy, who is trying to tell his life story but who has so much to tell that every day of his life he falls a little more behind. Every day I find myself backing up and adding more to my reading list.

I originally wanted to focus my essay-reading on John Gross’s Oxford Book of Essays, which I chose not because it’s wonderful, but because I hadn’t yet read it. And I still will use that one. But I realized that Gross’s book has only essays written originally in English — which explains the otherwise inexplicable absence of Montaigne — and I prefer to include some essays in translation. So I got out Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay to give it another look-through and I realized that there are many essays in there I haven’t yet read. So I’m going to read essays from that book too.

Then I discovered that Lopate begins his essay survey with some essays from classical writers such as Seneca and Plutarch, and I decided I’d better back up and begin not with Bacon, but with these early writers. And then I read the first selection from Seneca and loved it, and so now I’ve got Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic on order from Amazon — and if you’re wondering why I’m ordering letters for an essay project, it’s because Lopate calls the letters “essays in disguise.” So, I’m now planning on reading the Seneca book, Montaigne’s complete essays, and then Bacon’s essays. And who knows where I’ll go from there, or if I’ll even get that far before I discover a new author whose work I need to read more fully.

This is fun, but will I ever actually make any progress? Who knows.


Filed under Books, Essays

Intro to Walter Scott’s Waverley

I have very mixed feelings about the introduction to my edition of Walter Scott’s Waverley; I’ve read only part of it, as I don’t like to hear an editor’s thoughts on the plot and characters until I’ve finished the novel, but I do like to read about the author’s life and context, so from that section of the introduction, I can quote a bit I found immensely annoying:

Scott’s triumph became a triumph for the form he wrote in. The novel gained a new authority and prestige, and even more important perhaps, a new masculinity. After Scott the novel was no longer in danger of becoming the preserve of the woman writer and the woman reader. Instead it became the appropriate form for writers’ richest and deepest imaginative explorations of human experience.

Yes, it’s the idea that women’s concerns are narrow and small, things that no man need worry about, but men’s concerns are wide and rich and universal. And heaven save us from those ubiquitous women writers and readers who are always threatening to take over everything. What the hell? The introduction was published in 1972, which is not to excuse it because of its relatively early date, but to wonder why Penguin couldn’t bother to get a less sexist editor in all that time.

The editor somewhat redeems himself with his discussion of Scott’s faded reputation. Scott was immensely, hugely popular in his time and was surely one of the most influential novelists of the 19C, so what happened? The editor claims that the 20C’s reaction against Victorianism and especially against Romanticism is to blame. His comparison of Scott and Austen is useful; he describes how his fortunes fell as hers rose:

Where Jane Austen is strong, Scott is weak: her careful sense of form and structure against his slack and slow-moving narrative procedures; her superb control of the complexities of tone against his pedestrian heavy-footedness; her profoundly ironic vision of human nature and human society against his complacent conventionality of attitude; her flexibility of language and style against his stilted, formal rhetoric.

I’ve been trying to imagine a world where Scott is valued more highly than Austen, and I can’t quite do it; it’s very hard for me to see why not everyone in all times and all places would see the genius of Austen and the lesser light of Scott as I do, but maybe that’s just me.  Oh, wait — I haven’t actually read Scott yet.  Mustn’t rush to judgment.

I’ve begun the first few chapters, and … well … they aren’t that good. I found them kind of obscure and hard to follow. But I know things will get improve and I fully expect to enjoy the book. As Sandra has rather wonderfully pointed out, 19C novels don’t tend to begin with a bang.


Filed under Books, Fiction