Sunday, September 7, 2008

Confessions of a Read Freak

Perhaps to embarrass myself, or maybe to wonder out loud why I read what I read, I’m going to briefly hit on 7 or so books I am “actively” trying to finish. What these notes should point out, above all other considerations, is that I am a “read freak” and quite unrepentant of that fact. But I should warn everyone that its probably not a good idea to read as much as I do—it reveals an addiction-prone personality: I physically crave knowledge & understanding. But among the more readily available addictions all around us—sex, booze, drugs, patriotism, religion, technology, etc.,—for me it has remained the healthiest option of the lot (that and eating well, exercising frequently, and trying to maintain supportive relationships with others).

Jack Kerouac. Visions of Cody. “Written in 1951-52, it was an underground legend by the time it was finally published in 1972.” Proust on the loose! And how often we forget that he was born a French-Canadian; this, one of our most American of American prose masters of the 20th century. This book is, for me, as monstrous to read as almost anything, like Patchen's anti-novels. Permanent underdog visions. I’m only 56 pages in, and still feel committed to finishing it. If only some decent book publisher would scoop up all his works and publish them in a beautifully typeset edition, and on paper that won’t yellow and fall apart after 3 years—and make it consistent for all its inconsistencies of grammar, punctuation, etc. As of now, his books are still carried around separately in the rucksacks of wanderers. A serious interest in Kerouac demands that you become a “collector” in order to read his sprawling autobiography, which also blends in the stories of so many others.

Nikolai Gogol. Dead Souls. Written in 1842. A book both funny and serious at the same time. A subtle satire on the serf-owning class, revealing their own absurdities while at the same time condemning them. Chichikov, the buyer of dead souls from serf-owner’s tax rolls, is a confidence man, probably the model for Melville’s brilliant book. I’m halfway through.

Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt. René Daumal: The Life and Work of a Mystic Guide.
In his Populist Manifesto of 1976, Lawrence Ferlinghetti says: “Poets…come down, come down/from your…Mount Analogues I feel lucky that I own a photocopied version of Daumal’s Mount Analogue. Daumal was an outsider to outsiders—he was courted and then dismissed by the surrealist French writers of the 20s, but his body of work, fugitively translated into English, and much to our detriment, is a great example of a creative mind at work on the furthest frontiers of consciousness, trying to bring back all the knowledge he’s gained there for the benefit of everyone else unable to go that far out. Sadly, Mount Analogue remained an unfinished work. When I read this book, I like being on his mountain, or what little I’ve seen of it. This is one of the most interesting biographies I’ve ever read, because it bristles and blooms with lots of very deep, very intense insights, and traces the line a person who conducted the entirety of his life as an experiment in the most unremitting of ethical approaches to living, to spiritual evolution, and to creative activity I’ve yet found. I think Ferlinghetti is wrong in the specifics of his charge against those on the mountain, but not in the general importance of his statement, because Daumal lived very much in the heat and heart of his world—Paris—and yet was able to fashion a way into other dimensions and planes of existence. Truly, the doorway opens for you wherever you are. I’m reading this book very slowly, because it packs quite a punch, and offers a lot to savor. Sadly, like Daumal’s work, this book is pretty rare.

Dante Aligheri. The Divine Comedy. Written around 1300, this is the masterwork for so many poets and authors—Gogol, Ezra Pound, and Daumal, too. Gogol’s book was originally conceived as a prose comedy structured on Dante, but he was unable to finish it. Interestingly, Daumal’s Mount Analogue bears a lot of resemblance to Dante’s Purgatory Mount. I’m currently reading Purgatorio. It’s a true beauty. I feel ashamed that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Aeneid as well, I didn’t read this when younger (I’d put the Metamorphoses in this category, too).

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. A set of letters written around 1140 between Abelard of Brittany, and Heloise of Paris (at that time very much different kingdoms). Eric Gans made me interested in this book, because he states that their relationship serves as an early model for the courtly tradition and our current notions of how passionate love & devotion lead to marriage; both of which are deeply held ideals that persist in various forms to this day. Everything seems to be here—sexual ecstasy merging with religious sensibilities; the lovers becoming a married couple in the face of jealousy and social taboo; and the vicious social and institutional worlds tearing them apart (and for Abelard, quite literally: he was castrated). These letters, beyond giving us the idea of courtly love as an unswerving devotion to a Lady, also encapsulate the foundations of our idea of marriage as a mutually sustaining salve to the shocks and antagonisms of public worlds, public roles, and professional life; indicative of our eventual notions of the public and private spheres as mutually exclusive and supportive. They both had professional lives within the church and in the training of scholars. While, for my money, the story of Majnun and Layla (by the Persian poet Nizami) defines a limit point to transcendent love, this affair of letters presents us with key insights into western ideals of love and marriage. Abelard was also an important figure in shaping our current (or perhaps just recently deceased/dormant) notion of the university as the scene of disputation and dialogue of ideas (thanks to Eric Gans for pointing all of this out to me). Oh, and by the way, these letters are HOT.

Richard Holmes. Shelley: The Pursuit. Classic biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley written in the late 1960s. I’m only up to the year 1812 in this one, but it’s a wild, wild ride!! I never studied or read the English Romantics as a student, so this book forms a core text for my own self-taught course in the period. Other books on my list include: Donald Sutherland’s brilliant On, Romanticism, Wordsworth’s Prelude, all of Keats’ and Shelley’s poetry, Byron’s Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. I think I’ve read enough Blake to cover that angle for now, but his complete poems are also central to this study. A fuller understanding of romanticism in general would require reading Schlegel in depth, but that opens a whole host of texts in German Idealist philosophy, drama, and Goethe, which would take me too far afield. I’m most interested in the English poetry and historical dimensions here. If anyone wants to sign on with me to read and talk about these books, PLEASE let me know. I’m pretty hungry to talk about this material.


of the same time period, but in the “American Salt Mine” category, I’m reading Isabel Thompson Kelsay’s biography of Joseph Brant. Brant is considered by some to be the most famous Native American who ever lived. It’s an amazing text, not for its writing, but for the history given here that I never learned or paid attention to earlier in my life. It’s like getting an entirely new view of 18th century America & the place where I live.

P.S. If I started listing the poetry I’m reading, it would be another long long list—so, next time, maybe.

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