dropping the baton
Belatedly (always so these days) in response to Mr Webb:
Books owned: Too many to say, spread between here and my parents’ home, where they now annoy my mother by taking up valuable loft space where other crap could be stored. Boxes that go back to my earliest years, when I was a voracious and unselective reader, devouring whatever came into the house, via friends of my father who bought up the contents of estates, sold anything of value, and passed on the rest. Hundreds and hundreds. Fewer than I once owned, I suspect: before leaving Oxford, I sold a few dozen to friends; before leaving the UK, I gave away dozens more. The current stash occupies this bookcase, sorted roughly by theme, though sometimes by size. The core collection is on the bottom shelves: my eighteenth-century texts, along with those mainstays of my EngLit past that I chose to lug across the Atlantic and never seem to read.
Last book bought: When I started thinking about my reply, it was The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton, a beautifully-bound and presented little experimental novel that plays on all sorts of dixhuitième sensibilities. Since then — a few days ago — I bought three more from Malaprops: Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, a little essay turned into a little duodecimo; A Palpable Elysium, a fine collection of portraits from Jonathan Williams, a WNC native virtuoso who divides his time between the deep mountain country here and the selfsame in Cumbria; and the Lonely Planet Guide To Experimental Travel, on which more later. I bought them partly for the look and feel, as much as the content: one reason why Amazon’s massive back-catalogue and discounts don’t always win out.
Last book read: The aforementioned Guide to Experimental Travel, a gorgeous new hardback that can best be described as ‘Psychogeography And Related Bobbins For Beginners’. (One of the co-authors is the founder of LaTourEx; living in Strasbourg must do that to a person.) My favourite section: erotourism, in which you and your significant other travel separately to a particular foreign location for a weekend, then try to find one another.
Before that, the last book I sort-of-read was Getting Things Done — damn you, Merlin Mann! — although its efficacy can be judged by the lateness of this response.
Five books that mean a lot to me: The toughie. In chronological order:
The Talking Parcel, Gerald Durrell
I owned very few books as a young child. Libraries were my friend. But this lovely little fantasy — long out of print, then republished, and now apparently out of print again — was one of my own, and so very precious. Judging from the reviews, I wasn’t alone in adoring its mythological world, drawn from old bestiaries rather than created from whole cloth.
Collected Poems, T. S. Eliot
The sepia cover of my paperback edition has been with me for fifteen years or so, and the text itself has been written and overwritten with notes, from my naive teenage responses, through undergraduate over-sophistication, on to something more resolved. My first response to the hyacinth girl remains my touchstone for the poetic sublime, that thing which makes your insides explode and tingles the top of your head and back of your legs. I found it again in Sappho’s phainetai moi (translated-and-retranslated for which you should scroll down to Anne Carson’s version). That Eliot volume was like a guidebook and primer to modern poetry for me.
The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner
I had no idea that Kenner was at UGA when I visited Athens for the first time. By the time I found out, he had retired; he died in 2003, and the lit-crit world is the lesser for it. If you’re going to read one literary study, make it this one, which encompasses Modernism in its subject and its method. Kenner discovered Pound after McLuhan, and worked in a multi-faceted literary space that could have been designed by Bucky. It shook me up like a vodkatini, at a time when I was trapped amid the stuffy old Leavisian lit-crit of my sixth-form years.
A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari
My English translation is elsewhere, on perma-loan; I now have the Minuit Mille Plateaux in cahoots with the Foucault Histoire de la folie to challenge my not-good-enough French. I was pointed its way via LambdaMOO in the early 90s; Steven Shaviro‘s Doom Patrols will provide context, I think. But I started in medias res, with ‘How Do You Make Yourself A Body Without Organs?‘, and the damn thing enveloped me. I read it as an implicit critique of Locke, and as a messy anti-handbook, and it doubtlessly shaped my doctoral thesis on the mental messiness of the mid-1700s.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell
My desert island book for so many years. Johnson is purest in his own writings, especially the Rambler and Idler papers, but Boswell’s semi-reliable memoir captures the immense humanity of its subject, in part because of Boswell’s capacity as social butterfly and ‘friend of the stars’ to engineer many of the episodes that reveal it. It’s too easy to reduce Johnson to a quotation machine (or worse, to Robbie Coltrane’s pompous ‘Sausage?’ in Blackadder the Third), although we can lay some of the blame to Mrs Thrale’s Johnsoniana back in the day. But that’s a mistake. I open my copy, fortuitously, at May 15th, 1776, and the dinner that Boswell arranged in which Johnson met his political bête noire John Wilkes, which is remembered for beginning frostily and ending cordially, not least because both men shared jabs at Scotland, at Boswell’s expense; but it goes beyond that, thanks to Boswell’s stenographic ear, and willingness to intervene in the actual conversation while restraining himself as narrator. Read it.
There is so much I left out. And while my tardiness should prohibit me from passing the baton, I would definitely like a peek at Matt Locke‘s bookshelves.