“If virtue can be taught, it’s only by learning to ask the types of questions that make you a thoughtful person.”
My two-year term at St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute was the most important part of my life. During my recent trip back to Annapolis, I sat down with outgoing president Christopher Nelson to talk about lessons learned during his 26-year tenure, the books that guided him to the college, the ones he returns to, and the ones that gave him the most trouble as an undergrad, what he’ll miss and what he hopes to do next, his key advice for his successor, and more! Give it a listen!
“Running an institution and reading a budget were second nature to me. . . . Being able to participate in the life of the college so I could make good and deep judgements about what’s important around here; that was going to come from spending time in the classroom and with the faculty.”
We also talk about the unique situation of being the only president in the college’s 300+ years who is also an alumnus, why math and philosophy are for the young, while big novels are for middle age, how he grew into The Aeneid, the use of literature in understanding Japanese morality, why he returns to Middlemarch every few years, what he’d add to the St. John’s curriculum (even if he can’t bring himself to drop something to make room for it), and a lot more! Give it a listen! (and become a supporter via Patreon or Paypal so you can check out the big list of all the books we talked about this episode!)
“The commodification of higher education — like the monetization of every good in life — is deeply disturbing. It’s certainly something that’s always been in America. You read de Tocqueville and you see that it’s part of the American spirit to do that.”
About our Guest
Christopher B. Nelson has been president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, since June 1991. He is an alumnus of St. John’s (B.A. 1970) and a graduate of the University of Utah College of Law (J.D. 1973), where he founded and directed the university’s student legal services program. He practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm when he left the practice to take his current position at St. John’s College. Christopher Nelson is a national spokesperson for the liberal arts, participating actively in the national conversation about higher education. Frequently a panelist and speaker on state, regional, and national programs, he has addressed issues of institutional autonomy in the face of government regulatory intrusion and changes proposed in the accrediting system. His current focus is making clear the value of liberal education – in providing excellent grounding for career and professional development and, most importantly, for an open-minded pursuit of lifelong learning.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the office of Christopher Nelson at the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. B/w photo of President Nelson by me. Photo of Annapolis campus by me.
“There is a great tradition of very brilliant, outside-the-box, non-traditional, dynamic thinkers in the Marine Corps. . . . At the same time, our totem animal is the bulldog, not an animal known for its finesse.”
Zach Martin recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps after 16 years in the service. But 25 years ago, he and your host were hyperliterate misfit high-school pals, trading Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch and Robert Anton Wilson novels. So how did he end up commanding Marine Recon forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as Maj. Zachary D. Martin?
“We greatly misunderstand the young men who go overseas and fight for us. We make them idols. They’re heroes, but we misunderstand what that means.”
We have a wide-ranging conversation about Zach’s career, the military’s risk-averse culture, the rise (and fall) of counterinsurgency strategy, what it’s like to give a kill order, how it felt to lose troops under his command, what it’s like to clear, hold and build a city in Afghanistan (and how it felt to see it all fall apart), how he fought all his best battles in Afghanistan wearing shorts and t-shirt, and more!
“The police we were training [in Afghanistan] were effective. I mean, they were gangsters, but provided you were willing to overlook their criminal activities, they were certainly maintaining order.”
We also discuss Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour and how it reflects the nation’s perception of the military, how he was inspired by Bill Clinton (but didn’t reckon with survivor bias), why he’d like to write a novel about his experiences at war, what books meant the most to him during his years in the service, the difference between motivation and volition, and why war is like a self-licking ice cream cone.
About our Guest
Major Zachary D. Martin (ret.) was most recently a member of Afghan National Police Advisor Team, and previously served as the Commanding Officer, Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. His most recent deployment in that role was to Afghanistan in command of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines. He keeps a blog about his reading and writing at booksandmovement.net, where you can also find some of the articles he wrote during his career in the Marines.
Credits: This episode’s music is Life During Wartime by Talking Heads. The conversation was recorded at the home of a friend of Maj. Martin on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded at home on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Zach Martin by me.
Your humble(ish) host just made his annual Piraeus pilgrimage to St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, this time to participate in a four-day seminar about Moby Dick . . . and score a great interview! I managed to get legendary tutor Eva Brann (above) to take a break from her crazy schedule and sit down for a 45-minute conversation about the college’s Great Books program and how she’s seen it change (and stay the same) in her FIFTY-SEVEN YEARS at the school. We also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, the one novel she’d add to the St. John’s curriculum, the need professors have to profess (and why St. John’s has tutors instead of professors), her swoon for Odysseus, her desert island book, her one criterion for a great novel, where she sees the school going in the next fifty-seven years, the Dostoevsky-or-Tolstoy debate, and more, including a boatload of questions I solicited from alumni! It’s a fascinating conversation with one of the most learned people in the world.
And then Ian Kelley, a St. John’s student from 1993, talks about his experience at the college, what brought him there, what he learned about himself and the Great Books, and how his Annapolis experience influenced his decision to join the U.S. Navy. Ian’s a longtime pal and is the first guest to appear in the non-famous Virtual Memories Library (pictured, with dog, who occasionally sighs and grunts during the podcast).
About our Guests
Eva Brann has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD since 1957 and served as dean there from 1990 to 1997. Ms. Brann is the author of Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Feeling Our Feelings: What Philosophers Think and People Know, Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, and The Logos of Heraclitus, all of which are available from Paul Dry Books.
Ian Kelley is a proud 1997 graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and an avid motorcyclist, traveler and reader. He trusts Gil Roth to keep him smart and honest. Ian and his wife, Jessica, live in Fallon, NV.
We previously interviewed St. John’s College tutors David Townsend and Tom May, so you should check those out! For more information about St. John’s College and the Great Books program, visit its site.
Credits: This episode’s music is Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. The conversation was recorded at the home of Eva Brann on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The conversation with Ian Kelley was recorded at my home on a pair AT2020 mics feeding into the Zoom H4n. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue enCORE 200 into the Zoom H4n. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo of Eva Brann by me, photo of Ian Kelley and me by Amy Roth.
I went to Homecoming at St. John’s College this weekend. I got my master’s degree there, but I consider it my alma mater much more than I do my undergrad institution. I had a good time; it wasn’t as transformative as the Piraeus seminar I attended this past May/June, but it was a great opportunity to reconnect with other students, tutors, and an old pal who came to visit on Saturday. I didn’t get to record any podcast conversations during the trip, but did reach out to a few potential guests.
It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Two weekends ago was the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD. The next weekend we had a wedding in Dawson, PA, about 375 miles from home. This weekend was Annapolis. Next weekend I leave to Madrid and hope that the riots settle down enough for me to get to my conference safely.
I took a half-day from work on Friday, after pounding out pages and sending PDFs to the contributors of the new ish, so they can send me their corrections in time for me to get the new issue out by Wednesday. I left for Annapolis around 2 in the afternoon and had to deal with a little traffic on the ride down, but got in safe and sound, albeit unfed.
I checked in at my hotel, then drove to campus, got my registration packet, picked up a powerbar-sorta thing for dinner, and headed over to the Homecoming lecture, The Musical Universe and Mozart’s Magic Flute, by Peter Kalkavage. Peter was the tutor for my preceptorial on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right. His 1991 essay on the role of Ulysses in The Divine Comedy was one of the things that convinced me to attend St. John’s. (It’s in this PDF.)
The lecture was way over my head, breaking down Tamino’s aria in technical ways to reveal its beauty. I’m not an opera guy and have no musical training to speak of, but I still enjoyed Peter’s exploration of the structure of the music and the effects Mozart achieved from his notes, tones, etc.
I seriously don’t have a vocabulary for this. In the Graduate Institute (the GI), we don’t receive a lot of the instruction that the undergrads do. They have music, languages (ancient Greek & French), and laboratory science. Because of our truncated schedules, we make do with a lot less. (Not that I’m complaining.) I sat with another GI during the lecture. We laughed when everyone in our section flipped the page of their sheet-music handout at the right moment, while we kept looking at the first bar. It’s always fun to be the uneducated one.
Early on, Peter put on a recording of the aria, which he would later play selections of on a piano (and sing particular segments to demonstrate certain progressions). While the recording played, he swayed a little at the lectern. That’s when my reverie began.
I thought of everything that I’ve experienced in the past few weeks. First, I thought about Jaime Hernandez, the cartooning genius, choking up while telling an SPX audience about a scene from a Tyrone Power movie, The Eddie Duchin Story.
I started recalling moments from SPX: meeting people in autograph lines, arguing (gently) with Chris Ware over how “Gill Sans” is spelled, buying art from Jaime and his brother Beto, sitting at a barroom table with the Mt. Rushmore of modern cartooning (the Hernandezes, Ware, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns were on hand), trying to talk Kevin Huizenga into recording a podcast next time I’m in St. Louis.
From there to Michael Dirda’s house on the way back to NJ. Looking over his bookshelves, noting the UK hardcover of A Frolic of His Own, discovering that third Nabokov collection of lectures on literature, spying the brick of Kingsley Amis’ letters on the shelf behind Dirda while I interviewed him.
A week in NJ followed, with Rosh Hashanah and then the annual conference I help host. Six or seven hundred people come to a hotel to participate in the show, and it always leaves me exhausted, but at least it didn’t leave me in the emergency room like last year’s anxiety-sleeplessness-caffeine feedback loop did.
Right after the conference finished, I drove home, unpacked, then repacked, and Amy & I drove out to Dawson for a wedding: Six-plus hours in the car on 78 and 76, culminating in a dirt road (Lucky Lane) in the dark before arriving at the hotel. Touchscreen cheesesteak at a truck-stop Wawa; a little local bookstore daring enough to have William S. Burroughs’ Queer and Junky on end-cap display (picked up a used copy of The Two Cultures by CP Snow); meeting gin freaks and elderly computer bazillionaires at the wedding; finishing The Good Soldier, on Dirda’s recommendation; watching eight or nine of the male wedding guests gathering in the middle of the dance floor for a bizarre choreographed haka-polka hybrid set to Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business”; passing on karaoke.
Sunday morning, we drove out to Fallingwater, about 40 minutes away, before heading back to NJ. It was impossible and gorgeous and everything I hoped it would be, and it made me feel a little sad to be returning to the standard nine-room bi-level of our neighborhood. I thought about the engineer in Local Hero telling Peter Riegert and Peter Capaldi, “Dream large.” I got another touchscreen cheesesteak on the drive home.
Worked frantically through the next week, punctuated with a 25-hour break for Yom Kippur. In addition to the standard fast (no food or drink), I decided I’d really get out of myself and not look at a screen for that span: no iPhone, no computer, no TV. It was as liberating as I expected. By the time I checked my e-mail after breaking my fast Wednesday night (at Greek City in Ramsey), I had 35 messages on my personal e-mails, only a few of which I wanted to respond to, and none of which were imperative.
I prayed Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon with the Chabad that I visited in past years. They’ve always been accommodating, no matter how slack of a Jew I am. Some of the older gents in the congregation either recognized me from past years or just wanted to introduce themselves and make new acquaintances, which was nice. I’m so bad about joining community; I’m much better with afflicting myself.
At the end of mid-day prayers, we received a blessing from a kohen. I’d never been present for that before. We were instructed to look in his direction, but not to make eye contact during the blessing. It’s customary to cover one’s eyes with one’s tallis during this. The man in front of me set a good screen, however, so I was able to look forward without looking on the kohen’s face.
When I wasn’t at Chabad, I passed the time by re-reading King Lear, since I’d signed up for a 90-minute seminar in it for Homecoming. I hadn’t read it in years, and this reading may have been skewed a bit by the fast, since I was going without caffeine for this stretch.
After mid-day, I drove out to Nyack, NY to walk around and pass sometime. I discovered my favorite bookstore there was gone, replaced by a dry cleaner. I visited another store, the fiction department of which was filled with stacks of trade paperbacks. I tried looking at some back Paris Reviews in a stack, but it started to tip, then bumped another tower of books. I caught both of them and struggled to get them stable again without anyone at the front of the store noticing. A day of affliction can always use a little levity.
And then it was back to work, and then on to Homecoming, where this reverie began. I scrawled these reminiscences all over the backs of the sheet-music handouts. I also wrote down some details of a wonderful dream I had the night before, where I read the profile of an author who wrote a book that, according to a hybrid of Chip Delany, Michael Dirda and Junot Diaz, I would love. The book and the author don’t exist, but I retained the title of the novel, and woke up and wrote it down. I used to dream a lot more about fully-formed works of art, but it hasn’t happened in a while. I’m afraid of what that means.
Among all these notes Friday night, I wrote, “Made PDFs for contributors; put on conference.” Then I wrote, “It’s funny how unimportant those things are, and how necessary for me to live this beauty. How little of work will I remember as I grow old, and how much will I hold onto from everything else?”
Thanks for sticking around. Here are the books I bought at the college store on Saturday:
Since I got back from that Piraeus seminar in Annapolis in early June (part 1 and part 2), I’ve found myself recharged. Now that I’ve wrapped up the Top Companies issue of my magazine, which occupies my June-into-July every year, I feel like I’m ready to get at a lot of reading and writing. While still juggling the podcast, of course.
I thanked both of the tutors who ran the seminar and also asked Tom May for some suggestions for a “mini-curriculum” on the Romans. I’ve always neglected them, and I think it was largely due to my uninformed notion that they were a pastiche or a degradation of classic Greek culture. By extension, I must have assumed that every last member of that world was as decadent as the empire was in its fallen days. I’m not sure how I stumbled across that idea, and why I left it untested for so long. I’m a yutz. Perhaps my enjoyment of Homer made me reticent to even give Virgil a shot.
In fact, when I was out with an old college pal of mine in San Francisco a few months ago, I was actually irked when she mentioned that she’d never been able to get into Homer, but that the Aeneid rocked her world. Keep in mind
- I have never read Virgil and have no basis for comparison, and
- I’m a 41-year-old man.
So I began reading the Aeneid on Sunday, and am enjoying the heck out of it. It’s not Homer, but it’s not Homer. It’s Virgil.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with you the list that Mr. May e-mailed me, along with his disclaimer:
- Livy – History of Rome I-X (at least)
- Virgil – Aeneid
- Ovid – Metamorphoses
- Ovid – Art of Love
- Caesar – Gallic Wars
- Cicero – On Natural Law
- Cicero – On Friendship
- Cicero – On Old Age
- Cicero – On Duties
- Cicero – On Moral Ends
- Catullus – Songs
- Horace – Odes
- Juvenal – Satires
- Seneca – Phaedra
- Seneca – Letters
- Seneca – Morals
- Plautus – Pseudolus
- Plautus – Miles Gloriousus
- Plautus – Menaechmi
- Martial – Epigrams
- Tacitus – Annals of Imperial Rome
- Apuleius – The Golden Ass
- Plutarch’s Lives – Cicero, Brutus, Caesar, Cato, Coriolanus, Antony
- Plotinus – Enneads
“I’ll stop here, making no claim that all of the most important works are here, but all of these are seminal and reverberate through the tradition. I led a Graduate Institute preceptorial on Cicero several years ago that was really a delight, thanks to both Cicero and the class; I’d really like to offer one on Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are indispensable for all art and poetry ever after, it seems.”
The only thing I’ve read in that whole list is a bit of Plutarch (I’m still considering doing a Plutarch feature a la my Monday Morning Montaigne series). So I’m gonna get rolling on that Virgil. Aeneas is just bugging out of Troy at the beginning of book 3.
The June episode of The Virtual Memories Show is ready to go! Around Memorial Day, I took a little vacation to my alma mater, St. John’s College, for a seminar on Flannery O’Connor, and got to interview two of my favorite tutors: David Townsend and Tom May.
Because they both had so much to talk about, I decided to split this month’s show into two parts. This episode has my conversation with David Townsend, and it’s a remarkable take on education in America, the nature of good conversation, and the poetry of the Koran (among other topics)!
If you’re interested in seeing some of Annapolis, check out my photoset from that trip!
Credits: This episode’s music is Steely Dan’s My Old School. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic, and the conversation with was recorded on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder.
The year began with a novel about a dying newspaper and (just about) ended with a novel about the eternal sleaziness of newspapers.
According to the list of All The Books I’ve Read, I finished 32 books in 2011; several were re-reads, one was a Kindle Single, one was a play and another was a novella. I’ve decided that my year-end post should be a look back at those books, what I made of them, how I came across them, and any other recollections or observations I can make about ’em.
First, I oughtta note that 32 books isn’t that much. I mean, all told, the Great List shows that I’ve finished around 600 books since I began keeping the list in the fall of 1989, when I started college. That puts me a little above the “average” of 27 books a year, and it sure makes me regret that 2-year run in 1997-98 when I couldn’t finished a goddamned thing. But with math like this, even if I up the pace to an even 30 books a year, there’s still no chance I’ll ever work my way through my library.
Which is why I’m glad I came across this page in Kevin Huizenga’s latest issue of Ganges last week; shows I’m not alone in thinking about The Math:
The year’s big reading project, as I wrote about earlier, was Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time. I’d rather not write about those books individually in this post, since I’m still a bit muddled about the first half of the series. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Powell’s writing, and I think the three WWII novels (books 7-9), plus their immediate successor (Books Do Furnish a Room), mark the high point of the cycle. But, like I said, I’m going to leave off writing about them, except in terms of where they fall in sequence, and focus on the other 20 books for this post.
Also, because of my prose-bias, I won’t go into the comics that I read over the year. However, there’s one comic I read in 2011 that trumps this entire list: Jaime Hernandez’s conclusion to The Love Bunglers, in Love & Rockets #4. I wrote about this a little during my heart scare in October, and I want to reiterate: what Jaime achieves by the end of that comic, capping off 30 years of stories of Maggie and her world, is a perfect piece of art.
On with the show:
The Imperfectionists – The year began with Tom Rachman’s 2010 novel about a dying, Rome-based newspaper patterned after the International Herald Tribune. Each chapter follows a different character in or around the paper, and it does a great job of delineating the various occupations and beats of that workplace. However, the only people I knew who’d appreciate that backdrop would also be terribly depressed by the newspaper’s demise, so I didn’t pass it on to anyone. I think it was recommended via Amazon, and the Kindle edition was only $5.00, so hey.
Shortly after finishing that book, I turned 40. I also began A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Powell’s series. I read one each month, so just mentally slot those in between the other titles listed here. I’ll put the full list & chronology at the end of the post.
The Age of Innocence – I decided to read this after New York magazine ran a “Greatest New York Ever” feature, and Sam Anderson selected Wharton’s book as the greatest New York novel. I was intrigued and gave it a shot (free on my Kindle). I had no idea Wharton was this good. Scorsese’s decision to adapt it made perfect sense to me, although I couldn’t bear more than 10 minutes of his adaptation, since it relied so heavily on voice-over of Wharton’s prose, rather than, y’know, adapting it into a visual medium.
Anyway, I loved it, thought it did a wonderful job working through the social mores of post-Civil War New York, and felt it would’ve been more awesome if Archer, at that pivotal moment, went hardcore, killed May and went on the lam with Countess Olenska in Europe. But then the book would’ve had a much different reputation. I got at least one other person to read this, and she enjoyed the heck out of it, too.
1959: The Year Everything Changed – I met the author, Fred Kaplan, at a book party in NYC, and told him how much I enjoyed his columns on Slate. I mentioned that I hadn’t read his 1959 book yet, and he was much less angry about that than Greill Marcus was when I once told him that I hadn’t finished reading Lipstick Traces. (I still haven’t.) After that evening, I picked up his book on the Kindle. I enjoyed his version of that history, even if it did trick me into giving On The Road another shot. (It still sucks.)
A lot of this literary year was spent trying to get out of my own historical moment. The Powell books, of course, cover a chunk of the 20th century, and Kaplan tries to get at the ways in which 1959 shaped who we became in the succeeding decades.
Arcadia – The next couple of books play fast and loose with the notion of time and history. In March, I read Tom Stoppard’s play for the bazillionth time. This reading was preparation for seeing it performed on Broadway (which I wrote about here). It’s such a beautifully constructed work, I can’t begin to do it justice.
Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis’ story of a Nazi war criminal who doesn’t realize that his life is unspooling backwards. It’s narrated by a nascent consciousness in the head of a man who is coming to life and being delivered to his house by an ambulance. It’s a sick experiment in how to write about atrocities and innocence, and Amis, of course, is up to the job. It’s a difficult feat, clueing the reader into what’s going on while the narrator itself has no idea. I can’t say I recommend it, but it kept me enthralled. I assume he wrote it after someone offhandedly remarked that you can’t write in a sympathetic voice about a doctor who worked the concentration camps.
(I once passed on Amis’ London Fields to a coworker who generally likes my pass-alongs. She gave it back to me unfinished and said that she hated all the characters and didn’t want to read about them anymore. I can understand that entirely. I think I’m going to read Amis’ Money sometime in 2012, and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s ever had any likeable characters.)
Slaughterhouse-Five – I figured Time’s Arrow‘s not-so-Bloomian precursor was Vonnegut’s novel about the bombing of Dresden, in which the reality of the war is so horrible that the lead character retreats into nonlinear time and a science-fiction world of alien abductions. I hadn’t read this in years, and didn’t enjoy it too much, this time around. I’m betting it falls into my category of Lowest College Denominator.
The Leopard – Then I read the book that I would trade all the other books on this list for. I bought Lampedusa’s novel around 10 years ago on God knows who’s recommendation. It was the reverse of a wine cellar; while the book stayed the same, I matured enough to read it. I read a lovely recommendation of Lampedusa’s work in The Wall Street Journal and decided it was time to give it a shot. When I finished the novel, after wiping away some tears, I thought, “I’m so glad I got to read this book before I died.” Perhaps I’m just mistaking literary achievement to my growing sensitivity to stories of men watching their lives pass by, but I think The Leopard has some eternal qualities to it. I reread it 3 months later and keep it on my nightstand as a fallback for when I’m not interested in reading my current book.
It’s “about” a prince in Palermo in the 1860s, when Italy is in the process of unification and the merchant class is on the rise. The prince understands that the nobility’s days are numbered, but must negotiate his family’s wellbeing as long as he can, while he comes to grips with the younger generation’s ascent. And he’s SO so human. Lampedusa evokes this entire world, with its nobility, its clergy, its militia, its tradesman, its upstarts, its cosmos. I hope you get to read it sometime.
Here’s what I read from it last night, before turning in:
Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike brow, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.
A River Runs Through It – Maybe I spoke too soon about trading all the other books for The Leopard. I’d probably keep Arcadia and I think I’d also keep this one. This is another countless reread for me. I don’t remember why I decided to read it this past summer. It had just been made available on the Kindle, so perhaps that prompted it. More likely, I wanted to read something beautiful and familiar and see if it, too, affected me differently at 40.
(I don’t think any book changed for me so dramatically as my 2010 reread of the Iliad. It’s a little embarrassing that it took me four journeys to Troy before I finally developed a sympathy/understanding for Achilles, but there it is. This time around, I was transfixed by that notion of the epic hero, caught in the fate of being the center of the poem, giving up family, future and love to become the world’s first great literary subject. I wish I’d kept up with my idea of writing about Achilles & the Iliad throughout the past year, but I always let myself get sidetracked. Like now.)
Weirdly, Maclean’s novella about fly-fishing and grace didn’t change too much for me this time around. In some respects, it’s the book that helped shepherd me along into my “boring old fart” mode. Which isn’t to say that it’s a boring book; rather, its assuredness of voice and lovely-yet-stark depictions of the lives of the two brothers and their family helped me appreciate silence and the absence of literary pyrotechnics.
(It also helped me form some sorta background for trying to understand Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Emphasis on “trying”.)
Nemesis – A short Philip Roth novel about a polio outbreak in Newark in the 1940s. Roth belatedly tied this one to his recent short books and called them The Nemesis Quartet. I’m a huge mark for the first book in that run (which we’ll get to shortly), but the other 3 all feel like sketches more than real novels. But then, Roth’s nearly 80 and has achieved enough over the years that he’s earned the right to perform some minor variations.
What’s most interesting about this one is the narrator, who starts off as a first-plural “we,” but eventually shows up and plays a role in unspooling the later aspects of the tale. He also undercuts a lot of the simplistic thinking of the earlier pages, in a conscious reflection of the lead character’s mental limitations. It’s a neat trick, demolishing the lead’s earnestness and self-seriousness like that.
Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed – I read this memoir of Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson in one day. It was the first time I’ve read a book that quickly in years, and sure, it wasn’t Proust, but it was pretty fascinating. I’ve become interested in menswear in the last year or two, and one of the blogs I follows recommended this one. Anderson does a great job of conjuring up his apprentice days, while lamenting the lack of training in the contemporary scene. The best parts, as with many of the UK memoirs and novels I read this past year, involved the strange characters he worked with, and the oddball initiations he underwent.
One of my resolutions for 2012 is to have some shirts made for me by a tailor. I have the cash to do this, but I also have a bit of anxiety about sitting down and talking about fabrics, cuts and styles with someone who knows a bazillion times more about them than I do. Of course, that’s preferable to working with a tailor who doesn’t know that stuff better than I do, but I have Novice’s Worry. I’ll tell you how it works out.
The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive – I wrote about this one earlier in the year, and my thoughts about it haven’t changed, so just check out that post. As noted there, I discovered it via an author interview on the Monocle Weekly Podcast. Sadly, Monocle changed its format a few months ago, as part of a move to 24/7 audio broadcasting, and I found the weekly podcast unlistenable. I’ll try to get back to it next year, since it did turn me on to some neat books and music, including the incomparable sound of W&Whale.
Everyman – Last summer, the dad of one of my best friends died suddenly, so I felt the need to return to this short Philip Roth novel about an old Jew and his illnesses. I wrote about it pretty extensively in my Man Out Of Time piece about my favorite books from the previous decade. I fear I’ll return to this one again and again, as death grows in stature around me. I only have it on my Kindle, but should probably get a print copy. You know, for the permanence.
Zero History – I saved William Gibson’s oddball new novel for my first trip to his stomping grounds in Vancouver. It was enjoyable enough, but seemed to eschew any real plot or stakes until maybe 25% from the end. It’s gotta be tough to integrate a plot with the sorts of observations and atmospheres that Gibson’s so good at making/evoking, but this one really felt like he forgot about the plot until he came up with a big synchronized set piece of a caper, then perfunctorily snapped it into place. Vancouver sure was pretty.
The Junket – This was a Kindle Single, a short e-only piece. It was written by Mike Albo, who co-wrote The Underminer, a kinda black comedy novel I read a few years back. This single was hyped by The Awl, a blog I follow, so I gave it a shot. In it, Albo chronicles the bizarre circumstances by which he was fired from the New York Times, where he was a freelancer writing the Critical Shopper column. The incident highlighted the Times’ self-serving, contradictory, disposable treatment of freelancers, and Albo’s relative poverty reminds me that I made a good decision to stick with trade magazine editing all these years.
I like the idea of Kindle Singles, in terms of being able to publish long-form (but not book-length) work at a lower price point. Non-fiction books often feel to me as though they’re padded to reach a certain page count, so I’m in favor of writers knowing when to stop.
The Leopard – I read it again, 3 months later. Still on my night-stand.
The Finkler Question – I’m dismissive of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with another reason for this book to have won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post about the circumstances in which I bought this one for my mom. It was only $5 on the Kindle, so I got it for myself. I know I’ve told people — and you, dear reader — on numerous occasions that “life’s too short for crappy novels,” but I really did think this was going to improve. It’s sad that I was so wrong.
Wise Blood – Who knew that droll comic Norm MacDonald and St. John’s College would have an overlap? Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that Norm is a voracious reader who holds contemporary fiction in even greater disdain than I do. For the book club that he hosts in the 140-character medium, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood was a recent selection. I’d never read her, and didn’t think I’d have time to read that one before the club started its discussion. Still, I filed her away with hopes of getting to her sometime in 2012.
Then I got a mailer from St. John’s about next year’s Piraeus continuing education program. Here’s the opening page:
The ancient port of Athens, the Piraeus, is a lively juncture of departures and homecomings. As in the days of Socrates, it represents the pulse-point of the community. A reunion, a chance encounter, a new beginning, an opportunity to reinvent one’s self — all these possibilities exist at the Piraeus.
St. John’s College, in cooperation with the Alumni Association, is pleased to offer Piraeus 2012, a continuing education program for alumni. We invite your participation, and we strive to awaken the curiosity that stirred Socrate to venture down to that port and led to journeys that shape our thoughts and lives today.
Among this year’s offerings? A four-day course in Annapolis on Wise Blood and six of O’Connor’s short stories, led by two of my favorite tutors (no professors at SJC) from the school. The brochure read
Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic stories and novels have the power, character, and plot of Greek tragedy. In Wise Blood, her first novel, and these six stories, which are poignant, often hilarious, and always disturbing, her characters have life-changing experiences that raise profound questions about grace, trust and the nature of the good. O’Connor is sensitive to the appearance of spirit in the world as she pursues the meaning of life, love, and destiny. [And serial commas.] Join us in reading this singular writer, as she searches the recesses of the human heart.
Yes, that’s my idea of a great mini-vacation. (There’s also a six-day course in Santa Fe in August on Thucydides, but I doubt I could get away long enough for that.) I stopped at that new & used bookstore where bought The Finkler Question and ordered the Library of America hardcover of The Works of Flannery O’Connor. I’m trying to be nice to that store and order a book every so often. I see it like this: if they’re brave/stupid enough to open a bookstore in this retail environment (it recently celebrated its first anniversary), then they deserve some sorta patronage from me.
That said, it’s like shopping with one hand tied behind my back, compared to using Amazon. I get to pay full price, wait several days for the book to arrive at the shop, and then drive 15 miles each way to pick it up.
So what did I make of Wise Blood? Well, I liked it more than Norm did, and think it was a much more accurate approach to life-with-religiosity-and-without-God than The Finkler Question. Can’t wait to talk about it next May/June!
This took me into December. After I finished the last book in the Dance, I thought I’d take it easy for the rest of the year. Then Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died, and I got drawn right back into devouring books.
Scoop – Hitchens had praised Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel of muckraking London tabloids several times, so I gave this a read shortly after CH’s death. I’ve long regretted that I had no journalistic background before I became an editor. I think it would’ve helped my news/feature writing immeasurably, instead of the nondescript style I’ve employed for years. It probably also would’ve helped me to ask the right/tough questions during interviews. But here I am, a 17-year vet of the trade rag biz, so I must be doing something right.
In Waugh’s book, a “country life” columnist who lives in quiet seclusion (in a typically demented old money mansion) accidentally gets sent on assignment to darkest Africa to cover a civil war. When I write “darkest Africa,” I mean that Waugh comes off racist as fuck. If you can see past that, it’s a very funny novel, and Hitchens maintained that the behavior of reporters hadn’t changed in the decades since Scoop was published. Given the phone-hacking scandals embroiling Murdoch’s newspapers, we can see that the behavior just adapted for new technologies.
The Trial – I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of Kafka’s novels before this, just some of his shorter stuff. I cribbed some of my knowledge of his work from Introducing Kafka, a primer written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. Crumb’s adaptations of Kafka were gorgeous, but Mairowitz’s interpretations were a bit . . . pedestrian, I think.
I was prompted to start The Trial after I read this quote from Vaclav Havel in a New Yorker writeup:
“I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks,” he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. “Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.”
As someone who’s always considered himself a fraud and is so convinced that he’s going to be ground down by larger forces that he’s saved them the trouble by grinding himself down, I appreciated Havel’s position. What I didn’t get from past readings of shorter Kafka (A Hunger Artist, The Metamorphosis, et al.) was the sheer humor of his writing. Midway through The Trial, I thought, “Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays make so much more sense now.”
Sure, The Trial is an “unfinished” novel, just like The Castle, but their very nature shows that no conclusion is possible. These all-encompassing bureaucracies perpetuate an unknowable notion of power, because knowledge would strip it of its authority. So, instead of rooting for a persecuted character to triumph, the reader is left to laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly bizarre tableaux in which he’s placed.
Hitch-22 – Which brings us to the end of the of the year. I’m glad I wrapped up with this one. Hitchens’ memoir came out shortly before he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would lead to his death. Like many of the other books I read this year (including Keith Richards’ memoirs, which I have to get back to), it details post-war British life. Given that my mom was born in London during the war, I suppose there’s something meaningful about my interest in this period.
The book is written more loosely than Hitchens’ columns and book reviews. There’s more personal flair, more impression, more “I guess you had to be there”, less argumentation and less circumspection to the prose. It’s a refreshing style for the man who’s final essay collection is entitled Arguably.
The exception is the Iraq chapter, in which he brings his journalistic instincts to bear, likely to try to counter the impression that he was wrong about the invasion. He admits to not even thinking that the logistics of the post-war planning parameters, implications and possibilities would be so bungled by the Bush administration, and stands by his notion that it was correct to take Saddam Hussein out of power.
What I wonder about, and what I don’t think he wanted to address, was whether it would have been possible for this to be done “cleanly.” Just as he came around to understand that Stalinism was not an accident but a necessary result of Communism, is it true that any “regime change” operation by an outside power is necessarily going to become a godawful mess like we have in Iraq and Afghanistan? (The latter being more justifiable, since there wasn’t a real regime to change anyway.) Was it in the nature of Hitchens’ Trotskyism to believe in the viability of “imperialism for democracy”? I wish he’d have gone into this, because I do believe that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t happen without people seeing Hussein dragged out of a spider-hole and brought to “justice.” (Hitch-22 was written before aforementioned “Arab Spring,” of course.) But I also believe that other dictators saw that and doubled down on their own repressive forces, to try to keep such a thing from ever happening to them.
ANYWAY: outside of that chapter, I thought the book was fantastic. I enjoyed the literary scenesterism, the parlor games with Amis, Rushdie, Fenton and the like. The chapter about his late (1988) discovery of his Jewish roots was fascinating, inasmuch as he found himself somehow adopting Jewishness as a tenacious culture while remaining atheist and contending that Israel is essentially an outlaw state. (Which returns to those issues of religiosity, God/godlessness, and ethics, via Wise Blood and The Finkler Question, but in yet another direction.) I’m simplifying, but he doesn’t exactly get into the question of where Jews were supposed to go after the war. Except for the part about how Jews were co-opted into the ethnic cleansing practices of post-war Poland.
I found myself quite sad by the time I finished Hitch-22 (and this year), rent by the fragility of life, the voices that are stilled, the books left unwritten, the books left unread. I haven’t made any firm reading plans for 2012, certainly not on the scale of that Powell project, but I’m confident I’ll come up with something.
I hope you enjoyed this rambling recap, dear reader. I have a mild interest in other fields (sports, menswear, technology) but really, the only question I can ask to show that I care is, “What are you reading?”
Sorry about the lack of an Unrequired Reading last week. I was way too busy helping put on our conference. I’m way too busy finishing the October issue now, but I figure you deserve some of this.
In my previous post, I decried some lame-ass attempts at infusing “literaryness” into an article that chronicled the decline of the New York Knicks. My complaint was that the writer’s story is compelling enough that it doesn’t require the trappings of middlebrowness-trying-to-prove-its-smartypantsness in order to please hip urban crowd.
But just because I lambasted the editor involved in those decisions, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m dropping my own high-brow snobbishness. In fact, Amy & I receive a whole spectrum of viewpoints, on line and in print. It ranges from. . . well —
— Hegel to Heigl!
The mag on the left is the official magazine of St. John’s College in Annapolis & Santa Fe. I attended graduate school for 2 years in Annapolis and, as I’ve written on numerous occasions (most recently/ramblingly here), it was the most important period of my life. What I learned there — including how to learn — informs every day of my life.
So I was overjoyed (I’m an easy mark, I know) to open the current issue and see an article from Laurence Berns, the first tutor I had in my first semester in the program, chronicling the process of putting together the graduate curriculum 40 years ago. The best part of “Why Didn’t We Know About These Books?” (a question from one of the early grad students), is Mr. Berns’ discussion of choosing which books to include in the program and when to get to them. There’s a funny passage about one tutor’s enthusiasm for the Theaetetus and the necessity of putting it after Hume and Kant, but I think this section sums up the program’s geeky, graceful passion and the love of life and learning that I found during my time in Annapolis:
Michael Ossorgin, tutor, ordained Russian Orthodox priest, Dostoyevsky expert, and musician, was perhaps the most sweetly intelligent man I have ever known. Some days after I had shown him my Literature selections, he called to invite me to lunch. He had developed a better idea for that sequence, but he would never say that.
As soon as we were seated for lunch he turned to me and said, “Larry, I think all of human life can be understood in terms of the Iliad and the Odyssey.” And then for about two hours he led me in a wonderful discussion about how the Iliad and the Odyssey clarified the foundations of human life, at the end of which I asked him if he would redraw the literature sequence to extend the time for the Iliad and the Odyssey.
He did. Of course, that’s the first section that I studied under Mr. Berns when I arrived in Annapolis.
(You can download a PDF of the Winter 2008 magazine over at the St. John’s publications page or directly from my site. It’s about 1.3mb, and Mr. Berns’ piece starts on page 26 of the PDF. There’s also a neat piece on Hegel (of course) by Peter Kalkavage, another tutor who had a profound influence on me. I’ll write more about that topic later, since it involves re-typing a 15-page essay of his. You should go buy his new book, The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. And let me know if any of you are interested in starting an online reading group/discussion of that Phenomenology, since I never did read it while I was at St. John’s.)