Currently reading: Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger 📚
Currently reading: The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist 📚
Robert Pogue Harrison reviews several recent books by and about the wonderful Shirley Hazzard. 📚
As she once remarked to me, were Virgil to sail into [the Bay of Naples] today, he would recognize all the lineaments of his adoptive city.
The NYT obit for Adam Zagajewski is quite touching.
I remember talking with a peer at a conference. She taught with A.Z. at the University of Houston. She spoke glowingly of him: “Adam is such a sweet, wonderful man.” He was clearly a colleague of hers, not the superstar. 📚
RIP Adam Zagajewski, my favorite contemporary poet. 📚
Happy new year & happy public-domain day! The works coming out of US copyright protection this year are pretty impressive: Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby, The Trial; music by Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, & Fats Waller.
Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has a detailed overview.
Currently reading: Montaigne: Life Without Law by Pierre Manent 📚
Currently reading: Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics by Tom Keymer 📚
UMN professor of history Jon Butler has a fascinating new book out: God in Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan. According to an interview with Publishers Weekly, the book “explores the rise of religious pluralism in Manhattan between 1880 and 1960.” I’m in. 📚
I watched The Booksellers this evening. It’s a delightful documentary about the passionate folks in the rare-book industry. Some mournful notes, but also some hopeful ones. Overall, a delight. Streaming now on, err, Amazon Prime. 📚 🎞
The promise of politics is that, within and through our differences, some form of common life can be discovered. But if the process of discovery is to be faithful, hopeful, and loving, we must render ourselves vulnerable to others we don’t understand.
Sapiens is a distinctly nihilist tract, rejecting every sort of theism, every claim that life has meaning, and every assertion of human rights. According to Harari, there’s nothing the least bit sacred about human life, the Declaration of Independence is in error about liberty and equality, and the word “nature” itself—as in human nature—is meaningless. Insofar as Sapiens is a work of philosophy, it’s Nietzchean in its rejection of the most central human values, as well as in its suggestion that a superman—created by genetic or “inorganic” engineering—may be on the way.
~Mark Lieb, in Commentary
The central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science.
~Adam Zagajewski, quoted by Cynthia Haven
Today an authentic intellectual life seems more natural in the flaneur than the professional scholar…. Whether our focus is on the tools of training, a heart for service, or learning from our asynchronous neighbors, the intellectual life is, ironically, a particular kind of political practice, an art of membership…. We can educate in a way that makes us all, despite and even through upheavals of culture, economy, and politics, more intelligible to each other and to ourselves. Today, as in the Greek polis or the Roman villa, the company of readers remains both the most democratic, and the most privileged, of memberships.
~Joshua Hochschild, in his review of three new books offering expansive visions of the life of the mind
Probably also been reading some Taleb. 📚
I sense a lucrative consulting career in the near future for Justen Noakes, H-E-B’s “director of emergency preparedness.” 💰💰💰
My selections from our trip the Shoreview Public Library today. Looking forward to some reading time over the next few days off… but I may have overestimated just how much time I’ll have. 📚
Waugh’s satire of Hollywood doesn’t hold up particularly well; still, there are some funny scenes and critiques of American culture that still ring true. Waugh doesn’t always quite get American culture. Like Graham Greene, he knew enough to oppose & ironize, but not quite enough to pull off a successful, stinging satire.
I’m enjoying Teach Your Child to Read, mostly because my twin four-and-a-half year olds are also enjoying the lessons and proud of their progress. In another life I’d be a preschool or kindergarten teacher—I love this age, when language is exploding, memories are forming, and they’re starting to learn that their creativity can being humor or beauty or joy to the world.
One of Ruskin’s early lessons in The Elements of Drawing is to draw a leaf, as carefully and accurately as possible. Here’s my lunch-hour effort. 📚 🎨
Recently attempted, & abandoned 📚:
- David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (should’ve stayed an article)
- Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, & Apricot Cocktails (I love Bakewell’s book on Montaigne—but I just don’t care about the existentialists)
Current reading 📚:
- David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation
- P. G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora
Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri recounts the relationship that Hazzard and her husband, the Flaubert scholar and translator Francis Steegmuller, had with Graham Greene over two decades, from the late 60s to the late 80s. Their friendship started when, in a Capri cafe, Hazzard overhead Greene struggling to remember a line from a minor Robert Browning poem. Hazzard, who seems to have most of the English literary canon memorized, walked up to him, reminded him of the line, and walked away. Greene, intrigued, struck up a conversation at their next encounter, and the friendship was born.
Hazzard’s book is wonderful for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that it’s as much a portrait of Capri as of an aging, cantankerous Graham Greene: for such a small island, its history is remarkable. (Henry James called it “beautiful, horrible, and haunted.”)
Another of the book’s delights is the wide range of minor characters that flicker in and out of its pages, among them Hazzard’s learned husband Francis Steegmuller, the vibrant Harold Acton, Norman Douglas, Edwin Cerio, Giorgio Weber, and the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine.
Hazzard’s own wit and rich knowledge of literature are evident throughout. Her sentences are typically simple, and can quickly shift to stunning:
Thinking of those times of transition [throughout Capri’s history]—and of their violations, contested in vain and now institutionalized and extended—a lover of Capri must gratefully wonder that beauty continues to prevail there—not as touristic prettiness, but in the grand and ultimate indifference of Nature to the antics of humankind. In a future age, perhaps, even today’s silliness may slide away, as have the courts of emperors, and the incursions of centuried invaders.
Erudite, literary memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and this book is perhaps my favorite of them all.
I stayed up late to finish The Churchgoer, a new novel written by Patrick Coleman. It’s San Diego noir about mega-churches, faith and doubt, and about learning to accept love from others, despite unshakeable belief that you don’t want or deserve it.
It’s so good. The voice is brilliant from start to finish. The narrator and central character is a former youth pastor turned atheist. His theological training gives him exegetical and etymological habits that won’t die, though his faith has; they’re a source of brilliant and fresh metaphor.
The narrator, Mark Haines, skewers American mega-church evangelicalism for being parasitical on the latest trends in pop culture, no matter how little those trends have to do with Christianity. He scorns the superficial sense of “mystery,” invoked in ways that are “about as humbling as the Grand Canyon printed on a poster about hard work.” For those who have spent any time within American evangelicalism, critiques like these may ring true. Others simply reveal the limits of Haines’s own religious experience and education. He’s far from perfect, but he’s decent enough—and endearingly full of wild ideas about God, Scripture, and the church.
By the end of the novel, Haines’s self-righteous anger at his former church and life has grown wearying—but he’s grown weary of it himself, and shows signs of recognizing that the deep and real flaws of that world don’t give him an excuse for a life of resentful bitterness. Haines’s past is filled with deep pain and sorrow. But by the novel’s end, he’s surprised to find some reasons for hope.
I loved this book, and it makes me want to revisit Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which shares some themes and which I also loved. Perhaps I’ll write more about the two books once I do so. In the meantime, I highly recommend The Churchgoer to you.
I made an Apple Music playlist of Hans Castorp’s favorite music in the “Fullness of Harmony” chapter of The Magic Mountain. (Full disclosure: there’s lots of opera.)
Amazing that it’s so easy to enjoy the same music that a fictional character listened to 110 years ago! 📚 🎶
I wanted to create something useful and practical, you see… And since I also loved books, I was determined that they be as beautiful as possible. That’s all there is to it.
~ Jacques Schiffrin, qtd. in “On Founding One of Literature’s Most Beautiful Collections” 🔗 📚
Publicly manifested prosperity might well hide a deeper sorrow than we at first could imagine.
~ Fr. James V. Schall, on the moral vision of Samuel Johnson’s essays 🔗 📚
I’m re-reading a favorite novel, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, preparing for a reading group this summer.
Looking for a good summer read? I’d highly recommend *MM*—you can’t go wrong with a long, philosophical novel about time, sickness, & death. (It’s funny, too!) 📚
Here’s a delightful symposium on personal libraries. The best entries, in my opinion, are those from Sarah Ruden & Peter Travers.
The symposium inspires me to write the story of my own personal library. I’d love to read others from the microblog community, as well. 📚
Recommended: this excellent review of a book I plan to read as soon as possible: Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. 📚
I read a wonderful novel tonight, Patrick DeWitt’s very dark & very comedic “tragedy of manners,” French Exit. (h/t the display stand at the local public library.) 📚
Happy 85th birthday to the great Wayne Shorter! We mere mortals can celebrate by reading Ethan Iverson on Shorter’s transcendental year, 1964.
While you read, listen to his albums from that year: Night Dreamer, Juju, & Speak No Evil. 🎂📚🎶
I recently finished re-reading David Grene’s memoir, Of Farming & Classics. Grene balanced action and contemplation in his life in a truly remarkable way: he spent half the year teaching classics in the University of Chicago’s fascinating Committee on Social Thought, then the other half farming, first on a small farm in Illinois, then back on small farms in his native Ireland.
His memoir is a charming little book. Just 160 pages, it’s focused and delightful, pushing against our assumptions regarding the nature of both farming and education. Since Grene’s life was so focused on these two things, there’s no real struggle between chronology and theme in the book: the two themes run neatly in parallel through his life, from farming in summers and learning Greek as a boy through his remarkable career at the University of Chicago, especially under its idiosyncratic wunderkind president, R.M. Hutchins (who became president of the university when he was 29!).
The final chapter, a defense of fox hunting, feels strangely out of place and disappointingly polemical compared to the rest of the book; this chapter aside, the book deserves its place on my shelf of contemplative, contrarian agrarians, next to his kindred spirit Wendell Berry.
P.S. ~ One of the final pages of the book mentions a recording of Grene reciting passages from Othello; the website pointed to and the bookstore mentioned as sources of the recording are both shuttered. If anyone knows where this recording can be found, I’d be grateful!
Michael Dirda, typically excellent, recommends two recent books on Stoicism and ancient philosophy more broadly.
H/T to him for referring to Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Classical English Metaphor, both of which I’d somehow never heard of before tonight. 📚