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.

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?

January Classics

My classics goals for this year have shifted a little bit. Instead of reading “a majority” of classics (which, let’s face it, would be more than 50, which seems a little unrealistic), my 2018 goals are:

  • 1 classic a month
  • 1 early modern book a month

(and also 1 adult contemporary book every 2 months, but that doesn’t count for this blog.) (unless, you know, future classics?)

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The early modern reading goal arises from my newly minted grad school focus on the early modern period in England, and the knowledge that I need to get my read on. Early modern, for those who are wondering, is roughly the 1500s through about 1660. Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas More . . . those guys. I’m concentrating on Shakespeare at the moment because he’s the subject of my thesis, but I’m trying to expand.

SO, in the interest of accountability, here’s my January books. I did actually meet my goals this month, and even exceed them, although all the books I read were slim, quick reads. I think I read the Cather and Shakespeare each in two days.

Classics: 

IMG_0028In A Glass Darkly Sheridan Le Fanu

I bought this book last summer in England, during my raid of the Oxford University Press bookstore. I love the Oxford Classics editions; they’re lovely, with that iconic red and white cover, inexpensive (relatively), and have great notes. The OUP bookstore (and Blackwell’s, one street over), usually have buy 1, get 1, or buy 2 get 1 deals, which is a great way to collect these books. I just have to limit myself, because, you know, they have to fit in my suitcase. Since I bought a bunch of them, and then proceeded to have a crazy fall and read exactly none, they’ll be frequent visitors this year.

I hope.

But you want me to tell you about the book, right? In a Glass Darkly is a collection of short stories published in 1872. They are framed as case files from the late Dr. Hessalius, a medical doctor with interests in psychological and (possibly) supernatural illness. Each story begins with the (unnamed) literary executor explaining where the story came from, giving each tale a “real world” anchor. There are five stories: the shorter “Green Tea,” “The Familiar” and “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” and the longer “The Room at the Dragon Volant” and “Carmilla.”

I began reading this book immediately, but put it down somewhere in the middle of “The Familiar” for several months. While I enjoyed all of the stories, I thought the first three were only okay. But the last two – OH BOY.

Le Fanu mostly writes Gothic fiction, and is a master at the “maybe it’s a ghost or maybe he’s hallucinating” kind of feint, an uncertainty which he makes plausible and not at all cheesy. “Dragon Volant” is a long story and took a little while to get into, but then I was so hooked. It is about an Englishman, Beckett, on tour in Europe and so ready for some kind of adventure, preferably one where he rescues a beautiful lady, and boy does he get what he wants. This turns out to be more like a mystery than a gothic or supernatural tale.

“Carmilla” is one of the first English vampire stories, and it’s a classic, and so well done, and that’s all I’m going to say because spoilers.

O Pioneers Willa Cather

IMG_0026This book, published in 1913 and set in Nebraska around the turn of the last century (it’s not really specified), is about Alexandra Bergson, who emigrated from Sweden with her family a number of years before the story opens. Despite having two older brothers and a younger one, it is Alexandra, with a head for business and an intuitive feel for the land, who takes over the family farm after her father dies when she’s a teenager. The story follows Alexandra and her family and friends through the next twenty years as she prospers financially and yet still experiences deep suffering in other ways.

Personally, I think My Ántonia is a better book, with a stronger coherency, but this critique makes sense as O Pioneers is one of Cather’s first books. You can tell she’s still figuring some things out. In particular, the plot feels uncertain for about the first third of the book, like a collection of sketches instead of a novel. That does not mean this isn’t still a great book, and the plot coheres eventually. I love Cather’s prose so much, and the way she makes the land almost a character in the book is beautiful. For instance, the first sentence of the book: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”

If you like contemporary fiction, but find most classics a struggle to read, try O Pioneers; despite being a hundred years old, in many ways its writing feels very contemporary.

Early Modern Books: 

 The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

IMG_0025This play was first performed around 1611, late in Shakespeare’s career, and printed in 1623. It is about Leontes, the king of Sicily, who suddenly decides, for no good reason, that his best friend, the king of Bohemia, has been having an affair with Leontes’ wife Hermione. And Hermione is very pregnant. And Polixines, the friend, has been visiting for nine months. And they definitely (actually) did not have an affair.

Confused? It’s not you. This play is weird, and convoluted, and I love it. The first three acts are kind of uncomfortable because of Leontes’ accusations, but this gives Hermione and one of her ladies, Paulina, the chance to be strong and awesome. Then the action jumps 16 years, and suddenly there’s a happy ending. Time shows up.  Bohemia has a coast (it’s the (very landlocked) present-day Czech Republic). A guy is mauled by a bear (offstage). It’s so random, you just kind of have to go with it. Imagine it’s a fantasy, and it works much better.

Why do I like this play so much? I have no idea. Some of it is influenced by the Royal Ballet’s production, available on Amazon, which is so beautiful and which, stripped of the language, somehow helps the plot make sense. This is itself a little crazy, because the language in this play is amazing, too. I can’t quote my favorite line, because it’s a major spoiler, but here’s Paulina telling Leontes like it is: “I’ll not call you tyrant, / but this most cruel usage of your queen, / Not able to produce more accusation / Than your now weak-hinged fancy, something savors of tyranny” (2.3.115-119). Ouch.

So there you go. A lot of words about a few of the books I read in January. I’m quite pleased that I managed to meet, and even exceed, my new goals, although I know that may not last. I picked up Anna Karenina the other day, which is just . . . oh, boy. It’s so big. (I like it, but it’s so long). We’ll see how successful I am in February.

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Also, it occurred to me that I could have taken prettier pictures. Something to aspire to next month, because I’m not re-taking these.

Some thoughts on goals

I’ve been a little frustrated with myself this week, because I haven’t been reading as much has I should.

Which translates to: I’ve only finished reading six books this month. You know, only six. And only two classics.

But as I was sitting here just now, looking at Pinterest, thinking about how I should be reading, I realized, you know what? It’s okay.

I want to be one of those people who doesn’t waste hours on social media. One of those who reads in her free time, and reads edifying, meaty books, not fluffy stuff (not all the time.) And because the pull of social media is strong, and it’s easy to – whoops! – lose an hour or three, I feel guilty when I catch myself browsing instead of reading.

All of this is well and good. Really. And in fact, most of the time I would be decently successful at it. I used to read constantly, all the time, in all the quiet spaces and spare five minutes and oops I forgot my chores kind of way. I could resurrect that with a little thought and self-awareness.

I’m going to give myself permission not to. Not right now. Not completely.

I’ve been working on a creative writing project, one that’s been cooking for literally decades, and the timer’s dinged. So every day, for as much as six or seven hours, I’ve been hanging out in another world, building something on a blank white screen. It’s been amazing. It’s also tiring.

I don’t feel exhausted when I stop, I feel energized, which is why I think I’ve taken so long to come to that realization. My brain is tired.

I also don’t want to read anything that might infect the voices I’m writing in. No genre fiction. None of the T.V. shows I usually watch (I literally spent an hour scrolling through Netflix saying “don’t want to watch that now” until I finally just turned the TV off). I wrote earlier this week that as a result of this fast that kind of naturally developed, I’m more or less solely reading nonfiction and classics. I do enjoy those kinds of books when I do read, which is not never, but just – less. But those kinds of books do take a deeper level of concentration than the skim-through YA or fantasy that I usually turn to when I’m mentally fatigued.

So, I scroll through social media. And I’m going to be okay with that.

Setting goals for yourself is important, and valuable. Having the discipline to follow through with those goals is also important. For me, the Rule Follower, it’s more important to recognize when the goals need to become a little flexible. I had imagined myself spending all summer reading. I’m doing something else, which is wonderful and valuable and definitely not a waste of time, but that means I need to adjust my reading goals.

This blog is still finding its voice, and I’m still working on consistency, but at its heart it is a place for me to think about my year (and hopefully years) focusing on reading the classics. A place for reflection, and, hopefully, for inspiration. And, most importantly, a place for honesty.

So, honestly? I’m reading less (overall) than I would like. And it’s fine.

Midyear Update

Despite my best intentions, I’ve still failed to post regularly. Oops.

This summer has turned into The Time I Actually Finish That One Novel I’m Writing, and since I’ve got great traction on it, a lot of things have fallen to the wayside.

A funny result of this is, however, that I am reading a lot more classics. Indeed, most of my non-classics reading has fallen by the wayside as I’ve more-or-less subconsciously halted all YA and fantasy reading; I don’t want their voices in my head as I write.

This has slowed down my reading pace some, as I just can’t zip through The Marble Faun or Richard III as fast as the latest YA hit.

images.jpeg   81bqdCHk00L.jpgThus far this year, I’ve read 23 classics and nonfiction works. This does include the rereads I did of all of Jane Austen’s six novels, and of Lord of the Rings. Still, out of 47 total books, that’s pretty good. Just less than half. I’m also 90% complete on my (admittedly lowballed) Goodreads reading challenge (52 books). I might be updating that soon.

It’s been nice, actually, to have these intense hours of writing the story in my head, and then reading books that are thoughtful and slow and filled with lovely prose. Or amazing insults. Seriously, Shakespeare pulled out all the insults for Richard III. And the ladies get the best ones.

One of my goals in the next week or so is to finish off the handful of books I’ve been rotating through:

Richard III 
Sons and Lovers
The Marble Faun
David Copperfield (maybe someday hopefully)

The other goal is to reinstate and actually follow my blogging schedule. Now that I’m reading more, I should have more to write on. Some future posts include a review of One Hundred Years of Solitude and my reflection on why the classics matter.

Remember me?

Hello! Like Gandalf, I am back from the dead.

(Yes, I am comparing the end of this semester to falling down a nearly endless abyss and then climbing to the top of a mountain and fighting a nearly immortal fire-beast).

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Now that summer has come and I am finished with full-time teaching for the foreseeable future, I will have more time to devote to this poor, neglected baby.

Next week. After I finish one last paper.

I will be posting twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays about all sorts of things.

If you have any questions you’d like answering or any classics you’d like recommended, leave a comment below! I’ll see you here on Tuesday, when I review my reread of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (teaser: I have mixed feelings).