Thursday, May 19, 2011

For Pleasure: Winter Into Spring 2011

Winter here on the North Coast is the rainy season.  This year it began late, in February rather than January, and dripped into April.  It was a busy winter for me, but it took on a new character when I caught one of the variety of bugs that were going around--a flu, a virus, whatever it was.  I haven't gotten so much as a cold in several years, but this was a double-dipper: it started with a cough, became a sinus cold, went away, came back and went through it all again.

So being sick sent me back to sick days reading.  I finished the Pynchon novel (Inherent Vice) which is not his most demanding, but after that I was up to nothing more complicated than a couple of Star Trek novels, which I normally save for airports and similar situations. They are plot driven yet thoughtful, in a story universe I know and feel comfortable in. They are the closest to audio books I can come to by actually reading, since I can hear the Star Trek characters in my head.  (And I'm not big on actual audio books--I'm too sensitive to the voice of the reader.  If I don't like it, the book is over.)

Actually, this spate of Star Trek did begin in the airport, on my November flight to my niece's wedding in Pennsylvania, when I read one of William Shatner's Trek novels (only to find it was Part 1--fortunately I had the second part at home, which I read upon my return.)  But in my February binge I at least read one by Greg Bear, a science fiction writer I admire (and who I met--at the 40th anniversary Star Trek convention in Seattle.)  Corona was a Kirk-Spock era story, so I balanced it with a Next Generation novel.

I also re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's climate crisis in Washington trilogy, for the third time, and I may read it again this summer and "blog it" on my Dreaming Up Daily site, because it focuses on the issues so well.  Sixty Days and Counting in particular should be required reading in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

But I did manage some other reading, apart from new books for review. I got a used copy of Margaret Atwood's latest book of essays, reviews and forewords, Writing with Intent.  Very impressive in the perfect match of style and substance on each topic and occasion. I picked Jonathan Lethem's short novel, as she climbed across the table from my own shelves. It was just what I was hoping for.

Then just last week when I was in the university library, one of those serendipitous coincidences that involved a seemingly random selection on a sale table hit me.  In this case, it was a shelf of books the library was giving away.  Among the outdated computer manuals I picked up two.  One was an astonishing (and scary) find: a free copy of Randall Jarrell's Complete Poems, hardback first edition with dust jacket intact.  In book value I suppose it doesn't quite measure up to my biggest find--a first edition of Wallace Steven's first book--for 10 cents at a public library sale.  But I knew immediately this find meant something.  When I took it away, the first three poems I read at random were stunning, and did mean something to my current state of mind.  I really know very little about Jarrell--he was a name, but not a poet we read much in college.  But I have collected a few of his other books: a volume of criticism, a volume of childrens stories, and a volume of letters.  Now as I read more, I am more curious.  I'll have to go back to the library to see if they have books on him, they haven't given away.

The other book was a coincidence of another kind.  I'd just received Harold Bloom's new and announced as final book, The Anatomy of Influence (Yale.)  I've learned to mine Bloom rather than read him--he's not my kind of critic.  I've never been comfortable with his "anxiety of influence" approach.  He writes out of a sensibility or tradition he identifies as Jewish that isn't mine, though I recognize it.  But I respect him and his work, and I admire him for doing it.  I celebrate his life, which is so much a part of this book.  And I expect to profit from this book, especially since we admire some of the same writers, from Shakespeare and Emerson to Joyce and Ashbery.  Even though he reads so much more knowledgeably and with greater literary complexity that I possibly could.  I mean, I didn't lead that life. Had I been of  his generation, or lived in academia maybe, but probably I don't have quite his kind of intelligence.

In any case, Bloom begins by staking out critical territory with the distinction between the "Longinian" and the--well, the non-Longinian I guess, the New Critic and its progeny, if any.  "To be a Longinian critic is to celebrate the sublime as the supreme aesthetic virtue..." from Longinus' essay.  If my college teachers made this distinction, I don't remember it.  (They were mostly New Critics, and one of them moved on to the New Cynicism as Bloom aptly calls it.  I didn't.)  I don't recall running into it since.

But I picked up another book off that free shelf at the library, called Literate Culture: Pope's Rhetorical Art, by Ruben Quintero (U. of Delaware Press, 1992.)   I don't have much interest in Pope, but I opened it, and saw that it, too was literary criticism of the old kind--still my kind--before Theory, etc.  But what grabbed my heart was the inside cover, signed by the author, with a note to his "dear friend" "with fond regards."  I don't know why the dear friend gave this book away--maybe he died.  But I couldn't just leave it there.  It obviously was going to be thrown out (I've seen this library's discarded books in the big dumpsters out back.)

So I took it home, and was rewarded almost immediately with a discussion of the Longinian approach--for the second time in a few days.  This seems a gracefully written book, and informative about and beyond Pope.  So now it has a home next to Bloom.  I don't know what any of this means.  But it seems, if not sublime, right.

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