Also, despite the arguable contention that the world of literature is becoming increasingly marginal in our rabid technoculture, it is terrain that I find not only daunting and challenging in its immensity but energizing and thrilling and pleasurably sustaining. To encounter books and writers and fellow readers may be to inhabit a miniscule plot of land in a huge, huge universe (again, that’s arguable), but as literature’s horizon extends further than I can see, it’s an ecosystem in which I can thrive. Maybe you think that too?
Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, The Breakdown by Leszek KolakowskiI am a member of the school (if I may posit one) that believes that while Karl Marx apparently got socialism wrong, he was spot-on with his assessment of capitalism. And one who believes this may reasonably argue there is no small value in a reading Marx and his coterie with the same gusto that others seem to attach to Milton Friedman or Leo Strauss. This grand opus, first published in three volumes in 1976-78, has been combined with a new preface and epilogue by Kolakowski. Kolakowski was an orthodox Marxist until he became a revisionist after touring Moscow in 1950. His work was banned in Poland and he was expelled from that country’s Communist Party and went into exile in 1968. He continued a brilliant academic career at a number of English and American universities, retiring from Oxford a few years hence.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie GyllenhaalSylvia Plath’s opus seems to have an iconic/totemic stature, at least with undergraduates who smoke Gauloises, and, I sense, has served as fodder for those academic cottage industries founded on the backs of suicidal poets. I am not suggesting this audio as a substitute for the text (really, I wouldn’t do that), but as a kind of illuminating alternative. Like watching Moby Dick (the John Huston-Gregory Peck version, not that more recent stink bomb).
Oh What A Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846-1890 by Larry McMurtryThis is a surprisingly slender tome given the subject matter. McMurtry accounts for six of the West’s most terrible massacresSacramento River, Mountain Meadows, Sand Creek, Marias River, Camp Grant, and Wounded Kneeamong others. These massacres involved Americans killing Indians, but also Indians killing Americans, and, in the case of the hugely controversial Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, Mormons slaughtering a party of settlers, including women and children. The book begins with the virtually unknown Sacramento River Massacre of 1846, perpetrated by Pathfinder John Charles Fremont’s troops, and runs through the Wounded Knee in 1890. In addition to the facts themselves, McMurtry opines, This deep constant apprehension, which neither the pioneers or the Indians escaped, has it seems to me been too seldom factored in by historians of the settlement era, though certainly it saturates the diary literature in my opinion this grinding, long-sustained apprehension played its part in the ultimate resort to massacre. President Bush has recently revived the doctrine of preemptive strike. A doctrine far from new in military or quasi military practice. Most of the massacres I want to consider were thought by their perpetrators to be preemptive strikes justified by the claim that the attacks were punishment for past harassments by the native tribes. He does seem to stop short of claiming that the tradition of human slaughter is perpetualbut not by much.
Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work by Britt Salveson, with an introduction by John SzarkowskiHarry Callahan, whose life spanned almost all of the 20th century, was one of the great artists in photographic history. This well-executed monograph includes 225 images (12 full color, 213 duotones), some of which have never been published beforecontact sheets, variants and final images chosen to provide a glimpse into how Callahan worked on a daily basis. Britt Salveson, director of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which houses the Callahan Archive, vividly presents a window on Callahan’s modernist experimentation via an exploration of a range of subjects. Here’s John Szarkowski: Callahan has photographed his wife and child, the streets of the cities in which he has lived, and details of the pastoral landscapes into which he has periodically escapedmaterials so close at hand, so universally and obviously accessible, that one might have supposed that a dedicated photographer could exhaust their potential in a fraction of that time. Yet Callahan has repeatedly made these simple experiences new again by virtue of the precision of his feeling.
Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2000 by Rodney JonesAlabama-born Rodney Jones is the author of eight books of poetry. He has won numerous awards, including the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He was a finalist for poet laureate of Illinois, where he teaches at Southern Illinois University. For this anthology Jones selected what he thought was his best work and included 25 new poems that share a common theme. Here’s a stanza from The Boomers Take the Field:
It takes a long time to forgive
heroism or beauty.
And then the young girl
in the old song owns a plot
in the memorial gardens,
a brow full of Botox,
and a lover with Viagra.
Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John EidinowI’ve become a big fan of this kind of bookI am now thinking there is an emerging subgenre of cultural intellectual history, in which I include Edmond and Eidinow’s first book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Rachel Cohen’s marvelous A Chance Meeting, and Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, kind of a mad-dog polymath of the 18th centuryphilosopher, novelist, composer, and political provocateurwas given, with his dog Sultan, refuge from his many enemies in England by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume. In a short time, Rousseau accused his protector of plotting to dishonor him. Hume, with an uncharacteristically violent response, sparked a brouhaha that drew in the leading lights of England and France and was soon the big story in European cultural circles.
Mother’s Milk by Edward St. AubynRen Weschler recently told me of a book that the Los Angeles Times wouldn’t review because the Chicago Tribune, their parent company, pooh-poohed the Chagall nudes within. Unbelievable, huh? One wonders how St. Aubyn’s newest novel fared, with its well-reproduced cover using Jacopo Tintoretto’s painting, The Origin of the Milky Way. This, the Englishman’s sixth novel, published by the literary journal Open City, is as Francine Prose opines, First-rate fiction. No contemporary writer writes more knowingly or eloquently from the point of view of the child who is smarter and more observant than the adults around him might wish to imagine . . . [St. Aubyn is] the kind of writer who makes you notice the terrifying family at the next table, and who makes you want to write.
Pike’s Folly by Mike HeppnerI must say I admire the restraint of authors who write this kind of thing on their dust jacket: Mike Heppner lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. Nothing about growing up in Michigan, receiving an M.F.A. from Columbia University, or having written a previous novel (The Egg Code). OK, then. The reticent Heppner has fashioned a social satire that reminds me, in scope ambition and zaniness of characters of Rick Moody’s The Diviners. (Only because that’s the last satire I read.) Heppner reportedly turns a merciless eye on cultural malfeasances from the digital avant-garde to disingenuous tax reform, which you would anticipate when you have two extraordinarily wealthy characters, one being Nathaniel Pikea self-proclaimed Emersonianwho is buying a parcel of federal wilderness in New Hampshire with the intention of paving it over. Much humorous mayhem ensues.
Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland 1942-1943 by Czeslaw MiloszPolish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004, was the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature and the author of numerous works, many of which have been translated into English, including Beginning With My Streets, The Year of the Hunter, A Roadside Dog, Milosz’s ABC’s, and his last book, To Begin Where I Am. Newly available in English, Legends of Modernity brings together for the first time some of Milosz’s early essays and letters, composed in German-occupied Warsaw during the winter of 1943. Half a century later, when Legends of Modernity saw its first publication in Poland, Milosz said: If everything inside you is agitation, hatred, and despair, write measured, perfectly calm sentences .
Erstwhile singer and literary guy James Marcus has referred to this quote from a Milosz letter to be found in the book:
This is what I would like my future reader to see and comprehend: my first memories of childhood, those long rows of refugees’ wagons on the crowded roads, the bellowing of cattle being prodded along, the red glow of the fires of 1914, revolutionary October in Russia and again the year 1920 on the battlefields, and then growing up in the blind, unconscious lucidum intervallum between the wars, the university in which blind, unconscious people lectured about some by-products of knowledge acquired in the junkyard of the nineteenth century.Strong stuff, eh?