Incarnational literary studies: Exam Reading Week 2

This week I read:

  • Part of Cathy N. Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
  • Part of The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Jonathan Senchyne
  • The second half of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity and Restoration
  • A wee tiny bit of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Reading a number of different things this week was nice. The Bunyan and the Rowlandson were quick and now out of the way (I did enjoy them! It’s just nice to get things finished). I’ve decided that to tackle the Locke (and probably any other philosophical works), I’m going to kind of let it wash over me, while still taking notes. Trying to parse out every little point will make it take far too long. And speaking of taking a long time, I’ll be reading it in small pieces over a couple of weeks so I don’t get bogged down in it and get stuck there.

The scholarly books were both very interesting. Davidson’s book is from the mid-eighties, and its one of those “foundational in its field” academic books. That is, it shaped the way the field looks today, and most scholars after her reference this book. I haven’t encountered much about the earliest American novels before, since in both high school and college classes the American novel tends to begin with “the greats” – e.g. Hawthorne, Melville, perhaps Fenimore Cooper. I didn’t even know there were earlier American novels until I started my PhD! It’s true that the American novel was rather late to the scene — the first one was published in 1789–but there were about a hundred early novels that don’t really get talked about much. I enjoy the information, and, for the most part, the analysis, that Davidson provides, although her approach is very overtly feminist and marxist. This isn’t surprising; it’s the normal approach today and was even more normal in the 80s, but I tire of these interpretive approaches, really.

The Senchyne is the text I want to focus on this week, despite only having read the Introduction so far. But to get to my point, I must first provide some Context.

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately, which leads to a lot of “what do you do?” questions. When I mention I’m doing a PhD, the follow-up question is usually “what do you want to do with that?” and the answer is, I don’t know. I am increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Academia–it’s become more of an ideological bubble than ever before, it’s struggling in all sorts of ways, the jobs available continue to shrink, and frankly, I don’t think that there is a place in academia for the questions I ultimately want to engage. Really, the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mom who scribbles at stories and ideas after the kids are in bed becomes more and more attractive.

That doubt, of course, leads to further doubts–should I still be doing this PhD? Would my time be better spent elsewhere? Some of these doubts, fortunately, have been eased by the beginning of the semester. I like doing a deep dive into a topic (which is what exam reading ultimately is, in spades), I like teaching (though I could do without the grading), I like the generally busy and convivial air of the lively campus.

It’s odd that I’m doing work in print culture, because I firmly believe that a traditional, classical approach to the humanities is the best–close reading and discussion of the Major Canon, and so on. Why then, am I rummaging around in the dusty corners of the archive? Why am I concerning myself with books that nobody has read in hundreds of years? Why am I doing what is essentially historical, and not so much literary, work? What is an Orthodox way to approach literary study? How do I bring my understanding of the world to my work? It’s hard to do, because of that ideological bubble I mentioned above.

Reading the Senchyne introduction helped me answer some of those questions.

Senchyne mentions at one point that print culture/book history/bibliography–terms that describe slightly different approaches to studying the material and social contexts of books, instead of the abstract contents (or in addition to, I suppose)–are often set against the predominance of Critical Theory, which is very abstract and concerned solely with Ideas. Senchyne goes on to argue that the two things–material and Idea, print culture and critical theory–are not opposed, and I suppose he’s right.

But his mention of this potential duality helped me see clearly something I’ve been sensing intuitively. I am doing print culture because I enjoy it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is that it’s not critical theory, which I dislike. I may be burned at the stake for heresy if any of my colleagues or professors ever read this, but it’s true. I find it difficult and, frankly, mostly pointless. Treating theories as lenses that help us explore books in different ways is useful, sometimes, if they are good lenses, but Theory has become something like a religion or a worldview (or an identity?) in academic circles, (and they’re not good lenses usually) and, well, no thank you.

Focusing on materiality helps to balance the at-times extreme, almost gnostic, abstract world of theory. But materialists often go too far (I’m looking at you, thing theory), and ascribe to material more agency than it ought to possess; it becomes almost mystical, and often collapses the distinction between objects and people.

What literary study is looking for, I realized, is incarnational approaches. The Incarnation (yes that Incarnation) is in one degree about the marriage of spirit and material; it is God-become-Man. Literary study is struggling to find a way to approach both the ideas that a book or poem or play contains, the truth they invite us to uncover, and also the way that those ideas are contained in physical objects and impact actual people. The incarnational approach may offer a way to integrate those two apparently disparate approaches into one coherent whole. But even more important, by thinking incarnationally instead of gnostically or materially, we invite an entirely different way of thinking about literature, one that is open to the Orthodox, spiritual, way of seeing the world. It could be an escape from the ultimately materialist, modernist and post-modernist ways of reading that infuse the academy right now.

Don’t ask what the incarnational approach actually looks like. I have no idea. I had this thought literally yesterday. But as I keep reading and preparing for exams, I’m going to start trying to figure it out.


On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

On the Content of Bookstores

I’ve been in a lot of different bookstores lately (nobody is surprised). For some reason, this particular string of bookstores in this particular order led me to notice something I hadn’t really considered before.

The story:

I went to the flagship Half Price Books and wandered around, noting titles that might fit my 2018 Reading Goals. There were a lot of them. A joy-inducing, oh-my-goodness lot of them. I recalled a number of books I’d wanted to read but had forgotten about. I found copies of classics you can otherwise only order online. You know, the B-list of popular classics authors. Part of this is because the store is humongous, and part of it is that it’s near a major university or three, I suspect. I didn’t actually buy any books that day, because grad student, but I made a mental note to shop here more.

I was out of town and visited a local bookstore, and noticed how obviously and carefully curated their selections were. Even in sections like YA I could see that each book included on the shelf had been meaningfully selected. They were not only the popular ones, although there were plenty of new and new-ish releases, but also those considered generally considered good by the book community. I felt like anything I pulled off of any shelf would be a good book.

I visited briefly a Barnes and Noble in the city, near that Half Price Books and thus that university. It’s also near a very affluent part of town, and near the business part of the city, so therefore an area full of wealthy people, young professionals, professors, and college / graduate students. I say this to compare it to

My local Barnes and Noble, which I visit frequently but most recently yesterday, when I had this observation I haven’t actually made yet (I’m getting to it, hang with me). This store is also located in a pretty affluent area, but a suburb filled with middle-aged families with young kids or teens.

When I observed the selection of books at the first two places, I based their existence on the kind of bookstore – independent and used. So when I briefly browsed through the fiction section of the city Barnes and Noble, I was surprised by their selections. There was more diversity, both in authors, in sub-genres, and in the number of books by each author. I found a number of different classics (that weren’t the B&N Classics editions!), including less popular (less assigned) ones, and I spotted books by authors I’m intending to read for my challenge that I can’t find at my local store. Some of this may have to do with store size, but on the other hand, my bookstore devoted an entire case to the Outlander books. An. Entire. Case.

I mean, there are a lot of Outlander books, but all I could imagine was that if that was halved, maybe they would have had space for Middlemarch, which wasn’t in stock.

And this is when I realized: bookstores stock for their demographic. And this area of the world, apparently, wants Outlander and James Patterson. Which is fine, I guess.*

I mean, it makes sense. If you had told me that different stores of the same chain carry different books, I wouldn’t have expressed surprise.

If you’re hanging in still, and wondering why I just spent 500 words building up to that obvious conclusion, here’s my takeaways from those thoughts:

  1. What an interesting ethnographic experiment. Walk into Barnes and Nobles in different regions. Characterize that region’s reading tastes. You totally could do that.
  2. This is why I buy most of my books from Amazon and Half Price Books. (well, also the discount). I usually can’t find ones I’m interested in and also haven’t read at my local store.
  3. How important independent bookstores are! That careful curation of stock is invaluable. This has motivated me to visit a new independent bookstore that’s not near where I live now, but will be closer when I move this summer. I want to make friends with the staff.
  4. How limiting the end result is. How many people, how many young readers, are missing out on encounters with some really great books, classic and contemporary, because their local bookstore only carries trendy books? How many people have given up on reading because they want a steak-book, and the only thing the bookstore sells is candy-floss?

A lot of places, including my general region (if I’m willing to make a little effort) have independent bookstores to help with this problem, but a lot of places don’t. One of the things I missed most about moving back to the Atlanta suburbs from Boston was the lack of indy bookstores. Now that I’m paying attention, and realize I have access to those resources, I’m going to do something about it.

This discovery made me more determined to put in the effort to dig up those little-known gems and promote them as much as I can. It contributed to this post in a psychological way. The internet is great for buying books you can’t find in your bookstore, but it’s also a bewildering warren of misses and meh reads. I want to help all you lovely readers know what to order, what to request, what to dig out from between the Pattersons and Clancys.

Are there little-known or un-popular books you love? Let me know about them!


*Full disclosure: I was interested in the premise of Outlander (time travel!), but DNF’d it halfway through. I’m not interested in smut that masquerades as storytelling. Sorry if you’re fond of the books, but there’s no faster way to get me to DNF a book and find it generally distasteful than to include a lot of smut or graphically depicted sex. It’s why I DNF’d Game of Thrones, too.

Some Thoughts on Reading and This Blog

I’m a strange kind of reader.

I’ve been watching a lot of book-related YouTube videos (colloquially called BookTube), and browsing a lot of book-related Instagram accounts (Bookstagram), and tentatively participating in them myself.

Now, some of the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make might be because of what I happen to be seeing, and if I dig a little harder I’ll find things to be different, but  –

Here’s the thing: if you want to get a lot of views, or likes, or whatever, it seems like you have to be a particular kind of reader.

Like, a very particular kind of reader. This reader likes YA fiction, fantasy, and contemporary popular adult fiction (thrillers, books like Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale). They are reading for entertainment almost exclusively; plot and character matter most; the writing is often described as “amazing” or “beautiful” when it simply features some rhythm or a preponderance of good images.

There is NOTHING wrong with being this kind of reader. Zero things. None of them. I’ve discovered a lot of great books through these avenues, and some are even new favorites on the order of possess-and-reread, which is my personal gold star (versus the enjoy once from the library).

I am not this kind of reader, not entirely. I read YA, and a lot of it. I don’t like thrillers (though mysteries are usually okay), and I find a lot of popular adult fiction boring (ok, most of it).

I’ve DNF’d three of the Holy Grail series: The Mortal Instruments, the Throne of Glass, and that trilogy that probably has a name but I can’t remember it – you know, the A Court of …. books. Meh. They were all meh books; sort-of entertaining but not enough to commit to a series. I really don’t get the popularity of any of them. (WHY ARE THEY SO POPULAR?) Also, I enjoyed Harry Potter but just don’t care that much about it. (sacrilege, I know). This means that a lot of the book chatter I’m currently hearing just doesn’t matter to me.

Maybe the difference is that I’m also a writer, or maybe it’s that I’m also a scholar, or maybe it’s that I’m often older than the people I’m watching. Maybe it’s just that I’m me.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see the skeleton of a story, and as a result I think I’m a pretty good judge of the skill of a given writer. (to qualify, any published writer is automatically more successful that I am at the moment, so really I shouldn’t judge. But I do. Even when I really like some of those more basically written books.)

As a graduate student heading towards a Ph.D in literature and hopefully college teaching, I’ve gained specific, advanced instruction in evaluating and interpreting texts.

I read a lot, which means I have a lot to compare a book to. I know a good story when I read it. I don’t insist that a book does anything beyond be entertaining, but it better do that really well to get praise from me. It bothers me when people give books 5 stars on Goodreads when there are inconsistencies in the plot or characterization. I think a book should be judged not only on how it makes you feel, but also on how well it’s done. Do we want a slew of mediocre books that are being published because they’re “diverse” or “entertaining” or whatever, or do we want diverse and entertaining books that are good. Lasting. Meaningful.

In addition to reading for entertainment, I want to be stretched and provoked by some of the books I read. For me, this means digging up odd literary works that I’ve never heard of. It means reading old books, even the unfashionable ones. It means not reading Dickens the same way you do J.K Rowling, because their writing goals and assumptions are different. It means discussing the authors’ writing goals and assumptions.

In addition to reading new books, I like to read old books. About half of my favorite books ever (a long list, I admit) are books that are nearing their hundredth birthday, if they haven’t already passed it by ages ago. These are also often books that are not the Greatest Hits, or were and have fallen out of favor – Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Dorothy Sayers mysteries, the Divine Comedy. I have a fondness for the poetry of George Herbert, and T.S. Eliot, and Shakespeare.

Basically, I don’t fit in a box. And that awareness has caused me to hesitate in adding my voice to the conversation, because I know it’s often going to be a contrary one. Will anyone care to listen? Is the time I spend writing or filming worth it?

In the end, I’ve decided, that yes, I’m going to keep going, in my own time, in my own way. I won’t be a consistent poster (ever), and my content isn’t going to be anything but what it is. I mean, the blog title is meant to be descriptive.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and here’s what you’re going to get from now on: Me talking about books I like. It’s going to be an eclectic grab bag of books and registers, Faulkner and Zadie Smith and Laini Taylor and Dorothy Sayers all together, the writing analytic one day, fangirling the next. Maybe that means I’ll have four followers, and eight hits on every post, and feel like I’m adding to the noise but not the conversation, and that’s okay.

Over the next several months I plan to carefully shape this blog and my YouTube channel into whatever strange shape they’ll ultimately take on. If you do want this kind of content, please interact! Share with like-minded folks. Comment. Add to the conversation! I suspect, I hope, that there’s somebody else out there wanting this kind of content. Let’s form a club and have some conversations. Isn’t that what the internet is for?

“If My Book Wins General Favor”: On Longevity

IMG_0345“Therefore if my book wins general favor, I think it must be good and ought to live; but if it fails to please, I think it must be bad and soon to be forgot.” From The Book of the Courtier, by Baldasar Castiglione (1528).

I came across this quotation in a classic Italian treatise on the Ideal Courtier while doing research for my thesis (that’s where I’ve disappeared to, in case you were wondering!). While I’ve seen enough of these “please like my book” appeals to believe them to be rather common in prefaces of this time, the wording of this one struck me. How true it is!

I’m always so fascinated by the idea of a classic’s longevity. Castiglione hoped his book would win general favor, but I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that I (a woman) am reading it on a device not yet dreamt of, on a then barely-discovered continent, for advanced academic work.

What makes a classic stick around? Obviously, being a good book matters, but that’s not the only, or even the primary, factor. For many works, it is actually a perfect storm of preservation, social and economic occurrences, near-misses, dramatic outcomes. Just because a work was popular in its day doesn’t mean it’s still around (although it’s possible) or, if around, still read. And the farther you go back in time, the more and more  we are beneficiaries of happenstance. There were three or four mini-epics that occurred between The Iliad and The Odyssey but they didn’t make it. Neither did at least one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Sometimes, books that we now consider essential classics crashed and burned in their day, usually because the style or content was deemed too “out there” by the book’s contemporary critics. Sometimes works fell out of favor and were “rescued” hundreds of years later (Shakespeare is one of these – thank the Romantics for his continued existence).

In short, isn’t it amazing that we have all of the great classics we do? Isn’t it amazing that I’m reading a treatise written by an Italian courtier in the 1500s, and that I can find a translated version for my Kindle for $0.99?

What about you? What are some of your favorite classic works? What do you think those works authors would have to say about their continued existence and popularity?

Edition Matters

IMG_0100.jpgIn this post, a list of tips for reading classics, one of the points I make is that edition matters. Never has this been made more clear to me than this weekend.

I have been reading Anna Karenina, slowly, at a snail’s pace, ten pages here, twenty there, for more than two weeks, and was on page 150 or so. Now, this pace has nothing to do with my level of interest in the story. Almost from the first page, I’ve been intrigued by and drawn into this interesting world that Tolstoy portrays. I like the book. I think about it when I’m not reading it. I want to read it.

And yet, I wasn’t reading it.

This weekend, because of President’s Day (which isn’t even a post holiday anymore, let alone a school holiday, but is nevertheless a good excuse to issue coupons and encourage consumerism), I went to the bookstore, in possession of a coupon that gave me 40% off an item of my choice. I don’t usually use the deals I’m emailed, not even for books, preferring to buy used, especially for classics. But 40% off meant I could get a lovely edition of something (hardcover, cloth-bound, or deluxe edition, I dreamed immediately). So off to the bookstore I went.

Of course, as I immediately remembered, this particular chain bookstore (the only US national one, guess which?) has a habit of only stocking its own version of the classics, a version I find particularly ugly, and only buy if I have to. Beautiful editions of classic works were few and far between, and most were of books I already own and don’t want a second copy of (David Copperfield, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

9780198709701.jpegThen I found the Oxford hardcovers. The first one appeared with the Dostoyevsky books, a red, cloth-bound version of Crime and Punishment featuring a minimalistic axe on the front.

But I didn’t want a Dostoyevsky, because The Brothers Karamazov has been languishing, unread, on my bookshelves since time immemorial (seriously, I don’t remember when I bought it), and I didn’t want to add C&P to that party. So I kept wandering, and between the “D” and the “T” section was mostly a wasteland.

And there it was, at eye level, in the “T’s”: Anna Karenina, in the Oxford clothbound, a beautiful blue hardback with a paler blue fan and the title dripping down like ribbon. I tried to talk myself out of it, and failed. It came home with me.

9780198800538.jpegThat night I read a hundred pages. A hundred.

It was about more than the aesthetics, too. The book, weighty as it is, felt comfortable in my hand. The pages open easily. The font is well-spaced and comfortable to read. I lost track of time in the book instead of counting the number pages I had left until the next chapter.

This is my conclusion: edition matters.

Spring for the lovely books, the aesthetic books, but also get those books that not only feature helpful notes and annotations and introductions, but also (or instead, even) offer a pleasurable reading experience. I wonder how many classics I have struggled to read simply because the cheap edition was subtly fighting against my eyes?  I wonder if students would like the books we ask them to read better if we gave them beautiful, readable editions instead of the tiny Signets and Dovers with the minuscule font and no spacing?

I don’t know the answer. I just know that thanks to my purchase, I have a hope of finishing Anna Karenina before the month ends.


The images of the covers are from the OUP website:

If you’re interested in the Oxford Hardcover series, which really is lovely, and contains the insides of their very good paperback World’s Classics series, it looks like aside from the Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (including War and Peace), there’s an Austen, a Shelley, and several short story and fairytale collections. I hope they add more in the future! I would certainly be interested in adding them to my collection.

Also, here’s a comparison of the insides of my two copies of Anna. The Oxford is on the top, the cheap old bookstore-released edition is on the left. The differences are subtle, to be sure, but that’s my point – a little change matters a lot. I flipped to a page in the middle at random, and they happened to be a similar layout, which is convenient. Also, you’ll notice how much more nicely the Oxford lays open.