Living By Fiction – 4/5 Stars
This is a very 1980 book. Depending on your specific connection with literary criticism (and its history), you may or may not be aware that the 1980s was a weird and dramatic shift in the field. Because of the dying off of some significant figures, the opening up of the university to the influences of critical theorists, and the rise of identity studies departments, English, which always sort of lagged, went through some attempts to legitimize and re-canonize. This book feels right in the midst of all that. So while it has argument and a purpose (specifically providing some access to academic analysis of literary texts for someone not expressly trained in the field — say for someone writing book reviews ) it’s also a kind of artifact. I am reminded quite handily of the comments in the Elizabeth Hardwick essays, and some recent Orwell I’ve read but not reviewed yet, and now Annie Dillard of the constant plague of book reviews and criticism that mean nothing, do very little thinking, and are ultimately aimed at propping up an industry and arguing for one’s own existence. So Annie Dillard spends some time dealing with the state of criticism (in intellectual if not academic fields…a distinction that is becoming again quite relevant) and provides some interesting tools, and a hefty reading list. What also makes this a very 1980s book is that she spends the bulk of her time assuming you will have or at least agree about the legitimacy of 18th and 19th century novels, Modernist novels, and now need a way to tackle what she decides upon calling Post-modernism (though considers metafiction et al) as a flawed catch-all.
So if your goals or interest lie in this book capturing a moment in public intellectualism, providing a reading list as considered in a radical shift of 1980, or wants some additional tools especially geared toward post-modern literature, this is a very satisfying book.
The Writing Life –
This very short memoir will be an interesting model for students. The thing about all writing memoirs that I’ve found, is they’re written by established writers. And while I get that the advice that persistence and hard work and practice is what is required to become a good writer. I have only ever toyed with writing outside of a narrow set of contexts. Once, I had a job I hated so much that I THOUGHT about writing a short memoir during it and I would stand at a duty post with a notebook and try to sketch out the ideas, but like students who I will mention in a bit, it turns out for me that without a due date and someone with more power compelling me, I often find it difficult to write. Now, I say this as someone who’s been writing these reviews, but that involves the would-be 10,000 hours of practice before last year to make that happen. So when I read these memoirs, I think about myself in students’ positions and I realize that they probably don’t care too much about getting better, so much as it either getting easier, getting good grades or both. And so a book like this is a funny thing to consider for a classroom setting because to have an established writer telling that it’s not so much talent as practice can be both liberating or confining. Liberating because writing is valuable and if you’re not good at first, knowing you will get better is great. Confining because people love to believe they can’t write as a way to let themselves off the hook, so learning that you get better with practice takes a certainty and makes it a choice. It’s kind of like what I tell math teachers….I am not good at math, but I am also not bad at math. I simply choose to not put the work in to be better.
Teaching a Stone to Talk – 4/5 Stars
Maybe I am dumb, or more specifically supremely locally dumb, but the Tinker Creek in Annie Dillard’s famous memoir A Pilgrim at Tinker is right where I grew up. I spent a lot of time in and around Hollins College in Roanoke VA growing up because of aunts and cousins working there and soccer camp. It’s near my high school too and my middle school crush’s dad was a film professor there, so we’d sometimes go see movies on campus.
And no one, not once mentioned the connection to Annie Dillard. Which is also weird because the author Lee Smith, whom I read several times in college classes, also went to Hollins and it was talked about a lot. Anyway, this is a follow-up collection of narrative essays that came out about the same time as Living by Fiction. These essays in some ways are kinds of odds and ends left over from Pilgrim Creek, but also include trips to Galapagos and other parts of South America. There’s a stunning essay on eclipses that I will have my Dual Enrollment students read next year. For me the best, or my favorite essay ties polar exploration to church service in some stunning, audacious, and even funny ways. There’s a paraphrase: it’s difficult to reconcile the sublimity of our ideas with the reality of our limitations. She uses this to try to explain how wrong-headed and arrogant early arctic explorations were (especially the Franklin one shown in The Terror) and compares that to the kind of assumptions and silly exercises of weekly church service. There’s a kind of mock epic tone to it, but also some real truth. As is mentioned in one of the other books I read this weekend: Man thinks, and God Laughs. But for here: Man plans (man worships?) and God Laughs.