Snow day! (notes on reading)

We had our first major snow storm of the season today, and school was cancelled — yippee! It would have be a perfect Valentine’s Day gift, except that the Hobgoblin is sick, so we’re not really feeling celebratory. And how did I spend my day off? Working, of course. I read ahead in my classes and graded quizzes, although I had some time left over for a nap and some fun reading. That and some snow shoveling.

I’m nearing the end of Proust’s The Guermantes Way; I know I haven’t written much about this (maybe I haven’t written anything), but I am enjoying it, just in a low-key kind of way. I’m not as thrilled by this volume as I was by the first two; it’s more about social dynamics and less about the subtleties of the mind — although the subtleties of the mind are there too. The narrator is making his way in high society and finding out what this society is not what he expected it to be. The book is full of accounts of conversations and people’s comings and goings and gossip and wit, or people’s attempts at wit. While at times I wish I were through with Proust so that I’d have more time for other things, I’ve been surprised at how I’m generally content to keep reading him, a little bit at a time, absorbing it slowly and really living with it.

And I’m about 1/3 of the way into Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which, if you follow this blog, you’ve gotten many quotations from. I’m amused at the way Boswell rushes through the first 54 years of Johnson’s life in 240 pages (the rushing being relative, of course — my edition is over 1,200 pages) until the time when Johnson and Boswell meet, at which point he slows way down and gives all kinds of detail of their every interaction. They discuss in a few conversations how the best biographies are those written by someone who has known and interacted with the subject, which explains Boswell’s odd pacing in the book — he’s not trying to be thorough about every part of Johnson’s life, but is focusing on the parts he knows best. The first 240 pages before their meeting were interesting, but not nearly as much as the sparks that fly in the pages afterwards. Much of this part consists of loosely-connected (or completely unconnected) anecdotes of witty conversations, political and literary debates, copies of letters, and descriptions of what Johnson is writing.

I’m making my way through The Best American Essays, 2006 and so far I’m not feeling terribly impressed. I suppose that irritating introductory essay set the tone for the whole book. Some of the essays I do like; one in particular is Emily Bernard’s, “Teaching the N-word,” about, as you can surmise, dealing with race in the classroom. Of the six other essays that I’ve read, however, two were okay but ultimately unsatisfying, two just didn’t reach me at all, one I find whiny, and another I thought was full of cliches, very earnestly described. I’m going to stick with it, hoping the essays improve, but I’m disappointed because I remember being enraptured with previous editions of this series. It makes sense, though, that the editor is going to set the tone of a collection, and if I’m not impressed by the editor, I’m not going to be impressed by the collection.

And lastly I’m reading The Rings of Saturn and finding it an interesting experience; I feel like I’m not really taking it in, that I don’t really know what I have on my hands and so don’t know exactly how to process it and make sense of it. I’m enjoying it, but I don’t feel like I’ve quite got a handle on it. This would be a good candidate for a re-reading, or perhaps (or additionally) further reading in Sebald’s other books, to get a better sense of how to understand him. If a book teaches you how to read it, I haven’t quite learned the lesson yet. More on this later.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Snow day! (notes on reading)

  1. The storm that brought you snow, brought us snow first, but not enough to call off classes (at least the university–school kids got the day off). So it was just an irritating snow that has made it colder. On the up side, it is supposed to be 40 next week. Sad when I am looking forward to 40 degree weather!! I am contemplating buying the Swan’s Way by Proust. Reading Colette makes me want to read more French authors–not that they are probably at all similar. So many people are talking about Proust it makes me curious. That particular volume of essays does not appeal to me I have to say (especially now after your posts). I am also curious about what you have to say about the Sebald–especially the book teaching you how to read?

  2. Del

    Your description of that snowstorm reminds me of my childhood in Chicago and waiting by the radio to see if school would be cancelled when it snowed.

    Whenever you mention the latest Best Essays volume, I find myself in agreement with your observations. I think I can almost guess which essays fit your descriptions in today’s post, and agree that altogether the 2006 collection is a disappointment. That said, I think my previous comment on this topic (when I wondered if it was reasonable for a psychiatrist to edit a literary anthology) was rather mindless. After all, Chekhov was both a doctor and a writer, and there are many other examples of successful artists who also were (are) also highly accomplished in other areas as well. I wonder if this year’s volume is generally more appealing to readers with strong backgrounds in psychology/psychiatry. I’ve only asked one, a psychiatrist friend whose reaction is similar to mine.

  3. Dark Orpheus

    I did not enjoy The Guermantes Way as much as the first 2 volumes either. (I really liked Swann’s Way.) I’m seeing doubles in the story, and it feels like the young narrator is being prepped to replace Charles Swann in society.

    And I’ve been having trouble continuing with Sodom and Gomorrah. Is this why so many people never really got around to finishing Proust?

    *sigh* But oh well, just because I haven’t finished reading it, doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it.

  4. I’ll be interested to hear how you go with Rings of Saturn. I tried to read Austerlitz by Sebald a few years ago and found it tough going. I remember thinking it was very interesting and definitely worth coming back to at some stage, though.

  5. I was wondering if you got dumped on with snow. We didn’t even get a flurry here. I had better get going in Guermantes Way, I’ve only read the very dull introduction. But I also haven’t stopped thinking about the second book yet either. I am enjoying how it sits in the back of my mind for me to constantly ponder.

  6. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me just how much a good or bad or even indifferent editor can effect a collection of essays (or short stories). I always thought it was just a matter of finding a consensus for content and then riddling out the spelling – evidently not. :-)

    Don’t say that about Proust. I was just gearing myself up to embark…and now I’m trembling.

  7. You seem to have a lot of reading on the go at the moment, Dorothy! I feel that multiple book reading bloggers are leading you astray! Still, I empathise with the loveliness of a day off teachig due to snow. I’m glad you enjoyed it (the nap sounded particularly good) and hope the Hob is much better soon.

  8. Danielle, I’d love to have 40 degree weather! It would be balmy, wouldn’t it? As to the Sebald teaching me how to read, I was referring to the idea than any book you read teaches you how to read it — you have to learn the book’s particular vocabulary, style, interests, etc. to make sense of it. Del, interesting question about the audience for the collection of essays. I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one who feels this way about the book — although I did just read Gopnik’s essay, which I liked quite a bit. Dark Orpheus, ooh, I’m not sure I want to hear that about Sodom and Gommorrah! Jess, Austerlitz is on my list of things to read; I’m glad you think it’s worth going back to, even if it is tough-going. Stefanie, I didn’t like that introduction either. I do hope you enjoy the book — I AM enjoying it, just not quite as much as the previous volumes. Victoria, Proust is wonderful! All the way through!! Litlove, they most certainly are leading me astray — I’ve been thoroughly corrupted by those multiple-book-reading bloggers :)

  9. Dorothy. A couple things.
    First, I WISH I had a job where snow could cancel it, from time to time.
    Even if it snowed 18 feet, I would still have to go to work!
    Secondly, your experience of The Guermantes Way reminds me of my experience with Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which I have just finished. I liked the book, but did not love it, per se.
    Thirdly, I have wanted to read The Rings of Saturn for quite some time now. Your initial trepidation about Saturn does not discourage me, I have every intention of reading all of Sebald that I can. I really love his use of photographs. Have you read Austerlitz? It is FABULOUSLY good. I cannot agree with Jess.
    You are a prodigious reader, Dorothy!

  10. I definitely think you should read The Rings of Saturn, Cipriano — I’m not feeling trepidation about it so much as a little bewilderment and disorientation, which I don’t think is a bad thing at all. And I’ll definitely read Austerlitz — thanks for the recommendation!

  11. Pingback: More essays « Of Books and Bicycles

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