Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Pleasure reading

by J J Cohen
[illustration: would you trust this guy's taste in literature?]

A recent post at the blog Caught in the Snide caught my attention: in Outside of a Dog (alluding to a famous Groucho Marx aphorism, which I have emblazoned on a favorite orange T shirt from a favorite DC bookstore), Prof. de Breeze laments the decline in his leisure reading.

Those who know me well know that I also lament with similar lamentations. My decline in pleasure reading coincides with two major life events: having young spawn, and being chair of my department. My mad time management skillz have demanded of me that most of the reading I do be oriented towards publication or administrative commitments. Neither of these obligations kill the pleasure of reading, of course, since in general I publish on topics I enjoy, and great pleasure comes to me in reading the work of colleagues. Still, the empty spaces that I could fill with random works of literature don't bubble up as much as they once did.

Still, it is not as if I never open a book except out of a sense of scholarly obligation. Lately I've been reading through the adolescent-themed fantasy in which my son Alex is so expert: the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix, for example, is so dark and so well imagined that the volumes have proved impossible to put down. A few weeks ago I finished Philip Reeve's marvelously conceptualized Mortal Engines, a novel set in a post-apocalyptic future (all futures are post-apocalyptic in speculative fiction) in which cities move around the devastated earth on great traction devices, ingesting those settlements smaller or slower than themselves, a practice called Municipal Darwinism. Though the city that this book centers upon is London, longtime readers of this blog will remember that I purchased the volume two years ago in Kilkenny as a souvenir. Not only was I taken by the cover illustration, the literary title, and the blurb, I also realized that the book was written by an illustrator beloved by my son (Reeve did the snarky pictures in many of the Horrible Histories volumes).

Much of my reading, then, comes from an eleven year old who sometimes wears jester caps (I snapped that picture today). That's OK, because he has good taste. So, I must admit, does my daughter Katherine: the Disney Fairy series is actually not as bad as you might think, and right now she and I are reading a simplified (but still murder-filled) version of Treasure Island to satisfy her hunger for pirate stories. Also, a tip for Prof. de Breeze: your kids may not be old enough yet, but one thing the Cohens like to do is a communal read-in-bed before the oldest three of us turn in for the night. This nightly ritual ensures that everyone gets some pleasure reading accomplished while enjoying the pleasure of each other's company (the only downside being that sometimes you'll be engrossed in your book when Alex's Cold Toe of Death comes over and plants itself on the part of your body that will make you both jump and drop your volume).

Not all of my reading is adolescent. Right now I am halfway through Edward P. Jones's The Known World. Being a medievalist obsessed by time, I'm entranced by the temporal whorls that cluster around each character (particles of their past and future spin away from their narrative present; this effect is so artfully done that I am truly in awe of Jones's craft). I've always wanted to read this book, but I do have an objective in reading it now: I and four of my colleagues are meeting with him for lunch today to explore the possibility of his spending a semester at GW. Wish us luck.

So what about you? What pleasure reading have you done lately? What's on your list for this summer?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are very fortunate to have good "management skillz."

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

That was madmanagement skillz -- and if you think "mad skillz" is a missspeling, then you are deficient in your pop culture.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Thanks for the plug, JJC. I may have to rethink my vote for the Tiny Shriner after all.

And, yeah, I neglected to mention the time I spend reading (aloud) books aimed at the 6-12 year-old set. Luckily, Older Monkey has pretty good taste in books, so that reading is enjoyable on several fronts. But I'll admit that I can't wait for her to get a little older, so that I can relive my own reading adolescence through her.

Eileen Joy said...

Pleasure reading? Are you kidding? I have to use courses I teach to get that done. So last semester, in my contemporary lit. course, I assigned five books I hadn't yet read but wanted to, and they were all fantastic; I can't recommend them highly enough:

Jennifer Egan, THE KEEP

Kevin Brockmeier, THINGS THAT FALL FROM THE SKY: STORIES

Amy Hempel, THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF AMY HEMPEL

Haruki Murakami, HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Nathan Englanders, FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES

For medievalists, Egan's THE KEEP is especially fun [and chilling].

I am also trying to finish Paul Auster's THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES and TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM, but am not feeling the urge to finish either any time soon. I would rather run out and buy Brockmeier's new book, THE VIEW FROM THE SEVENTH LAYER. So maybe I'll do that very thing today. But first I have to spring my mother out of the rehab center [where she is recuperating--nicely, I might add--from hip replacement surgery]: I am sneaking her across the street for steak and champagne at her favorite French restaurant. Don't tell anyone.

Anonymous said...

I am getting ready to start a new teaching position in the fall, so I am hoping to read some books on pedagogy and on the art of teaching in general. I don't think I read enough of those. I have been eyeing some books by David Orr (an environmentalist teacher/activist/administrato out of Oberlin College), or maybe some Mike Rose, whom I have never read much of before. But I would ask you ITM readers: what is your favorite book about the craft of teaching, about its trials and tribulations, about its joys? I'm looking for suggestions.

irina said...

Today I bought, and immediately started reading, "Der Teufel trägt Prada."

I basically lose any guilt related to what I *should* be reading when I read in other languages. It's rather like smearing Nuttella on brown bread -- wholesome and sinful at the same time.

Unfortunately, you can imagine how hard it is now to concentrate on Wright's "The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature."

irina said...

Actually, I should add that I'm totally in a Daphne du Maurier phase, having reread Rebecca a few weeks ago and fallen in love with her writing all over again. And my book for the two six-hour train trips from London to Bangor I'll be taking next week is Vanity Fair. I hated it when I was twelve, but I've had enough people tell me since then that I'm just the kind of person who would like it that I have to give it another chance.

Matt said...

The item on my list that might be of interest to medievalists is Marie Redonnet's book-length poem "Le Mort & Cie" (1985) which is also available in English translation (with French en face).

The poem consists of hundreds of tercets involving a "medievalesque" cast of characters including a king, a dwarf, a dead man, and others. At the same time, the poem maintains an intensely dissociative current, that seems "contemporary" to me.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Eileen: How cool that you teach Murakami! As I mentioned in my post (referred to by JJC above), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of my absolute favorite books.

Best wishes for your mother's speedy recovery, by the way.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Totally agree about Philip Reeve (confirms my vote for JJC). The Hungry City Chronicles - all four volumes - are stunning. My son has read them all a couple of times. We would take turns to read different things to him at night, and kept going till he was nearly twelve, I think. Good times. Sigh.

Reeve's Here Lies Arthur is also good for medievalists: a relentless demystification of the Arthurian legend.

Eileen Joy said...

prof. de breeze: just read your post at Caught in the Snide and really liked it [or is "lamented it" a more apt description?]. As I said in my other comment here, I assign contemporary books, not only in actual contemporary literature courses, but also in every medieval lit. course I have ever taught here at Southern Illinois, partly as a sneaky way to keep up my contemporary "pleasure" reading, but also because I enjoy "smashing" together medieval and contemporary texts [like Morrison's "Paradise" in a course on race and medieval England, Philip Gourevitch's "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families" in a course on "Beowulf" and war, etc.]. I have an MFA in fiction writing and one of my Ph.D. exam areas [in addition to medieval and Renaissance lit.] was contemporary/postmodern literature, so my dept. actually expects me to help teach the contemporary lit. courses [yay], and I also occasionally teach introductory creative writing courses, where I also sneak in stuff I want to read--last year that was Susan Orleans's "The Orchid Thief," Denis Johnson's "Jesus's Son," and Spencer Reese's book of poems, "The Clerk's Tale," which brings me to:

Why don't we talk more about the POETRY we should be reading? I'm glad Matt brought in the book-length poem "Le Mort & Cie" for that very reason. I was not trained as a poet [although I do write and have published poetry] and I do not generally teach modern poetry [although almost everything medieval and classical I teach is--duh!--poetry], but I am always telling my students how important it is to support poetry by buying at LEAST one book of poems a year [if not more]. I make conscious effort to buy books of poetry, and most recently have been loving Jack Gilbert's "Refusing Heaven" and as embarrassing as this is to admit, I have re-read Spencer Reese's "The Clerk's Tale" about one thousand times since buying it about 2 years ago. Both Gilbert's and Reese's poetry would have special appeal to medievalists, I think, but it's hard to explain why, exactly. I also recently purchased Stephen Dunn's "Collected Poems"--amazing. I also like to read the poetry written by authors known better for other genres, like fiction. I recently purchased, when I was in Burlington, VT the collected poems of Borges and also a book of poem by D.H. Lawrence--the misogyny of Lawrence's poetry is unbelievable, but when it's good, it's good. Well, that's that.

And yes, prof. de breeze, isn't Murakami amazing? "Hardboiled Wonderland" blew my [and my students'] minds. I can't wait to get "Norwegian Wood."

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

The best book of poems that I read recently is one I've mentioned here before: Jane Shore's "A Yes-or-No Answer." Great stuff. Lytton also sent me his chapbook of "Monster Theory" and it is terrific as well.

Stephanie, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Hungry City chronicles ... once Liza returns them. She apparently kidnapped them and I hope (given her current obsession) is not mummifying them.

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

With thesis time I get one summer reading book this summer: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I certainly second the remark about using teaching as a way to get in pleasure reading. I'm heading into a summer course on 'Women and Detective Fiction,' for instance, which means I will "have" to read Gaudy Night this weekend. But my big pleasure reading project (and I choose the word "big" deliberately) for this summer is Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. We'll see how I do. I've got Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union on hand as an alternative, and I also hope to get to Mister Pip.

I too find my kids provide good excuses for revisiting old favourites. My daughter and I have been reading the Little House on the Prairie series together--though her school keeps foisting "Early Reader" things on us, like Junie B Jones and The Magic Treehouse for her required reading. They aren't bad, but they're so formulaic it's hard to see how they really foster the kind of curiosity and persistence you need to be a really devoted reader. My son has been on a big Roald Dahl phase.

Karl Steel said...

Anonymous: I simply can't remember ANY pedagogy books I've read that were of much value. Perhaps I wasn't looking at the right ones? My approach for teaching, say, Chaucer, was always to (try to) read at least 3 articles on whatever tale I was teaching and to mash those bits against my own pleasures in the text and imagine the student's confusion, make 4 pages of notes, and then fall into the classroom. My main advice? Never lecture for more than 20 minutes at a time. Ask lots of questions, and let some of them be: "are you unclear about anything in the reading?" I suggest the articles only because it reminds me that I'm being taught, too (after all, a good article is like a good seminar).

Other reading? I'll probably finish The Diving Bell and the Butterfly today, still slogging through an introduction to Critical Theory, dipping into the new Derrida collection The Animal That Therefore I Am, and, for real fun, James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere, which really is like The Young Visitors meets The Diary of Adrian Mole, and just as delightful (and, by the way, is it cheating to buy books JUST on the basis of their NYRB imprint?).

Karl Steel said...

I should also say that I'm just about to read William Germano's Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else about Serious Books, as there's a certain genre I'm going to have to get a handle on this month.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Karl, I'm oddly grateful to see you say that you haven't found any pedagogical books that were really useful -- I always thought it was just me. Although I will put in a good note for Joe Williams' "Style: Elements of Clarity and Grace". It's one of the things that got me through year two of University Writing teaching, and will help me continue with it next year (year THREE! yeesh).

Eileen, on the poetry front: I managed to leave my copy of Anabranch by Andrew Zawacki, in New York. ILL at Wake Forest will be procuring it for me. I'm also hoping to read his first book, By Reason of Breakings. His work really resonates with me.

Other reading? Besides everything ever written on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the re-reading of my dissertation chapter as I revise it? Hm. I was recently given Jose Saramago's Blindness -- I've heard fantastic things about it, so I might make it my next stop. Also: Anything I can find at the (singular, I think) used book store here in Winston-Salem. Maybe more Coetzee.

Karl Steel said...

I don't think it's been mentioned here yet, but I think EVERYBODY on ITM, readers included (and me too, since I know it only on ALK's summary), will dig Caryl Phillips The Nature of Blood. Maybe there's a copy in Winston-Salem?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

On pedagogy, a book I've been enjoying recently is a new one, composed by two of GW colleagues: Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan, Teaching Beauty in Delillo, Woolf and Merrill. Unlike a standard book of literary criticism, this one doesn't try to offer interpretations based solely upon close reading + theory: the essays are truly about teaching beauty, and so much of the evidence is based upon classroom performance and encounter. So, the volume foreground pedagogy in a way that most of us don't when we author our monographs and essays.

Liza said...

OKOKOK, the city-muncher books are on their way back soon. I warned you (and Alex) it would be a while. But I'm JUST NEARLY done with the last paper I'm going to write before theory summer camp, so I'll have some free time for leisure reading between my Deleuze.

I haven't mummified any of them (yet), but given the paper I'm wrapping up (no pun intended) just now, I can't promise not to contingently fetishize any of them. Mum's the word!