Six Walks in the Fictional Woods – 5/5 Stars
One of the most exciting things to feel, for me at least, is when reading becomes not just an act of enjoying and engaging with a story or ideas, but an active hunt for meaning and understanding. I am a big proponent of doing the reading you want to do and mostly letting other people do the reading they want to do. Eco describes early in this collection of six lectures on reading (and specifically on reading fiction) the model reader and the empirical reader. The empirical reader is all readers at all times. There are times when it crosses over with model readers. The empirical reader brings its imperfect self to the task of reading and has at it. Eco suggests books are “lazy machines” that require the user to do most of the work. And so an empirical reader reads at the level they are able to, given the conditions of the reading context. So a reader who does not know the language well, or has little experience reading complex texts, or is bored, or distracted, or working through a preconceived notion is simply working through the book as they are able to. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but the thing itself that is true whenever we read. Admit it: how many of you have ever given a bad review formally or informally of something you read because you were distracted while reading it? Maybe it turns out that Netflix shows with subtitles are bad and confusing for me because I was too distracted by my phone to pay full attention. Once in college, I was pressed for time and bored and lazy that I read Henry James’s The Bostonians by simply only reading the dialog. I did fine in the class discussions, and you’ll notice I have rated on this here site. But the model reader is the reader the book has in mind in existing. This is NOT the same as audience, because audience is more about who the writer is trying to reach (at least in my terms). I try to judge a book’s quality at least in part in its ability to reach its audience, however we define that. But the model reader is the reader who is best equipped or best suited to unlock and access the book. And that might not be the intended audience. Think about how more fully an adult with a child-like sensibility cane access a Pixar movie than a child, the likely intended audience. So trying to figure out the model reader and create the contrast in oneself as what kind of empirical reader you are gives one a sense of where you and the book stand.
The other great thing this book does that I really enjoy (among many other things in general) is really emphasis how fun and important structure is in understanding a book. I always emphasize narrative voice with my students because it’s tied into this question. My mother in law always asks the question, why is this a book and not not a book? And George Saunders will ask: when does the story become a story. Having tried to write stories as well, and having read a lot of bad efforts at writing stories the form of a story does not a story make.
The Uses of Literature – 5/5 Stars
A scattershot but satisfying collections of essays and book introductions, forwards, and commentaries. Italo Calvino is both a man of his times (the 1960s-1980s) which means he is often responding to the more technical analysis of literature through the introduction of structuralism, psychoanalysis, and eventually deconstruction. He is also a writer. While I still like to read good, clear and pragmatic literary criticism, I too find that a lot of more recent criticism (and I haven’t read journal articles in quite some time) is more and more particular and even self-serving. But a writer telling you why they love to read and giving their thoughts as a writer is so good and engaging and inspires you to want to read more.
From this collection I plan to soon read Manzoni’s The Betrothed (with some help from Umberto Eco too), and am jumping into reading and rereading some classics.
The Western Canon – 2/5 Stars
Just what a sour ass Harold Bloom is in this book. When he’s doing what he more or less claims to be doing, it’s actually great in a lot of ways. Wanting to understand what makes Shakespeare great — which roughly according to Bloom is that he taught the world understand characters moving on a stage as expressions of self, as the first real attempt to show interiority in storytelling, and to be, simply put, the best writer in English ever, and maybe in the entirety of the world. He also posits that the Wester Canon IS Shakespeare and Dante because of how those two writers loomed over everything since. Mostly, fair enough. The rest of the book is a detailed analysis of what is great and representative (the most important thing in literature and in canon-formation) about 24 additional writers. Let’s see how many I can remember without looking them up: Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Beckett, Proust, Tolstoy, Woolf, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Pessoa, Whitman, Moliere, Ibsen, Neruda (begrudgingly), Borges, Dickens, George Eliot, Cervantes, Homer…and I think I trail off there. Hold on: let me see….oh right, Montaigne, Milton, Goethe, Austen, Freud, and Kafka. Right.
If you think a writer is missing, that’s possibly because this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but a representative one. He mentions in more minor ways (not devoting a chapter to them): Yeats, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Ben Johnson, Pynchon, Hawthorne, Marlowe, etc etc. If you think, wait, that’s only three women and no non-white writers. Aha!!! You have fallen into his trap! How does it feel to bring POLITICS into writing? Hmmm?! How does it feel to be the part of the criticism of RESENTMENT?!
See! Because using “aesthetics” in forming canons is not in fact political. And writing an entire book where you call recent criticism (1990) the politics of resentment is not in fact a politic of resentment. It’s absurd of course for a lot of reasons. For one, while there have certainly been some additions to the academic canon that focus more on identity representation that pure quality (again, arguable) part of the whole deal is always about negotiation of different factors. If you’ve read the late Victorianists (and I admit it’s been awhile for me), aesthetic criticism is a form of politics, just different.
It’s funny because he derides Foucault repeatedly throughout this, but he’s very much engaging in a form of discursive selection from a very elitist and entrenched regime. And of course he knows this. One fun part is where is he spends a lot of time talking about how little certain critics know, and then cites Foucault as the author of “Death of the Author” — which is Barthes. Foucault wrote a follow-up called “What is an Author?” Also, he won’t even name Edward Said, but refers to him obliquely. Specifically he brings up Culture and Imperialism and Said’s critique of Mansfield Park in colonial terms. What’s funny about this is that I’ve always thought that Said gave the purest model of how to read things you love and subject to sometimes harsh criticism, specifically through his love of Mansfield Park.
The book itself is a sometimes good reading of older texts and explaining why they’re great, and a constant digression into his own maligned view of the academy circa 1990. The relative number of people who “read deeply” as Bloom sees himself doing is relatively static as far as I am concerned. The academy has expanded and so has literacy. What didn’t really grow is the number of readers, but the percentage of deep readers in the grand total of readers broadly did shrink. Maybe that’s lamentable; probably not. What he’s really feeling is the arcane pleasure of being a “reader” now has to be shared with people who read differently.
How to Read Literature like a Professor – 4/5
People are so salty about this book and I don’t get it. Reading a book that poses to teach you some short-cuts and options available to you that a literature professor has garnered on their own and then offering it up in a book, pretty clearly written, and even with good examples? TWO STARS! Some of the criticisms are perfectly valid. Some of the “tricks” require more practice than simply looking and seeing. It’s hard to emphasize how much of literature reading is a light switch situation and not a skills situation. You often need the skills and practice to be able to clearly articulate and explain your observations, but that’s not reading so much as writing. This can be frustrating. This book is more like a syllabus for an AP Literature class (and that’s a good thing) and not a Master Class.
There’s some real defensiveness in the reviews for this book. Oh it’s a book to teach me? Well, I already knew that stuff!
Twenty-Five Books that Shaped America – 4/5
One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years is Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Why Read Moby Dick?” A confession, I love Moby Dick and I am always looking for an excuse to reread it. Something someone once told me is that they love Middlemarch and that they are always reading Middlemarch. I feel the same way about Moby Dick, As I Lay Dying, and a few other books. That I am always just in-between re-readings of those books. That’s what “Why Read Moby Dick?” does, if you’re inclined, to get you excited to read Moby Dick. In a way much more writ large, that’s what Foster is doing in this book. He’s giving you a list of American books that cannot be ignored as influences, even if you choose not to read them. That because of these books, something in the American character (as in, nationally) or as he puts it, the American mythos is forever changed. You could probably guess most of these books if you’ve engaged remotely in the topic of the most influential books in American history. There’s a heavy bias toward fiction and poetry, but that’s not all of it, and it’s mostly a book free from political ideology, as much as any book can be. Foster is probably broadly liberal in general, and comes across always more of a cheerleader than a polemicist like Harold Bloom or a William F Buckley type. Foster is also very good and admitting limits and biases on his own. He doesn’t like The Scarlet Letter. Great! He has limits in understanding Pynchon. Great! All good. His whole thing is always about ways of providing access, and by admitting some of these things himself, he continues that project.
How to Read Novels like a Professor – 4/5
As with the other books of his I’ve read Foster makes you want to read or re-read various books. This is a snake-charming of a sort because Foster is light and airy, and only a handful of the novels he discusses here are also light and airy. It’s easy to be a champion for “The Bear”, but it’s another thing to dive headlong into it. But that’s part of his strength. He’s good at giving permission to struggle and hit walls. He lovingly spends his energy trying to get you to read and enjoy Ulysses (if only, but not only) for Molly Bloom’s monologue, while giving you some ways to tackle it. When I was in college I remember struggling mightily with the Quentin sections of The Sound and the Fury, but a few class conversations and re-reads, it’s kind of a breeze now (certainly in comparison to parts of Absalom Absalom!). Foster also tells you that indeed, he can’t pretend to being an expert at Finnegan’s Wake. His chapters go way more specific in novel form as to the kinds of questions and tools you need to tackle novels. He starts at the beginning, with first pages, thinks about narrator, focuses on tone and irony and unreliability. It really all comes down to what you want from a book really.
I tend to think about reading literary fiction like jogging. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to do both because they’re “good for you” which is about the worst reason to get somebody to do anything. People obsessed with both or either do it because they love doing it and it produces a kind of high, but they also know it comes at a cost. So they tend not to be the ones proselyting about it.
Seduction and Betrayal – 4/5
If you’ve never read Elizabeth Hardwick’s nonfiction, I really do recommend it. She’s a professional critic, as opposed to an academic critic, and I tend to find that leading to more enthusiastic, cultural readings of books than the kinds of narrow and ideological readings of critics. That’s not to say there isn’t truly great and fun and readable literary criticism from academics, but there’s lot of the other kind too.
In this book specifically she is looking primarily at women in literature. This doesn’t automatically mean women writers, though there’s plenty there, but more of women who circulate a given set of texts. So this means there are essays on the Brontës (with some funny musings on the desperate artistic life of poor Branwell). There’s a reading of three different Ibsen plays and their female characters (A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm). There’s essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle. Finally, there’s the title essay that connects the different pieces together
The title essay explores what it means to commit seduction and what it means to be betrayed, and it’s not an obvious set of definitions.
How to Read and Why – 3/5
Another book of good cheerleading of great works and close-reading completely marred by Harold Bloom’s whiny bullshit about kinds of reading he doesn’t like or respect. All fine, and in plenty of ways I can find myself mostly agreeing with Bloom in terms what I tend to get out of reading, why I read, and the value of reading, but unlike Bloom, I can handle that other people feel differently.