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.

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PhD Exams: Overview

Between now and March I will be reading for my PhD exams. Partly as a way to keep myself accountable, and partly because others might find it interesting to get a glimpse into this strange time of the PhD experience, I’ve decided that each week, I will list what I’ve read since the last post, and choose one of those texts and do a short review/analysis/discussion of it. This will also be great for anyone curious about eighteenth century British and American literature; we’re covering it alllll.

But before that, what even are PhD exams? Consider this the “info dump,” overview, explainy post. Don’t really care? Come back this weekend for the literature. (Or check out the archive if you’re from the future. Hi there! How are things?)

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Have you ever wondered what it entails when someone in a PhD program says they have exams? Or are you considering a PhD program yourself and wondering about the experience? Or do you just want to know why I’m reading a bajillion books* in six months? This is the post for you.

A caveat: this explanation is specific to the program (*school redacted*) and field (literature) I’m in. How this works varies from school to school and program to program, so your experience (or your friend’s) may be different. And by “may” I mean “definitely will.”

So you start a PhD program in literature. Here in the US, that usually means you take a few years of classes, then have your oral or comprehensive exams, then write a dissertation (a book-length scholarly project). This semester, I’m beginning the “exam” phase.

The purpose of the exam is twofold: to prepare you to teach by giving you the chance to read and study all the major literature of your chosen period, and to help you explore the ideas and questions that you hope to work on in your dissertation through a list of secondary (scholarly) books and articles.

The first thing you do is put together your exam committee. This involves identifying 3 professors who do work in or adjacent to your proposed field of study, and asking them to be your committee. They will help you develop your reading lists, and provide the exam questions. Typically, one of these professors is the chair, or head, of the committee. They are the one you work most closely with, and the one that has the final say in your lists, etc. (And they’re responsible for the administrative paperwork.)

I did this last fall. I met with the professor I wanted to be my chair (Professor C, for chair), and asked him if he would. We discussed the (very vague) research direction I’d like to go in for my future dissertation, and he agreed that our interests overlapped enough that he would be a good choice. I picked this professor first because his interests align with mine, in terms of period (the literal time period, which for me is 1700-1830 British and American literature), method (the way you approach analysis: print culture and historiography) and specific interests (the reading and writing practices of ordinary people of this time). I also picked him because I’ve taken several of his classes and know we work well together. This is best-case scenario; sometimes the professor you need hasn’t taught during your “take classes phase.” In this case, I strongly recommend trying to get to know them by meeting with them a few times to chat about your interests.

After meeting with Professor C, I asked the other two profs, Professor 2 and Professor 3. I chose these professors to help fill in ‘gaps’ in Professor C’s expertise, to help give me a more rounded exam list. For example Professor 2 does work with 18th century British literature, while Professor C is more focused on American, so they balance each other out.

In the spring, I started writing my lists. I did this by looking at lists written by other students in my program, googling and finding lists from students at other schools who were doing similar work, and by asking my professors for suggestions. After a few rounds of back and forth with each, I finalized the lists. They will still fluctuate as I do my reading; I’ll run out of time to get to *everything*, and I may find books that are more relevant than others on my list currently and switch them, things like that. But they are on the books as “officially approved,” which is what matters.

The exam list has three parts: primary literature, secondary literature, and scholarship. For a lot of people, the primary list is the books in the genre or sub-field they most want to work in, and the secondary list is more of a survey. For example, you might have list one be “American postmodern encyclopedic novels,” and list two be “general American lit from 1860.”** I’ve arranged things a little differently, as I’m essentially “double majoring” in British and American literature, so the subordination of “primary” and “secondary” doesn’t really matter. The primary list is primary because Professor C. is an Americanist, not because it’s most important. So you see, within the general practice there is a lot of individualized variation, at least at my school.

My first list is major works of American literature 1700-1830. You might recognize names like Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Washington Irving, Thomas Jefferson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Also, while 1700-1830 is a pretty typical time frame that scholars use (there were some big shifts in the 1830s after a lot of continuity), most American lit I courses in college go to 1860, so I’ve added some of the big hits to prepare me to teach–books like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and the poetry of Walt Whitman show up for that reason.

My second list is major works of British literature 1700-1830. Did I say 1830 so I could get Jane Austen on this list? I’ll never tell 😇. Since I’m focusing on novels in my research, I have a lot of novels on this list (and the other one, too, but there are far fewer American novels published in this time frame). Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy; Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley (there were a LOT of female authors in the second half of the 18th century). It also includes poetry and prose, from writers like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope.

My third list is secondary scholarship about reading and print culture. I’m looking at general scholarly takes on print culture, on books about reading specifically, and also books about the relationship between reading and education. For the curious, “print culture” is the study of printed things — books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, etc.–and the way people interacted with them as objects.

I was actually supposed to begin reading in the spring, through the summer, and take my exams late this fall. But between the chaos of the world and getting married in March, I got to May and was staring burnout in the face, and so arranged to push things back and take the summer off. I’m so thankful that my department is willing to work with us to arrange things like that when we need them.

So! Tune in this weekend for some thoughts on the first books I’ve been reading.

  • *It’s actually something in the neighborhood of 130; this includes long books like Tom Jones (almost 900 pages), parts of nonfiction books, essays, average-sized books, collections of poetry, and single poems. So it’s a lot of things, but at least some of those things are short.

**This is a real example.

Classics Club Spin #22/I’m Back?

Hello, friends, It’s been a while. This semester has been a long and hard one for several reasons, but things are settling down now, school is out, and I’m feeling ready to start digging into some classics again.

Conveniently, the Classics Club is doing another spin! You know how it goes: I post a list of 20 books here, the Classics Club announces a number on Sunday, Dec 22, and then I have to read that book by the end of January!

This is super perfect timing, because I don’t really know what I want to read next. I’m just listing 20 books from my Classics Club list that sound interesting at the moment, and hopefully I’ll get a good one!

The list:

  1. Romola by George Eliot
  2. The Mabinogion
  3. The Aeneid Virgil
  4. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  11. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  12. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  13. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  14. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  15. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  16. Histories by Heroditus
  17. Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
  18. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  19. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  20. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

 

Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.

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Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: https://youtu.be/JnClOiiIM7Y

 

 

The Woman in White: Review

Book: The Woman in White5890
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Novel, Mystery
Period: mid-Victorian
Rating: 4/5 stars

I participated in the last Classics Club spin (#20) and it chose Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This is my second Classics Club read. For more about the Classics Club, go here, for the background about the spin, here.

The Woman in White was published in 1860 after first being serialized the year before. It is kind of a mystery, and has strong gothic vibes. I say kind of, because unlike in Collins’ later work The Moonstone, which is trying to uncover a jewel theft, this novel begins by exploring mysterious circumstances and only really deals with solving A Mystery in the last third. The gothic vibes come from a gloomy estate home called Blackwater Park, mistaken identities, mysterious disappearances, and even more mysterious deaths, among other things.

Walking home in London from visiting his mother late one night, Walter Hartright helps a  young woman, dressed all in white, who has just escaped from an insane asylum, and where, she claims, she has been falsely imprisoned. He helps the woman to a cab and does not become further involved, but the encounter lingers in his mind, especially because the woman mentions Limmeridge House, and Hartright happens to be leaving the next day to become the drawing tutor for the ladies who currently live at Limmeridge. When he arrives in the country, Hartright asks one of the young women, Marian Halcombe, to help him try to identify the mysterious woman, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves not only the woman, but Marian’s half sister, Laura, and Hartright himself. There are secrets to uncover, lies to counter, lives to save. It’s hard to say more without spoiling things, but the story was very eventful and entertaining. I read about 300 pages in one sitting, over the middle of the book, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter.” You know how it goes.

Although I was eventually sucked in, I was glad to have a deadline while reading this book because it took me quite a while to get into the story. Very early on, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and she is of course blonde and beautiful and fresh and innocent and it had me rolling my eyes. Laura is engaged to someone else, however, and the story really gets going after she is married to Sir Perceval Glyde, one of the novel’s villains. Once I got to this part of the story, about 200 pages in, I was hooked.

Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up enjoying the major characters a lot. Laura actually demonstrated that she was a perceptive, strong woman, which I appreciated. Marian, her half sister, is another strong woman, loyal, brave, determined, resourceful, and clever, and I’m so glad I met her. Walter also improves on acquaintance. His loyalty to Laura and Marian and his determination to do whatever he can to help them, even if there is no gain for him, helped me get over his predictable love interest. The villains are excellent, particularly Count Fosco, who I will remember for a long time. He was actually very charming and likable, which made his villainy all the more terrible, and it was great.

The story is told in as a compiled narrative, with various characters narrating the portion of the story about which they had the most experience. The frame is that after everything was over, Walter wanted to tell the truth, so gathered material from those who were involved and then wrote about his own experiences and arranged everything chronologically. So, while Walter begins the story, when he is not with Marian and Laura, Marian’s journal continues the story. There are also letters and other memoranda that are used to give various perspectives and details. It’s kind of like a dossier. Collins also does this in The Moonstone, but there is more movement between voices in The Woman in White, and I think I enjoyed that better.

While I mostly read The Woman in White for entertainment, and wasn’t looking for themes, it does raise some interesting questions about mental illness, and particularly around the lack of freedom women had when it came to being committed by their male relatives. I just spent last semester taking a course on 19th century American representations of mental illness, so these themes really stood out to me. Also, after finding out that Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine committed during their very nasty break-up in 1858 (the family doctor/friend told him “Don’t you dare!”), this felt a little like Collins was digging at Dickens with the “false imprisonment” plotline. I don’t really have anything profound to reflect on, although if I were to ever revisit works that feature mental illness for a writing project, this book would be on the list.

Overall, The Woman in White was a great book. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries, Victorian fiction, Dickens’s novels, a good plot, or who want a lot of action in their classics (just be aware that it’s action heavy for a Victorian novel; there’s still a lot of talking).

 

Oresteia: Review

51C7XYdMalL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI’ve been meaning to read this trilogy of ancient Greek plays, by Aeschylus, for ages, and I was delighted when one of my classes this semester forced me to actually do it. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list; the first one I’ve completed! Click the link to see the whole list of classics I’ve committed to read in the next five years.

Aeschylus is the oldest example of Greek drama (and therefore western drama) that we have. His plays are quite different from contemporary ones, or even early modern ones, so I recommend finding an edition that has an introduction which discusses the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. Basically, these plays were written for a festival in honor of Dionysus.

The Oresteia is about the death of Agamemnon at his return from the Trojan War and the events that follow. Is it spoilery if I summarize the whole plot of a 2500 year old story based on an even older myth? Actually, I think this is one of those cases where knowing the story beforehand is helpful. If you don’t want to know anything, skip to below the line for my thoughts.

On his way to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to ensure safe passage and his wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably angry. While Agamemnon is gone for ten years, she starts an affair, and when Agamemnon returns, she murders him. Play 1, Agamemnon, focuses on Agamemnon and Clytemenestra’s, erm, marital problems, and ends with his murder.

6917129-M.jpgIn play 2, The Libation Bearers, Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, comes home from the foreign country where he’d been for a while, and meets his sister, Electra, at their father’s funeral and decides to avenge his father’s murder by killing his mother, even though this will bring the Furies, the ancient goddesses of justice, on his head for killing blood. Apollo has commanded him to do so, and promised protection. [side note, Orestes is where the name of the trilogy comes from]

In play 3, The Furies, Orestes flees to Athens and asks for a trial, defended by Apollo and arbitrated by Athena herself. Athena wins (of course) and the Furies become the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones, protectors of Athens.

On the surface, this play can seem very sparse. Each installment is short, about 40 pages of verse in my edition, and there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action. Digging deeper, with the help of footnotes and good introductions, shows that there’s a lot of complex questions about justice, politics, and religion being discussed. The “eye-for-an-eye” revenge cycle represented by Clytemnestra and the Furies is the “old way,” which is remade into the new way of justice by fair trial.

9780199537815.jpegSomething else I found very interesting was the way Aeschylus used his chorus. If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek drama, you probably learned that the chorus is  supposed to be some anomalous group like “the people” or “the elders,” and this is how Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) uses them. But Aeschylus uses his chorus much more complexly. They are the “elders” in play 1, but in play 2 they become the Libation Bearers of the title, and in play 3 they become the Furies. This shift from old men to old women to goddesses is very interesting to follow, especially when you factor in that these plays were performed on the same day, with the same group of people (all men, probably). Essentially, the chorus moves from being that more traditional group of commentators to being a major group of characters by the last play. It is also interesting to see how much power, both good and bad, women are afforded in this trilogy. While Agamemnon and Orestes are the main characters, their lives are both intensely shaped and influenced by the women around them.

Like a lot of Greek drama, the Oresteia has a lot to say about big topics that makes it still feel relevant today. It’s a pretty quick read for an ancient classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Recommended editions: Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Hackett

Update 5/29: I now have a video review up, where I go more in-depth into the history and backstory of the trilogy. Check it out at https://youtu.be/RSoZJDU9MAU

The Spin Number is. . .

19! (no clue what I’m talking about? Read this)

Which means I’ll be reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White by May 31 and posting a review.

5890.jpgI’ll admit, I was kind of hoping to spin a shorter book. I don’t mind long novels (see: my Classics Club list), but I can’t start reading until I’m finished with the semester on May 10th.  Also its one of the few books on the list I need to buy. Not that this latter is necessarily a problem….

(This is, by the way, the reason for my recent radio silence. I’m reading a lot of classics, but school has devoured all of my time. That will soon change!)

On the other hand, the shortened time limit may help me to sit down and actually finish the book in a timely manner. We’ll see.

Aside from the length, I’m excited to read The Woman in White. I read The Moonstone about six years ago and enjoyed it a lot. I also think The Woman in White will be a good classic to kick-start my summer reading, because although long, it’s a mystery that should be a page-turner (I hope!).

Did you participate in the spin? What are you reading? Or, if not, what’s the next classic you plan to pick up?

Favorite Books of 2018

I read SO many wonderful books in 2018, it was hard to narrow this list down! But after a lot of thought, here are my 10 favorite books of 2018.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

IMG_2075.jpegDorthea Brooke longs to do something great in her life that will allow her to make the world better. She imagines herself marrying a man who will do something famous, a man like Pascal or Milton. Or Edward Casaubon, a neighbor who is working on the Key to All Mythologies. Dorthea marries him, full of idealistic dreams, and quickly is disappointed. She then must grapple with her ideas and ideals, trying to understand how she can fill her new role as Mrs. Casaubon.

Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor just arrived in Middlemarch with dreams of making some kind of medical advance. He is a good doctor, but not the best judge of character. He marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful, and ultimately vain and selfish woman, and finds that to keep her happy, he might have to change his own plans for his future.

Middlemarch is about much more than these characters; the cast is large and the story really is about the town of Middlemarch. Eliot’s themes focus on questions of religion and vocation, and of the importance of doing our best to know the other souls who live around us. Dorthea, for example, must learn how she can pour her religious idealism and passion into making her own time a better place. Eliot suggests that had Dorthea been born in a different time or place, she might have joined a convent and done great religious work, becoming another Saint Theresa of Avila. But that path is not open to her in early Victorian England, so Dorthea must discover what path is available. The tragedy of Rosamond is that she does not wish to try to understand other people; they should know what she wants, and deliver it. But in the few moments where she does put herself in someone else’s shoes, she effects great good.

Eliot’s brilliance is in her characters. They are real, vivid, and wonderfully rounded. The characters you like have serious flaws, the characters you dislike have good qualitites. Her descriptions and meditations and comments are brilliant, vivid, and often humorous. Middlemarch really is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

IMG_0631.jpegJoe Kavalier moves to New York, fleeing Prague from the encroaching Nazi threat at the last possible second. He there meets his cousin, Sam Clay, who is about his age. Sam is an ideas guy, and when he realizes Joe can draw, he spots their opportunity: With his stories and Joe’s drawing, they can start writing a comic book together. In 1930s New York, the Golden Age of comic books is just getting underway, and Joe and Sammy are on the ground floor of the phenomenon.

While the story does follow their business and creative successes (and failures, and setbacks), Kavalier and Clay is really about the two boys. Quiet and intense, Joe falls in love with Rosa, and also struggles with anxiety over his family’s situation back in Europe, and eventually develops survivor’s guilt. Sam is enthusiastic, outgoing, and friendly with everyone, but begins to realize that he’s not attracted to women.

The novel follows these two cousins over roughly twenty years, as their experiences in the first few years of their partnership have long waves. I really loved the characters, and loved watching them grow from their late teens to middle age. Chabon did a marvelous job of allowing his characters to grow and age without becoming something different from themselves. It was a marvelous story, and well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

IMG_1610.jpegGilbert Markham is a young English gentleman farmer. His little community is set to gossiping when the beautiful and secretive Helen Graham and her son move into Wildfell Hall, the old home of the area’s squire. Gilbert and Helen become friends, but when rumors begin to spread about her, Gilbert asks Helen for the truth. She gives him her journal to read, and what follows is the account of a young woman who believes she can change her husband, but learns how wrong she is. Helen’s husband is verbally abusive, an alcoholic, and an adulterer. The story is really Helen’s; the bulk of the book is about her experience coming to terms with her horrible marriage and working out how she can deal with her marriage while still holding true to her own personal principles. I didn’t always agree with Helen’s perspective, but I could always admire her. It is a marvelous story. I read it quickly, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, something I rarely do with classic fiction. I believe this is one of, if not the first English novel to address topics like alcoholism and terrible marriages, and even though so many things have (thankfully) changed, I think its treatment of these topics is very timely.

(Also, fun fact: Anne had heavily researched the medical and psychological impact of alcoholism and the book is very accurate based on the latest research of her time)

The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

41xPxQ0Qr-L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis is a long poem divided into – you guessed it – four quartets, each named after a place: “Burnt Norton,” “East Corker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” I had studied “Burnt Norton” in an Eliot class, but hadn’t read the rest of the quartet, and this really isn’t a work that should be read in pieces. In October, I picked it up and slowly worked my way through it over a weekend, reading and re-reading each section as I went along.

This is also not a poem for beginner poetry readers. I love Eliot, and have read a lot of his works. All of them are challenging, and this one is a doozy. That said, it was absolutely worth working through, and is a poem that I’ll understand better each time I read it. I’m not quite sure I can really describe the poem; it has a narrative I can’t repeat, themes I only vaguely grasp. It’s elusive and slippery on purpose, and makes more sense on reflection, at a distance, than while you’re actually reading it. I think that Eliot is mainly trying to make sense of incarnational time. How can an event in time also be out-of-time and for all time? Really, such a complicated topic deserves a complicated poem.

So why did it make my top 10 list? Because I’m so proud of myself for wrestling through it and beginning to understand. And because it is a stunning poem. Even if you’re not quite sure what he means, exactly, Eliot’s use of language is beautiful, evocative, and so, so skilled.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

IMG_2256.jpegThis is one of the oldest works of Western literature, and Wilson’s translation gives it a freshening that I think it really needed.

The poem follows Odysseus, trying to get home from the Trojan war. He is blown off course, and then angers Poseidon, making it a really hard task, one that ultimately takes ten years. On the journey, he meets all kinds of mythical characters and challenges, many of which are still part of our cultural vocabulary (Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops
). The story also follows his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, who are waiting for Odysseus to come home. A host of suitors, sure Odysseus is dead, want to marry Penelope, and they are rudely eating them out of house and home.

I’ve read this story before, but never imagined it would make my top 10 list. Wilson’s translation is just fantastic. She has dispensed with the traditionally highfalutin’ language and padded descriptions in favor of a lean, fast-paced, but still beautiful translation. I was amazed by how quickly I read this, and how much I enjoyed it; even sections I had previously found tedious were now entertaining. Furthermore, Wilson chose to let her translation reveal the “problematic” elements of the Odyssey; for example, instead of quietly translating various words as “servant” or “maiden” or so on, she uses the more accurate term: “slave.” Several translators had also chosen adjectives with negative connotations to make certain characters seem worse than the original portrayed to make the protagonists look better; Wilson refrains, instead pointing out the moral ambiguities of the poem in her introduction.

Speaking of the introduction, that section, and the translator’s note, were very informative and worth reading. I also appreciated that her notes in the back contained a summary of each book (chapter); very helpful for first (or second or third) time readers.

Circe by Madeline Miller

IMG_0643.jpegThis novel is difficult to summarize without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it follows the life of Circe, from before her birth to — the end of the book (she’s immortal, you know, and #spoilers). Circe grows up in the palace of her father, Hyperion, generally ignored until she discovers she has a different kind of power from the other immortals. Her ability to control the qualities of plants and manipulate the natural world earns her the title witch and banishment to a solitary island. The turning point of the novel, although not the climax or the end, comes when Odysseus and his crew visit her.

This is really a story about identity. Circe doesn’t really fit anywere, and, forced to be alone, she slowly, over a long time, comes to understand and accept herself. Miller’s knowledge of mythology and the ancient world is scholarly and extensive, and as a result although this is essentially a mythology re-imagining, it feels very real and very grounded. And Miller’s prose is just gorgeous.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

IMG_0502.jpegMerrick Tremayne has been invalided out of the British East India Company, where he was a botanist and basically a smuggler. But he is asked to join one last expedition to Peru to recover Cinocha cuttings. The Company is having problems with malaria in India, and wants to begin a plantaion there so that they have easy access to quinine, the only cure for the disease. Merrick is asked to go not only because of his prior experience, but also because his family has connections to a Peruvian town called New Bethlehem. When Merrick arrives in New Bethlehem, he begins to learn what those connections are, and discovers the world is a little more magical than he thought.

This is another book where the characters are the biggest draw. While there is plenty of action in The Bedlam Stacks, it is Merrick and Raphael who kept me reading. I love this genre, historical fiction with just a touch of magical realism, and this one was the best of the three or four I read last year. It was, overall, a lovely story with lovely writing, and I can’t wait to see what Pulley does next.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

911ER8Bm6NL.jpgThis fantasy novel is the beginning of a series. Maniye is the daughter of a Wolf chieftan and the Tiger queen he had killed after Maniye was born. In this fantasy world, the Iron Wolves control the Crown of the World, and Maniye’s father, a secondary chief, has his eye on the head chief role. When Maniye learns that he plans to marry her to the man who killed her mother as part of his plan for personal advancement, she runs away. In her running, Maniye meets many people, both from the Crown of the World and from the Sun River Nation to the south. As it turns out, there may be something much bigger brewing


The aspect of this book that sold me was the world building. It is so incredibly nuanced and unique; I’m constantly blown away. Tchaikovsky has considered his world down to the metals used in weapons and the different cultural habits of each tribe. In this world, each person is born with a human and an animal soul, which is determined by their birth. So, the members of the Wolf can shapeshift into wolves, the Deer into deer, the Bear into bear, and so on. But Maniye has two souls, Tiger and Wolf, a fact she works hard to keep secret, and one which might tear her apart.

I will say that the plot and the characterization in this book was weaker than many of the others listed here, although still very good. Also, the story took a while to get going. In the end, the worldbuilding more than made up for any flaws. At the moment, I’m reading the sequel, and so far enjoying it even more.

Strange the Dreamer/Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Strange-the-Dreamer-Series-Covers.jpgI’m cheating a little and counting these two books as one, since they are essentially two halves of the same story.

Lazlo Strange is an orphan who works in his country’s national library and learns all he can about the maybe-mythical city of Weep. Hundreds of years ago, this city was an important one in the world, but then suddenly all contact with and from it vanished. When Lazlo was a child, the name of the city also disappeared, and people took to calling it Weep.

One day, a delegation from Weep arrive at the library, looking for help to a particular problem. Lazlo is thrilled, and although he isn’t picked to be one of those who are brought to Weep to work on the problem, his knowledge of the language and the friendship he develops with the leader, Eril-fane, leads to his inclusion.

Lazlo’s history and all that I’ve described takes about the first third of Strange the Dreamer, and to talk about any more would be too spoilery. Suffice it to say that what had caused Weep’s problems, and what causes problems still, is not what anyone expected, and Lazlo is more helpful than he imagined. Muse of Nightmares picks up exactly where Strange left off, and finishes the story.

Weep’s history is marked by violence and subjugation, from which they were only recently freed, and memories are long. The fear, hatred, and sorrow caused by their past is still fresh, and while the delegates are brought to solve a practical problem, it is this emotional problem that the book is more concerned with. Can a cycle of hatred and vengeance be broken after so much suffering? And how?

Taylor’s writing is beautiful, and these were definitely my favorite YA books from this year (and the only ones to make my top 10). While not perfect, I liked that she tackled themes that are important and relevant, and did it in a way that was nuanced and compassionate. Lazlo is the hero, but his heroism is that of a kind man, a loving human, not a warrior. Love and communication, understanding and kindness are what win the day, and we desperately need more of those things.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

IMG_2246.jpegI kind of picked this book up on a whim at the used bookstore, and then immediately kicked myself for not grabbing the rest of the trilogy. This is another fantasy, of the old-fashioned kind.

Although from the Old Kingdom, Sabriel has grown up at a bording school in Ancelstierre, which is a (mostly) non-magical realm that feels like Edwardian or early 1920s England. At school, she has learned a little magic, and her father, the Abhorsen, has taught her more. When he fails to visit on her eighteenth birthday, Sabriel realizes something is wrong, and travels to the Old Kingdom for the first time to find him. She quickly discovers that even with her training, the Old Kingdom is very different from the world she knows, and that her father’s disappearance is even more serious than she had imagined. Joined by a talking cat named Mogget and a man named Touchstone, she journeys through the kingdom-without-a-king to find her father.

This is such a wonderful fantasy. It doesn’t try to do anything too wild, but is itself very well. The Charter Magic and the Old Kingdom are well drawn and still, months later, the world is very vivid to me. I love Mogget so much, and Sabriel is admirable for her determination, her kindness, her willingness to grow.

The story’s themes include friendship and life and death, and it does get a little dark at times. But because it is a good-and-evil story, I was okay with that darkness, which is never glorified. It was just so satisfying and enjoyable to read, and is one of those books I wish I had discovered ten years ago. I have since bought the rest of the trilogy, and am excited to dive back into this world.


I am interested by the fact that, although the largest percentage of my reading last year was YA, there are only two YA books on this list (Strange and Muse). The rest are from the adult age category, and consist of an old favorite genre (fantasy) (2), classics (4), and a surprising number of more literary works (3). I’m looking forward to seeing how my reading develops in 2019.


Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Most of the pictures here (except the cover-only images) are from my Instagram account WiththeClassics. If you haven’t already, go check it out!

19 Books I’m Excited to Read in 2019

There are SO many books I want to read, as usual. Since my focus this year is to slow down, savor what I read, I’ve put together a list of 19 books I’d particularly like to get to. It may be that these books, plus my 2019 Classics Challenge, make up the bulk of my 2019 reading; it may be that I only read a few of these; it may be that I read all of these and more. But at the moment, these are the books I’d like to make a priority in this new year.

  1. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
  2. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  3. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger (11 Jan)
  4. Lirael by Garth Nix
  5. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (3 Jan)
  6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  7. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
  8. The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
  10. These Truths by Jill Lepore
  11. Paul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright (11 Jan)
  12. The Temple by George Herbert (10 April)
  13. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (an April 2019 release)
  14. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (a November 2019 release)
  15. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  16. The Bear and the Serpent by Adrian Tchaikovsky (7 Jan)
  17. The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
  18. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater (A November 2019 release)
  19. North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson

If you’d like to hear more about these books, and why they’re on this list, check out my video.

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Update: April 2019 – Maggie Stiefvater’s new book now has a name and a release date!

I am also going to mark when I’ve finished each of these books, and will link to a review if I write one.

2019 Reading Goals

But I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my reading goals for 2019, and after looking back at 2017 and 2018, and considering my school reading load, I’ve determined to set a couple of rather loose goals for next year.

  1. Aim for Slow Reading. I have a tendency to read quickly, bolting books and piling up the numbers. I’d like to work away from that for a couple of reasons.
    • I want to read some long books that I’ve been putting off because they’ll take a while.
    • I often grab whatever sounds interesting in the moment, which leads to my reading a lot of okay books that are, frankly, forgettable.
    • Speaking of forgetting, I also forget (or miss) the finer points of the good books I do read.
    • I have to read quickly and at high volume for school. This past semester I ended up, out of a sheer lack of time, having a for-fun book simmering along in the background and I rather enjoyed reading a chapter or even a few pages before bed. While the quantity of my reading tanked Sept-Nov, the quality was much better, because I didn’t want to waste time with books I knew I’d only sort of enjoy.
  2. Genre/Category focuses (yes, I know technically it’s foci): In 2019, I’d like to read more classics and am participating in the Back to the Classics challenge to that end. I would also like to read more adult books, especially fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction. After long avoiding the previous three genres for a number of reasons, I feel like my deeper immersion into the bookish world this year has better equipped me to find the kinds of books I want to read.
  3. More Nonfiction I always say this, and then I never do. But I think part of that is because it takes me much longer to read nonfiction. By reading slower, I hope I can do better here.
  4. Goodreads Goal: 75 books
    • Since I count any whole books I read for school as well as my personal reading, I think this will be achievable (it sounds like in just one of my classes next semester, we might be reading 20 or more plays!) but also encourage me to slow down.
    • My personal reading goal is 2-3 books/month or about 1/3 of the total

And that’s it! An intense Spring semester and some over-ambitious goals in the previous years has led me to be a bit more broad and vague than before. My overall goal is to be more deliberate with my book selections and more attentive when I do read for fun.

In my next post, I’m going to list out more specifically some of the authors and books I’d like to read.