Sunday, February 27, 2005

In the coming days, I'll blog about what I read in Cuba. For now, a list:

Jon Stewart, Naked Pictures of Famous People
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!
Stephen Platten (ed.), Ink and Spirit
David Eddings, The Belgariad (Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, Enchanter's Endgame)
Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain (Vol. 1 of the Journals)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Edmundson works through a variety of ideas, but this text celebrates two central ideas: a work of literature is true, insofar as it represents life as it is--an ongoing, present tense "is"--and that literature helps us construct what he calls our "final narratives", or helps us establish for ourselves what is important and how we should live our lives. In short, he takes Matthew Arnold and Marcel Proust, and slams them together with Richard Rorty as he tries to convince the reader of his case.

Arnold's position, that literature may have to come to replace religion as a guide to life, seems less likely now with literature's relative obscurity in the place of popular culture, and has certainly fallen into disrepute in the academic world. Edmundson argues that it needs to be revitalised: that it's easy to apply readily forgotten theory to texts, and it's easy to research the texts, but what's difficult and most worth doing is to engage with the text itself and to ask what the texts ask of us, how they ask us to grow. This process is Emersonian, and Edmundson quotes him as saying "The life of man... is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Edmundson expands upon this idea by quoting Proust's adage that "Reading... is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it, but does not constitute it," and suggests that it is this life of the spirit that is absent in classrooms. He suggests that that absence may well be why we have fewer and fewer students of humanities in universities these days, as this idea of literature as a touchstone falls further out of favour.

He laments students seeking entertainment instead of education, though he is sharply critical of an academy structured to provide just that. What a literary education does is to wake people out of the slumber induced by the opiate that is popular culture: reading, he tries to convince us, is a powerful force that does more than entertain (and herein lies the distinction between Faulkner and Stephen King), but provokes growth and challenge. Proust comes up again as Edmundson tries to say that a lasting work of literature is one that offers deep, meaningful opportunities for this type of engagement:
It seems to me that they would not be my readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician used to offer his customers--it would be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lays inside themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.' I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."

This idea of Proust's begins the conversation with the question, does this text live? The most compelling comment that Edmundson shares with us comes from Lionel Trilling.
Describing his initiation into modern literature, into Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and their contemporaries, Lionel Trilling writes: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me, and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has become very intimate."

Do the texts we read live? If they don't, what fault is it of ours? Edmundson wants this long essay to make us ask ourselves that question, and to take reading seriously.

So there's a summary of the book. Here's what I think.
I take reading seriously.
You have only to take the briefest of glances at how I spend my free time, my money, my thought--this very blog--to see that. This book of Edmundson reads like an argument for the existence of God: it's convincing only insofar as the person hearing the proof already believes. Why Read? hectors, dares, challenges, and never really becomes persuasive, as it would need to if it wants to affect non-readers.

I look to literature as I look to religion, as ideas that I need to examine to determine how to live my life aright. I'm not convinced, though, that we should sell the study of literature as being the modern day vision of a seminary. I think that the study of literature is something that should be shared among those who care deeply about books, and that that's something that we pass on to others we encounter almost like a particularly benevolent virus. Let's take reading seriously because we enjoy stories, and let's leave books like Why Read? on the shelf, taken down only to offer us points to debate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, 1988.

I can't remember if I looked at this book before, or not. Reading it, it seems to me to be far from controversial, far from overly challening. In fact, seventeen or so years after it was published, it almost reflects the status quo--or will, as soon as we start blessing same-sex marriages in the Anglican church. In short, while it reflects on an argument, and was at the time of its publication quite challenging, the book is more saddening than anything else--saddening that, as a church, we've made so little progress in almost twenty years.

Spong zips along through a history of marriage in the church, carefully goes through the biblical arguments about sexuality (and goes through the two major approaches to sexuality), and then makes three proposals: institute "betrothal", or a recognition of a meaningful relationship between two people that occurs prior to marriage but that can include a sexual component; allow the blessing of same-sex unions; and recognise that post-married people still are sexual beings, and that we shouldn't limit their options, either.

Throughout the book, he stays within one view that he's always maintained: sex can exist in both good and bad forms in human life, and that it's the church's job to celebrate what is good and work against that which is destructive and dangerous. It's not a riveting book; nowadays, just reading the Statement of Koinonia covers the basic outlines of his argument. It does, however, provide a decent introduction to a subject that still seems to have far too much of the church's attention.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Tom Clancy, The Teeth of the Tiger, 2003.

This book is weak. It's not a good Clancy, nowhere near Red Storm Rising or Without Remorse or Debt of Honor: instead of careful thought and analysis, he indulges in fantasies of killing terrorists swiftly, without mercy or real justice.

Unwilling or unable to come up with plausible new characters, Clancy spins off Jack Ryan's son & Jack Jr.'s two cousins, coming up with characters that aren't even as plausible as cardboard caricatures. The story meanders, focuses in far too much detail at the wrong times, never becomes particularly gripping. In short, it was a waste of money even though bought on remainder. Avoid this book like the plague: it will bore you, and possibly rot your brain.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stephen Marche, Raymond and Hannah, 2005.

Hannah and Raymond meet at a party, and go home together for a one-night stand. It becomes a week-long fling, deep and serious, and tearful at its supposed conclusion, when Hannah heads to Israel to study Torah at an egalitarian yeshiva. Raymond is stuck in Toronto, working on his Ph.D. in Literature on Robert Burton. The affair continues, love at quite the distance, and the relationship is jeopardized by a number of the things that can happen in a long-distance relationship.

Jim Bartley, the Globe & Mail's "First Fiction" reviewer, wrote about Raymond and Hannah:
"I don't think I've ever had better vicarious sex -- certainly not in an English Canadian novel. This is sex as voracity, fuelled by the birth of volcanic, insatiable love. Marche describes almost no specifics, yet burns up the pages with need and joy. Shame is banished. The id rules. The spirit revels." (15/01/05, D11)
Bartley is exactly right: the prose captures the intensity of the relationship, the tremendous physicality of it, and then, for the nine-month absence, the mental anguish of separation. Marche is now on my Keats List: the man describes so much, so well, and keeps the reader engaged in the story.

Where I quibble with Bartley is in his attack on the odd feature of the book. Each short section has a marginal note. His problem with this is that the notes sometimes feel unneccessary and are somtimes vital to understanding the section to which the note is attached. I found it charming: the device, far from being frustrating, is wonderful for two reasons. It slows down the reading. It also asks the reader to consider whether they'd frame the section the same way the author depicts it: it's a way of adding weight, or colouring, or shadow to a section: it can set a tone of the prosaic, or suggest that what is happening is in someway transcendental. The notes are signposts, and they're neat. They remind me of the brief descriptions in most English translations of the Bible, explaining or offering a title for the next section: and in this way, they mimic the two things being studied by the main characters: Hannah's Torah, Raymond's Anatomy of Melancholy.

There's a great musing of Raymond's, describing what Universities are, that I'll end this blog:

Raymond considers the broader context of the university

The most obvious feature of the university, when considered within an urban context, is that it is the location of the books. Only slightly less obvious is the fact that the social function of the university is to provide people just ending adolescence with a place for open-ended sexual intercourse. The libraries of a university awe all private book collections. Similarly, the sexual life of the university, both in quantity and intensity of focus, puts to shame the sexual lives that surround it. Books and sex: the university concentrates what mature men and women dip into only when time and occasion permit.

But what eludes us is the co-incidence of books and sex. Why is the site for the concentration (or disposal) the same? Is it that sex and books are the substance oif youth and must be, then, simultaneously contained?

Jerk off, read a chapter, go to sleep. Night after night. (109)