Syllabi

A couple of syllabi* from two well-known instructors.

From 1941:

Auden-1941 Syllabus

From 1994:

Wallace_Syllabus_001_large

More discussion at Dan Piepenbring, “W. H. Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News” The Paris Review (Jan. 29, 2015) [link]; “W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages,” Open Culture (Feb. 28, 2013) [link]; Alan Jacobs, “Auden’s Syllabus,” Snakes and Ladders (Oct. 1, 2012) [link]; and “David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books,” Open Culture (Feb. 25, 2013) [link].

I particularly enjoy Wallace’s caution to his students not to think “this will be a blow-off-type class.” Auden does not seem to think any of his students will make that mistake.

*Apparently not with two “i”s.

It’s not all clickbait . . .

current reading 2small quotes blueThe less you know about a person, the easier it is to venerate them, which is why you generally don’t want your children writing your biography. My favorite parts of biographies are not the quotes from the person being written about, but rather from those who knew them well — or — too well.

Josh Retterer, “Stories Told Behind Auden’s Back,” Mockingbird (Oct. 24, 2018) [link].

It is also true that the less you know about a person the easier it is to demonize them, which probably goes for everyone we read about in the “news.”


Sarah Willard, “The Pilgrim Soul,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 17, 2018) [link] writes about dementia and memory:

small quotes blueIt can be very hard when someone you love is losing their memory, not to lose yours too. It’s easy to only see who they are in the moment, and not who they are really, which includes who they have been and who they will be.

One anodyne for dementia is the shared memory of the ones who give care.


Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How Americans Described Evil before Hitler,” The Atlantic (Oct. 9, 2018) [link], raises the interesting question “Who was evil incarnate before Hitler?” and suggests some history lessons germane to our current discourse:

small quotes blueOur present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.


From Søren Kierkegaard, via Alan Jacobs:

small quotes blueThe Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.

Alan Jacobs, Snakes and Ladders (May 6, 2013) [link].

This is a hyperbole, of course, but I often wonder how much we will eventually be shown that our careful exegesis was really carefully hidden eisegesis.

More Luca

NZZFolioI originally read about Luca Turin about 10 years ago in Chandler Burr’s book The Emperor of Scent [link]. In trying to find a copy for one of my daughters, I picked up a book of Turin’s columns from a Swiss magazine called NZZ Folio.

The first columns are (mainly) about perfume, but the editors of the magazine seemed to realize that Turin’s cleverness should not be restricted to the sense of scent, and he is entirely unleashed in the later columns. The columns are very short, wildly allusive, and quite stimulating. Here are some more excerpts:

small quotes blueEven if you try not to pay attention to it, a messy place is a nagging worry, a moral stain, which I assume is why ‘scruple’ originally meant a small stone in your shoe.

small quotes blueThis leads me to propose the Law of Optimum Waste: only too much is barely good enough. Great things in teaching, in science, in the arts often happen when exceptional people are forced to look for jobs below their station. A revolution is currently taking place in science because defense budgets are cut, physicists cannot get the job they wanted, and are forced to slum it in biology. The great Italian design boom of the sixties was largely the result of a surfeit of architects who wanted to design skyscrapers and ended up doing ashtrays. Note that in literature—Shakespeare’s villains are a good example—and in life, much evil comes from those who are ambitious beyond their means. Conversely, it seems that enormous good comes from those who are modest beyond their rights. This is not a moral principle, but a practical one. Greed repels, generosity inspires.

small quotes blueYou learn a lot about a country’s public space by driving, a wordless game for high stakes that you play with complete strangers. Roads and cars are the same the world over, and local color shows up nicely against an asphalt grey background. Most countries play a game of cops and drivers. In the US, the cops are fierce and the drivers dopey. In France both cops and drivers are fierce. In Italy they are both petulant. In Greece there are no cops.

Turin FolioVery entertaining, and currently available as a Kindle Unlimited book (though with an oddly uninspiring cover): Luca Turin, Folio Columns 2003-2014 (2015) [link].

Recommended.

Recent book reviews

The Brain Defense

Two recent book reviews I have written:

Book Review: Kevin Davis, The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms (Penguin Press 2017) in The Champion (June 2018) [link].

CASCADE_Template

Book Review: Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, eds., Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William (Front Porch Republic 2018) in The Englewood Review of Books (Sept. 20, 2018) [link].

Always nice to get an interesting book for free, even if you need to do a little work for it.

All bad, not all bad

Baseball 2I read this about 10 days ago.  I continue to think about it. Eric Dorman, “Of Cubs and Humans and Good Thieves,” Mockingbird (July 30, 2018) [link].

It reminds me of  “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.” David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” available many places on the Web, including [link] and [audio link].

Reading, 2017

This was a full year of reading for me, 38 volumes of (more-or-less straight) fiction, another 28 science fiction novels, and 28 volumes of non-fiction. Some could slide from one category to another, I suppose (is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology science fiction?).

InterpreterofmaladiescoverI read three books by Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, Bethany, Jack Glass); three by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory); three by Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology, The View from the Cheap Seats, and with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens); three by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Hell or High Water, Celine), and four by William Gibson (The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).

The best new finds in fiction I read this year included Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (The Last 1956 Cessna 182); Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, (R!-town) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (a marvelous series of short stories).

Undoing ProjectTwo excellent new non-fiction offerings were Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project and Philip Allen Green, Trauma Room Two.

TraumaRoomTwoI think that Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem should be required reading, but I had read neither of them before 2017 (see Jerusalem and Birmingham).

In 2018, I am hoping for some new fiction from Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman (no novels since 2013); William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen Carter (no novels since 2014); and Mary Doria Russell and David Mitchell (no novels since 2015).* Indeed I have Agency, Gibson’s next, on pre-order from Amazon.

But there are lots of great books out there already.

*David Mitchell wrote From Me Flows What You Call Time, but that won’t be published until 2116, so I need something in the interim, I think.

A “sneaking suspicion of our own badness”

Claire Dederer
from clairedederer.com

current reading 2Not everyone will like (or should like) this fascinating piece by Claire Dederer (@ClaireDederer) in The Paris Review: “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men?” [link] She begins by contemplating the unassailable fact that many people who have created great art have also done monstrous acts (think of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen).

How do we deal with what they have made after we know what they have done?

As such, it is an interesting piece. What makes it more than another of the many think-pieces about the Trump-Weinstein-Spacey storyline is the fact that she becomes introspective about it without letting go of her appropriate moral outrage:

When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.

Reminder: not “you,” not “we,” but “I.” Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.

In the end, she properly calls attention to the fact that even in the midst of doing something apparently praiseworthy — finishing her writing project — she may do (does do!) some “little savageries” to come to the end of her work.

Either way, the questions remain:

What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]

And the question is a fair one, not just about art, but about all accomplishment.

It is not a comfortable question, and the answer is not that their/your/my monstrosity is a fair trade for the art or the accomplishment, never that. The answer must include the incredible fact of the monstrosity in all of us.

Still, there is a grace that comes in the introspection itself. It is not the final grace, but it is an elegant beginning.

Thank you, Ms. Dederer.

An Old Friend

The ManticoreSometimes it is nice to revisit a novel you have not read in a long time:

“The procedures of the law are much discussed, and people know about lawyers and courts and prisons and punishment and all that sort of thing, but that is just the apparatus through which the law works. And it works in the cause of justice.  Now, justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.  Every law student has to learn that.”

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972) (p. 62 in the Penguin ed.).

Some people find the re-reading of novels to be odd, but it seems to me not unlike listening to a favorite piece of music, or viewing a well-loved painting, or returning to a known hike, or visiting an old friend.  You do not return for an identical experience, for you yourself are different.

Another nice passage, this one about about advocacy from David Staunton’s legal mentor: 

“I think you’ll make an advocate,” said he.  “You have the two necessities, ability and imagination.  A good advocate is his client’s alter ego; his task is to say what his client would say for himself if he had the knowledge and the power.  Ability goes hand in hand with the knowledge: the power is dependent on imagination.  But when I say imagination I mean capacity to see all sides of a subject and weigh all possibilities; I don’t mean fantasy and poetry and moonshine; imagination is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability.”

p. 227.