Monthly Archives: April 2007

Introduction to DQ

I was hoping to post on Harold Bloom’s introduction to Don Quixote after I’d had a chance to read it this evening, but I’ve just finished it and I thought it was terrible, so I won’t be posting on it after all.  Has anybody else read it, from the Edith Grossman translation?  Yes, I’ll admit I’m tired this evening and not at my reading best, but still I couldn’t make much sense out of it and I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked it even if I’d felt more alert.  It’s rambling and vague and has rather too much Hamlet in it.

So, instead, I’ll give you a paragraph from Edith Grossman’s “Translator’s Note to the Reader,” which is short but much better than Bloom’s irritation introuction.  Describing Cervantes’s writing, she says:

[It] is a marvel: it gives off sparks and flows like honey.  Cervantes’s style is so artful it seems absolutely natural and inevitable; his irony is sweet-natured, his sensibility sophisticated, compassionate, and humorous.  If my translation works at all, the reader should keep turning the pages, smiling a good deal, periodically bursting into laughter, and impatiently waiting for the next synonym (Cervantes delighted in accumulating synonyms, especially descriptive ones, within the same phrase), the next mind-bending coincidence, the next variation on the structure of Don Quixote’s adventures, the next incomparable conversation between the knight and his squire.  To quote again from Cervantes’s prologue: “I do not want to charge you too much for the service I have performed in introducing you to so noble and honorable a knight; but I do want you to thank me for allowing you to make the acquaintance of the famous Sancho Panza, his squire….”

Tomorrow — to the novel itself!

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Filed under Books, Fiction

Eat, Pray, Love, II

I finished the second part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love today, and while it’s quite different from the first (which I wrote about here), I enjoyed it very much. In this section, instead of seeking pleasure in Italy, Gilbert is seeking God in India. The section has a completely different feel to it; now, instead of practicing Italian and eating pasta all day, she scrubs floors, chants, and meditates in an Indian ashram. She intends to stay at this ashram only 6 weeks and then to travel around India for the next couple months, but after the first 6 weeks are up, she finds herself wanting to stay, so she does.

The section describes her spiritual explorations, her struggle with meditation, first, and then her extreme dislike of the ashram’s practice of chanting the Gurugita every morning. The Gurugita is 182 verses long, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to chant. People get up at 3:00 a.m. and get breakfast only after a session of meditation and then the chanting. Gilbert struggles and struggles with the discipline necessary to do all of this, and with her mind’s unwillingness to settle itself. This is how she describes her struggle with the Gurugita:

When I try to go to the chant, all it does it agitate me. I mean, physically I don’t feel like I’m singing it so much as being dragged behind it. It makes me sweat … Everyone else sits in the chant huddled in wool blankets and hats to stay warm, and I’m peeling layers off myself as the hymn drones on, foaming like an overworked farm horse. I come out of the temple after the Gurugita and the sweat rises off my skin in the cold morning air like fog — like horrible, green, stinky fog. The physical reaction is mild compared to the hot waves of emotion that rock me as I try to sing the thing. And I can’t even sing it. I can only croak it. Resentfully.

But she does learn to sing it. One morning she wakes up to find her roommate has padlocked her into her room and that she is about to miss the chant. Before she realizes what she’s doing, she finds herself jumping two stories out her window so she can join the others. There was something in her that didn’t want to miss it, that insisted she be there. When she arrives she tries to think of a way to make the chanting meaningful, and she decides to dedicate it to her nephew Nick, and this makes all the difference. The chant now becomes one of the most important parts of her time in India.

Gilbert describes a number of spiritual “breakthroughs” she experiences, times when she feels her mind finally quieting down, when she enters new levels of consciousness, when she has dreams and visions. All of this interests me very much, although I find myself, not suspicious or disbelieving of it, but distanced from it somehow. I am very interested in spirituality, but I don’t seem to be able to stick with any kind of spiritual practice long enough to experience anything similar. I’m not sure I’m the kind of person who can. But then again, I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m missing out on something wonderful.

I’m a little uncertain about giving meditation (or any other spiritual practice, for that matter) a serious try partly because, I think, I went through many years as a child of trying to participate in worship and prayer at my parents’ church and not succeeding very well. I grew up thinking I should be feeling God’s presence in church or in prayer on my own and sometimes thinking that I did, but then doubting myself almost immediately afterward. I spent a lot of time feeling like a spiritual failure, and one of the best things that happened to me was growing up and coming to believe that I was actually okay with being a spiritual failure, and that a life without believing in God or feeling God’s presence was quite all right with me.

So I remain intrigued by stories of people’s spiritual journeys, particularly those stories from outside the Christian tradition, and I also feel a bit wistful. There’s something in me that responds to these stories and that feels curious about them, and that also thinks I could learn a lot and benefit from picking up with my own journey. And there’s another part that would prefer to stay far away.

At any rate, Gilbert is now on her way to Indonesia for the last part of the book, which is supposed to be about finding pleasure and devotion both. I’m sure to post on it when I’ve finished.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Rilke’s Duino Elegies

51tv9khwakl_aa240_.jpgI have read only the first elegy of ten from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but already I’m glad I picked up this book; the first elegy is quite beautiful. Rilke begins by asking this question: “If I cried out, who could hear me up there, among the angelic orders?” The poem goes on to describe the speaker’s sense of isolation; since he does not believe that angels will hear him, he asks, “Oh who can we turn to, in this need? Not angels / not people, and the cunning animals realize at once / that we aren’t especially at home in the deciphered world / What’s left?”

To this question, the only answer the poem gives is this: “But listen / to that soft blowing … that endless report that grows out of silence. / It rustles toward you from those who died young. When you went into churches / in Naples and Rome didn’t their fates touch you gently?” The speaker is thinking about death and finds himself completely alone except for the “soft blowing,” the “report,” that seems to come from those who died young. He thinks about how strange death is: “Of course it is odd to live no more on the earth / to abandon customs you’ve just begun to get used to / not to give meaning to roses and other such / promising things.”

I think all of this is beautiful, but especially the very end of the poem when the speaker thinks about the purpose of suffering. He ends the poem with this question:

Is the old tale pointless
that tells how music began in the midst of the mourning for Linos
piercing the arid numbness and, in that stunned space
where an almost godlike youth
had suddenly stopped existing, made emptiness vibrate in ways
that thrill us, comfort us, help us now?

My book’s notes tell me that Linos was “a vegetation god similar to Adonis” and that the one mourning Linos was likely Orpheus, “the legendary first poet and musician.” So music and, by extension, art, comes from grief, suffering, and death. Music has made the “emptiness vibrate.” There is no angelic order to comfort us, and there is nothing but silence and the voices of the dead to help us face death, but there is, in consolation, the beauty of music. All this is a question, though — the speaker wonders if the old tale of Linos and Orpheus is pointless after all.

I’m not doing justice to David Young’s translation, however; he’s decided to break each of Rilke’s lines up into three shorter ones, the second and third sections of the line below the first, and each one indented (I can’t reproduce this on WordPress, or at least I can’t without driving myself crazy trying). Young says he was inspired by William Carlos Williams’s triadic line. Here is his reasoning:

As I began to work on the Elegies I found that the long lines of the original were difficult to reproduce in English (or, more strictly speaking, American). Read aloud, they sounded fine; the listener could follow in the reader’s voice the emphases, hesitations, and variations in speed. On the page, however, the long line did not readily suggest the “living” quality, and was one of the features most likely, I came to feel, to make the poem seem like a museum piece.

Williams’s triadic line worked for him because “a long line made up of three shorter, overlapping units makes an extremely flexible instrument of expression. The more I have worked with it, the deeper my respect for it has grown.” I feel that perhaps I shouldn’t like this because it’s messing so much with the original, but, then, translating a poem necessarily means messing with it, and I do like reading the poem in short lines; it’s got a flow to it that’s a pleasure to follow. Two other translators of Rilke, Edward and Vita Sackville-West, wrote this about Rilke’s lines, that they are like “an immense road, admitting many thoughts and images abreast of one another, and seeming to suggest movement in more directions than one,” and I think Young’s translation captures this well.

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Filed under Books, Poetry

Eat, Pray, Love

I’ve now finished the first of three sections in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and although at first I found the writing style a bit glib and Gilbert’s sense of humor a little silly, I now find myself completely won over. The book is about how Gilbert decided to spend a year traveling after suffering through a bitter divorce and a heart-wrenching affair; she travels first to Italy to find pleasure, then to India to practice devotion, and then to Indonesia to try to find a balance between the two.

In the Italian section, Gilbert finds pleasure mainly by eating the best food possible in Rome and every other Italian city she travels to. She also takes joy in learning Italian, first through lessons at a language school and then simply by talking to as many Italians as she can.

Part of what won me over was simply the forthright honesty with which Gilbert tells her story — she describes her horrendous divorce in ways that make it clear just how awful it was but that also don’t ask for your pity and don’t sound whiny or self-indulgent. I think her light, almost glib tone works better when she’s describing something serious; somehow the serious subject matter modulates the voice so that it comes across as brave rather than annoyingly light.

But I also like the ideas she’s exploring, and, as I understand it, the next section on prayer and devotion are even more idea-driven, so I’m looking forward to it. In the Italian section, she writes a lot about the pursuit of pleasure and why she and Americans generally have such a hard time with it. These passages really spoke to me:

Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment … Americans don’t really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype — the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax.

For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too — the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness. Planet Advertising in American orbits completely around the need to convince the uncertain consumer that yes, you have actually warranted a special treat.

I can be like this — not able to enjoy myself and relax and do nothing because I’m haunted by this feeling that I need to be using my time productively, need to be doing something worthwhile, need to be improving myself in some way. I am very much an inheritor of that Puritan guilt, the mindset and work-ethic that turns pleasure-seeking into a sin.

Towards the end of the section, Gilbert writes this:

It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn’t have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.

Isn’t that last sentence beautiful? Seeking beauty in life is not a bad goal to have at all.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Too many books?

I may be getting myself into, oh, just a tiny bit of trouble. I had a nice list of three “currently reading” books going for a while, the Proust, Gaskell, and Brewer, but then I got the urge last weekend to begin another book, and when the Alberto Manguel one on reading didn’t work out, I decided to try some poetry. So I’m now reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies. There are ten elegies, and I’ve finished the first. It’s quite beautiful, and I may post on it soon; for now I’ll say that I’m enjoying the dual-language edition, with German on one page and English on the other. I can read a little German, so I had fun thinking about the decisions the translator made.

So that’s fine, not a big deal, but then I decided to request some books from my library, and one of them turned up much sooner than I thought. I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love yesterday and couldn’t help but begin it right away. I’ve now read about 50 pages and may have trouble putting it down to spend some time with my other books. I find her breezy writing style occasionally just the tiniest bit irritating, but otherwise, this is exactly the kind of book I like — a mix of genres (travel, memoir, spiritual autobiography, food writing) and an appealing persona — she’s open, honest, courageous, and smart. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Okay, so that’s a lot to be reading, but what’s really got me worried is that I’m supposed to be starting Don Quixote soon. I will be starting it next week, definitely, and I’m excited about it, but I think I’d better get a lot of reading done this weekend, or I’ll soon enough find myself in the middle of 6 books, a number I haven’t yet reached and won’t really know how to handle.

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Filed under Books, Reading

Novels on novels, II

I’m a little more than halfway through Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and although I’ve found it slow in places, I think that’s my fault and not the book’s, and there are just as many times I’ve found myself wanting to read on as I’ve been tempted to put the book down. All that’s to say, I’m still reading this book and am glad I’m doing so.

When I was reading Jane Austen’s Sanditon, I noticed that Austen had some things to say about novels and reading, and it turns out Gaskell does too; it seems to be the case that we can judge a character based on what Gaskell tells us about his or her reading habits. (And, really, isn’t that the way the world should be? That all our time spent reading would communicate volumes, so to speak, about what wonderful people we are?)

Mrs. Hamley, for example, is meant to be a sympathetic character; the novel’s heroine, Molly, loves her very much, and she turns out to be a peaceful center in the novel, the other characters missing her very much when she’s gone. And this is how Gaskell describes her reading:

Mrs. Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good.

I love the easy slide here from being a great reader with taste to being a good person.

Molly herself is not a deep reader; when asked if she likes reading, she says, “It depends upon the kind of book … I’m afraid I don’t like ‘steady reading’ as papa calls it.” But she does love poetry and she is capable of losing herself in a Sir Walter Scott novel (The Bride of Lammermoor). She turns out to be suggestible when it comes to reading; when she befriends Roger, another central character, he becomes her personal tutor, suggesting books for her to read and discussing them with her. When Molly and Roger are separated for a while:

He felt something like an affectionate tutor suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and dishearted by the books he had lent her to read …

A little later in the novel another character accuses her of becoming a bluestocking and reading “deep books — all about facts and figures.” She responds that she has come to find those “deep books” interesting. As befits a novel’s heroine, she has proven her ability to learn and change.

Roger has a brother Osborne, and early on we learn that Osborne reads and writes poetry, while Roger:

is not much of a reader; at least, he doesn’t care for poetry and books of romance, or sentiment. He is so fond of natural history; and that takes him, like the Squire, a great deal out of doors; and when he is in, he is always reading scientific books that bear upon his pursuits. He is a good, steady fellow, though …

The family owns a portrait of these brothers showing Osborne deep in a book of poetry, and Roger trying to draw his attention to something outdoors. I get the feeling that Gaskell thought of reading and writing poetry as a feminized pursuit and therefore a little unsuitable for Osborne; it’s fine for Molly and Mrs. Hamley to love poetry, but not for Osborne — he turns out to be a disappointment, a weak and susceptible failure, not “manly” enough. Roger, however, turns out splendidly, becoming his family’s savior; his scientific reading and his love of nature bring him worldly success — he earns some fame for publishing an important scientific paper — but it also seems to prove he is, according to Gaskell, the proper sort of man, energetic, capable, outdoorsy, and scientific, but not poetic. In her “deep” reading of facts and figures, Molly may be venturing a bit into “male” territory, but she is doing so with a man’s guidance, and so this doesn’t really disrupt the proper gender roles.

Molly has a stepmother, Mrs. Gibson, who is — no surprise! — a major pain. And this is what Gaskell says about her reading:

About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.

No, she is not known for her intelligence or her insight. She also reads light novels, ones, not at all like Wives and Daughters, that are meant merely to pass the time, “the dirty dog’s-eared delightful novel[s] from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors.” She considers these novels “little indulgences that were innocent enough in themselves, but which [her] former life had caused her to look upon as sins to be concealed.”

Mrs. Gibson’s daughter, Cynthia, who is a sympathetic character but not entirely trustworthy and with a dark secret in her past (at least I think so — it hasn’t been revealed yet, but there are hints …), turns out not to be much of a reader; she prefers millinery to reading, we learn. Mrs. Gibson tries to get Cynthia to undertake some “improving reading,” but her motives for this are bad ones, and neither Mrs. Gibson or Cynthia persist in this quest to improve Cynthia’s mind.

So, I’m fascinated by the way one’s reading is a clear guide to one’s character in this novel, and the way reading gets gendered. I shall have to see how all this plays out as the novel continues …

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My Don Quixote reading schedule

Cross-posted at Tilting at Windmills

My thought for the Tilting at Windmills blog was that people would choose their own reading schedules to finish the book whenever works best for them, but I also thought I’d share my own plans, and perhaps participants can post theirs in the comments or in a separate post.  Or not — we’re all about flexibility here.  But for me, setting a goal and making it public works pretty well.  It’s worked very well for my Proust reading — I’m still reading about 50 pages of Proust a week and I have been since last July.  I suppose I’m nothing if not methodical.

So I thought 50 pages a week of Don Quixote would work well too; with my edition (the Edith Grossman one) of about 950 pages of text and my plan to begin reading around May 1st, that would take me up into the first week in September.  For long novels that pace works well for me because it gives me plenty of time for other books so I don’t get to feeling bogged down, and it keeps me immersed enough in the book to stay interested and to feel I’m making steady progress.

So — feel free to post whenever you like and on whatever you like, as long as it’s at least loosely DQ-related, and let’s have fun!

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Books on novels

I worked hard on my funny tan lines this weekend. As of now, I’m pretty much ruined for tank tops and swimsuits for the rest of the spring and summer, unless I don’t mind looking a little freakish. I’ve now got a tan line on my upper arms and am working on a good one just above my ankle and a little above my knees. Pretty soon, I’ll have one on my wrists from my cycling gloves.

I went on a lovely hike yesterday with Hobgoblin and his students. (By the way, if any of you want to see a picture of us, check out Hobgoblin’s post — I’m the one in the red t-shirt.) I spent most of the hike talking with one of the students about books. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to spend a Saturday?

But I meant to write about an article from The New York Review of Books, “Storms Over the Novel,” by Hermione Lee. She reviews a whole bunch of books on the novel, and the list itself is intriguing as a potential source of reading material. Here’s the list of books she discusses:

The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley

The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, by Edward Mendelson

How Novels Work, by John Mullan

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, by John Sutherland

The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti

The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, edited by Franco Moretti

Nation & Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day, by Patrick Parrinder

I’ve read the Smiley book, and liked it pretty well, but the others I haven’t yet looked at. I’m intrigued by the Kundera book; I’ve read some good reviews of it, although the one I liked the best was Arthur Phillips’s review from Harper’s magazine where he argued, if I remember correctly, that Kundera doesn’t follow his own prescriptions for what the best novels do, although Phillips admires Kundera’s novels greatly.

The Mendelson book sounds pretty good, although I’m worried about it being a bit preachy; Hermione Lee talks about his “strong, didactic tone,” and this is how she describes Mendelson’s writing:

He makes heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating diagnoses of seven novels by women writers (Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) as humane lessons in how (or how not) to live a moral life.

I like “heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating,” but I’m unsure about the “humane lessons” on living a moral life part. I do think that novels can teach us things, but I’m not sure that living a moral life is one of them.

The John Mullan book is one of the most interesting here; Mullan is an 18C scholar whose criticism I’ve read and liked, and his book on the novel is about form and structure, which I’d like to know more about. Lee calls the book:

a modest, helpful, and sensible diagnosis of novelistic strategies—beginnings and endings, paratexts and intertexts, first- and third-person narratives, present and past tenses, inadequate and multiple narrators, and the like, drawing on mainly well-known examples from Samuel Richardson to Philip Roth.

I’ll probably never read John Sutherland’s book, however; Lee’s comment that “it ought to have been called How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It” would have turned me off if I hadn’t already heard some negative things about the book. He gives bits of advice such as don’t bother to read every word but skim now and then — which I’m highly unlikely ever to follow. No, this book is not for me.

I am tempted, however, although also a bit frightened, by those Franco Moretti books. I came across Volume 1 in my local library, which surprised me, as I didn’t think my library would have anything so scholarly. It looked jam packed with fascinating information about the novel, but it also looked dense and difficult — not a bad thing at all, but it means I’ll need some energy to tackle it. The volumes are collections of articles by many different authors on the novel’s history and its forms. Each volume is almost $100, so it looks like I won’t be owning my own copy any time soon, unfortunately.

Lee doesn’t say a whole lot about the last book on her list by Patrick Parrinder, but Amazon says this:

What is ‘English’ about the English novel, and how has the idea of the English nation been shaped by the writers of fiction? How do the novel’s profound differences from poetry and drama affect its representation of national consciousness? Nation and Novel sets out to answer these questions by tracing English prose fiction from its late medieval origins through its stories of rogues and criminals, family rebellions and suffering heroines, to the present-day novels of immigration.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating?

Lee writes a bit about her experience as chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, and she has good things to say about what makes novels novels — there’s a lot in her article that I haven’t mentioned here, so if you are interested, check it out.

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Filed under Books, Life, Lists

Tilting at Windmills update

Update: check out Sylvia’s Don Quixote buttons for the group! If you’d like, add one to your blog.

For those of you interested in the Don Quixote group reading, I’ve sent out invitations for you to join Tilting at Windmills. Those of you already using WordPress I’ve added to the blog already, so you should have access right now. I’m not sure if WordPress will send you a notifying email or not (although it should, I would think). If you can’t access the blog, let me know.

For those of you who haven’t used WordPress before, you’ll need to create a WordPress account (free and easy), and then you can join. I’ve sent invitations to your email addresses, and if you follow the instructions, I think it’ll work. Let me know if you have any problems joining up.

I tried to include everyone who indicated interest in joining the group, but it’s possible I missed someone — if so, send me an email, and I’ll get an invitation out to you. If you’ve changed your mind and no longer want to be part of the group, let me know that too, and I’ll remove you. My email address is ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com.

Thanks — and I’m looking forward to this!

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Moods

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you’ll know that these last few weeks have been rough for Hobgoblin and me. I’m not going to write about that now, but I do want to write about how my stress levels and moods affect and are affected by my subjects here — my riding and my reading.

I’m struck by the way riding my bike is one of the best ways to improve my mood, but it’s also often the last thing I want to do when I’m feeling badly. I haven’t ridden much over the last couple weeks, a couple times, maybe, but I’d planned on riding much more; part of this is because of things happening in my life and part of it has been the weather. But the longer I go on without riding much, the harder it gets to get back on the bike. I start to feel as though I’ve screwed up all my training, I’ve lost my momentum, I’ve ruined my racing season, and so what’s the point? I get listless and lazy and I just don’t feel like riding.

But riding is exactly what I need — there’s really nothing better than a good long ride or even a good long walk to make me feel so, so much better. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as an adult about what makes me happy, it’s that some kind of outdoor exercise (I don’t like the word “exercise” as it sounds no fun at all, but I’m not thinking of a word I like better) will make all the difference.

So, this afternoon I finally got on my bike; I didn’t want to ride, feeling that laziness coming over me, but the day was just too beautiful to stay indoors. After last week’s epic storm, the weather is finally improving — it was 70 degrees today, without a cloud in the sky.

I set out thinking I’d take it easy, kind of ease into riding again, loosen my muscles up a bit, but mostly just enjoy the day. But my muscles seem to have a mind of their own, because the first hill I came to, I found myself accelerating up it. And I did that on the second hill and the one after that and pretty much every hill until I got home 1 1/2 hours later. Sometimes my body dictates what it will do, and my mind has absolutely no say in it, and today my body insisted that I would work hard. I guess I needed it. Truthfully, I’m not sure I could have ridden slowly if I had tried.

And, no surprise, I felt much, much better during and after the ride than I did before I left. I hear of people talking about being addicted to exercise, and I’ve never quite known what that was like, but perhaps this is what they mean?

Unfortunately, my reading lately has not helped me as much as today’s riding did. I’m feeling a tiny bit restless with Wives and Daughters. I think this is fully my fault and not the book’s. It gets my interest for a chapter, and then it will shift to a different set of characters, and I’ll feel boredom creeping up. I’m noticing interesting things about it — there’s a post on it I’ve been meaning to do for a while — but what I want is pure enjoyment, and I’m not finding it. I’m liking A Sentimental Murder, but I have trouble paying attention to the details at times.

Last night, in an effort to find a new book that would get me out of this slump, I picked up Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary, which I felt sure I would like because I often enjoy that sort of book and because I liked his History of Reading so much. But after reading a few pages, I felt nothing but intense loathing. The idea of the book is to combine Manguel’s re-reading of old favorites with observations on his personal experiences. Usually I like this sort of thing, but last night I just couldn’t figure out why I should care. So the book is going back on the shelf for a time I am more likely to appreciate it, and maybe I’ll give another book a try this evening. Or maybe I’ll just stick with Gaskell.

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m finding that books generally don’t help me cope with hard times. I wish I were the kind of reader who could easily lose herself in a book and forget the world, but I don’t think I am. It’s too hard for me to shake my usual awareness of what’s going on around me. I’m happiest reading when things are calm and I don’t have to work to forget my worries. To get myself out of dwelling obsessively in my mind, I need to be doing something active, something physical.

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Filed under Books, Cycling, Reading

Blogs and the 18C press

John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder describes the way newspapers were run in the 1770s, the decade when the murder that forms the book’s subject took place (it happened in 1779 to be exact). Brewer is writing about the way the story of the murder got written up in the press, the way some of the principle people involved did their best to shape the way the story was told, and the way the story itself shifted over time. Brewer’s description of the state of the newspaper business is quite fascinating:

Since the accession of George III in 1760 the rapid expansion of the press had produced a new kind of newspaper, more opinionated than ever before, fuller of comment and criticism, yet not governed by what today we would consider the professional protocols of impartial reporting and editorial control.

He goes on to describe how, because of a change in the price of paper, it became cheaper to make papers larger and longer, and so newspaper printers desperately needed content to fill those pages. Some of that writing came from very unprofessional (by our standards) part-time news-gatherers, but a lot of it came directly from the public.

This is what strikes me as so interesting — that regular people could easily get themselves published in the newspapers of the day:

This informal process of news-gathering supposed a very different relationship between the press and its readers than the print media have today. Those who read the papers — a broadly based group that extended well beyond the aristocracy, even if it did not include a great many of the poor — were also those who wrote them. The newspaper was not an authoritative organ, written by professionals to offer objective information to the public, but a place where public rumour, news, and intelligence could circulate as if it were printed conversation.

Doesn’t this sound a bit like what happens on blogs? Now let me be clear that I appreciate having professional journalists and our modern editorial apparatus (flawed as it often can be). Brewer talks a lot about the way this openness meant that news could be manipulated and could lead to a “climate of scandal and sensation.” Blogs can and do foster this kind of climate too, of course.

But I’m intrigued at the openness of this system, where many people could have a voice and could see themselves in print. It seems to me that when things are working right, we can get the best of both worlds — a professional press producing reliable newspapers and an open internet where anybody can have a voice. Okay, that’s a very idealistic view of things, I know. But I like the idea of a press or a blogosphere where we can all participate in keeping the “printed conversation” going.

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Overwhelmed by books

Maybe it’s just the end of the semester bearing down on me, but I’m feeling overwhelmed in a number of ways.  Overwhelmed by work, yes, but also by too much information, too much information, even, about books.  Do you have the sense, sometimes, that there is simply way too much to learn and keep track of and explore?

For example, I usually take a look at the New York Times Book Review on Sunday mornings, and this past week they had a special issue on fiction in translation.  That’s great, but I flipped through it, recognizing only one of two of the names, and I couldn’t find the energy to focus on any one review to see if I might like the book enough to record the title and author on my to-be-read list.  It’s not that I’m not interested, really; it’s just that I can’t seem to absorb any new names.  I feel badly about this, because I really would like to learn about more authors, especially international ones, but at some point, my mind gets saturated with new information, and I simply can’t take any more in.

Mostly my experiences of reading book reviews and book blogs are positive ones, but at times, I feel myself pushing back against the flood of information coming from these sources. I look at book lists sometimes and I don’t see a familiar name, or I skim a blog post and don’t recognize the title and author the blogger is discussing, and I find myself wanting to run away rather than to find out more.

I don’t mean to sound whiny, and I’m sure at some point this spring or summer, I’ll be back to adding new books to my TBR list every day, practically, but I do think there are times when I need to retreat a little into familiarity.  This probably accounts for my decision to read Gaskell right now; although I’m not all that familiar with her in particular, I’m very familiar with the kind of novel she writes and her time period.  Victorian novels are a favorite kind of comfort read for me.

Perhaps I should save that special section on fiction in translation, though, for that time I’m itching for something new.

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Reading and riding updates

Those of you who live in the northeast United States can easily guess why I didn’t race yesterday — although I did go watch those super-tough riders who decided to race anyway, in spite of the barely-above-freezing temperatures and pouring rain. I thought about racing, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it when I woke up at six o’clock to the sound of rain hitting the house. But I wanted to support my teammates who have been so supportive of me this season, so I bundled up, grabbed an umbrella and headed over to the racecourse to cheer them on. It was a good race to watch, actually; one of my teammates was in contention to win the entire series in his category, and although he didn’t win it, he came in an excellent third in the race and fourth for the series, and I and a few other people had a lot of fun watching him.

This particular series of races is now over, although a new series begins soon: starting on May 1st, there will be races every Tuesday evening at the local course. I did these last summer and they were fun but hard. We’ll see how it goes this year.

I haven’t ridden much in the last week, and I’m beginning to feel antsy about it. I’ve never really experienced the agitation regular exercisers describe feeling when they can’t exercise — my body usually accepts the rest gratefully. But now I can feel my muscles crying out to be used — I’ve got all this energy, so where are the hills I can climb!? But the rain and the mud on the roads will keep me off the bike for another couple days, I’m afraid.

I do have two new books I’m reading to keep my busy though (oh, yeah, and all those papers I have to grade …). I started Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters about a week ago, and now I’m a couple hundred pages in. It took me a little while to get oriented to the story and the characters, but now I’m fully into it and liking it a lot. I do love a good, long Victorian novel. This one was on my “13 classics to read in 2007″ list, so not only do I enjoy it, but I get to feel that I’m accomplishing something I wanted to accomplish. I read Gaskell’s North and South quite a long time ago, but other than that, Gaskell is an unknown author to me, and someone I’d like to read more from.

And I also began John Brewer’s book A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century, which tells the story of a murder and then analyzes its cultural significance. This will be a fun book, I think — a little bit of a story, some history, some eighteenth-century culture. I just finished a chapter on the state of the press in the 1770s, when the murder took place, and may post more on it later.

And one more thing: Imani sent me a bunch of links on Don Quixote, which I’ve posted on the Tilting at Windmills blog — thanks Imani!  I hope to have invitations out soon for those who wish to join the group.

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Filed under Books, Cycling

One last Johnson post

Well, I’ve finished Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and I feel a real sense of accomplishment looking at the very thick, 1250-page edition I’ve got on my shelves. I’m very glad I read it and that I read the whole thing, but I must say that Sandra‘s suggestion that I might read the abridged version was a good one, and although I didn’t follow her advice, I would recommend an abridgement to someone interested in the book but not … you know … obsessive about the time period or the author or subject.

I’m not usually one for abridgements; in fact, I’m really never one for them, but in this case, I think it’s justifiable if you’re sort of interested in the book but are hesitant to devote 1250 pages worth of time to it. The Life of Johnson is filled with interesting stories about Johnson and his friends; great anecdotes; meditations on reading, writing, religion, politics, and famous people of the time; and all kinds of other things. But it’s also full of lots of dull sections, too. It has long descriptions of legal cases Boswell was working on and sought advice from Johnson about. It has a lot of letters, many of which aren’t all that interesting — letters inquiring about people’s health or settling business details or making travel arrangements. Boswell throws everything into the book that someone completely and utterly obsessed with Johnson’s life would want to see — and I mean completely and utterly obsessed. The level of documentation is rather overwhelming.

It’s not at all like the biographies we read today that try to cover the subject’s life evenly and thoroughly; the section on Johnson’s life before Boswell appeared on the scene is relatively short and the later parts of Johnson’s life after Boswell are long. Rather than trying to create the kind of modern biographical narrative with developed stories and smooth transitions and an overarching argument, The Life is rather choppy, made up of short episodes that move abruptly from one to the next. It’s more like a pastiche of documentation and evidence and anecdote than a narrative. Boswell is half biographer, half editor.

Boswell is also an important part of the biography himself; while telling his first-hand accounts of time spent with Johnson, Boswell reveals much about himself — not only his actions and his half of the conversations and his letters to Johnson, but his capacity for friendship and adoration.

If there is an overarching argument to the book, it’s that while Johnson was not a perfect human being, he was awfully darn close; those who had ever attacked and criticized Johnson come in for their own dose of criticism here. Boswell does try to be fair, pointing out what he sees as Johnson’s faults, but the overriding tone is defensive: yes, Johnson looked odd, he could come across as rude, he would argue for things he didn’t believe in just for the fun of it, he could take pleasure in attacking people, and he held some rather bizarre beliefs, but he was a genius, and that’s what we should remember.

I’m hoping Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task comes in the mail soon, via Book Mooch, because I’m excited to learn about the creation of The Life. That, in itself, is bound to be a marvelous story.

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And now back to books

Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments about Hobgoblin’s father and about my interview; things are beginning to get back to normal or at least are getting closer to it, so it’s time to return to book talk.

I finished two books during the last week, Never Let Me Go and Boswell’s Life of Johnson; I thought I’d write about the former today, as it’s been on my mind ever since I finished it. I loved it so much that I told a work colleague about it who immediately asked if she could borrow my copy, and I told another friend about it who just told me she now has a copy and will read it this weekend. I love it when people listen to me!

One of the things I found so compelling is the way Ishiguro writes about a subject so eerie and frightening and mysterious — human clones — in a manner that’s perfectly normal and straightforward — and beautiful and insightful as well. This could be a regular kind of coming-of-age novel; it’s all about Kathy H.’s relationships with her school friends and teachers and her efforts to understand the world and her role in it. She and her friends fight and make up and try to figure out the lives of their teachers and think about their futures, just as normal children do. And Kathy is a wonderfully appealing protagonist; this is a first-person story, told by a 31-year-old Kathy looking back at her life, and she’s very smart and observant and insightful into relationships and social dynamics and conversations. It’s a pleasure to watch her mind at work, describing the shifting moods and voices of her friends; I love the depth and carefulness with which she describes everything — I love real people and characters both who put that much care into thinking about other people.

But as normal as that all sounds, what Kathy and her friends are trying to come to terms with is the fact that they are clones created so that their organs can be harvested for “regular” people. And I think part of the brilliance of this book is the way Ishiguro slowly reveals the facts about their lives and the way the characters both know the truth about themselves and don’t know it — as children they know some of the facts but they don’t really grasp them and later when they grasp those facts a bit better, they still have ways of talking around them. After leaving school they become “carers,” or caretakers of those in the process of donating organs, and then they become actual “donors” who spend their time recovering from operations until they can no longer recover and they die. Facing the facts about their fates head-on is one of the hardest things the characters ever have to do.

And this brings me to my other reason for loving this book: it strikes me as a book that’s really about having to face death, and while the characters have a particularly cruel death ahead of them, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we are in the same situation. We grow up knowing that we will die, or learning the basic fact of it somewhere so early on that we really don’t know when we learned it, and then spend our lives thinking — or not thinking — about what that basic fact means. This book about clones whose lives have a carefully defined “meaning” to them — they exist to provide healthy organs — makes me think about what meaning my own life has in the face of death — if any. The meaning Ishiguro’s characters find, if there is any at all, is in the moments of companionship as they help each other face their lives. But in this novel moving towards death ultimately means increasing isolation.

It’s a sad book, and a particularly sad one to read while mourning the loss of a family member (I suggested to the Hobgoblin that he read it — but not now), but I found it just the right book for me at the right time. I think I needed something to help me think through just what it was my own life was touching up against.

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Check this out

The Hobgoblin has a new blog.  And I can’t stop playing around with new templates for mine.

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Blog notice and bookish distractions

Update: The Hobgoblin’s father passed away this morning.  The Hobgoblin is doing okay, but please do keep him in your thoughts.

Unfortunately, things are not looking good for the Hobgoblin’s father, so the Hobgoblin will be flying to Houston tomorrow to visit him and will stay through much of the week. I’m planning to write a bookish post now because it’ll distract me nicely for a little while, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to post in the coming days. For those of you who got to know the Hobgoblin through his blog, keep him in your thoughts this week if you would — I’m sure he’d appreciate it.

So, first let me say that I’m 2/3 of the way through Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and I’m loving it. I’ll write more about it when I’ve finished, but for now I just want to say it’s such a pleasure to read — pleasurable in a disturbing way, yes, but pleasurable nonetheless.

But what I really wanted to write about was having finished listening to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs on audio. This is a series with four books in it so far, I believe; I listened to the third one a while back (it was what was available on the library shelf at the time) and this time I went back to the first one. I’ve liked them well enough to want to find the second and fourth books in the series and listen to those too. They make perfect audiobooks, in my opinion, since they are good stories and fairly easy to follow so I don’t have to concentrate too, too hard to follow the story as I’m driving.

The books are labeled mysteries, but they don’t strike me as typical of the genre — although I don’t know the genre very well. But the interest in them, for me at least, has more to do with the main character and the time period, World War I and afterward, rather than the mystery Maisie has to solve, which, in the first novel, gets solved fairly early and then the focus shifts elsewhere.

This is really the story of how Maisie grew up and how she became a “psychologist and investigator,” as her office door proclaims. Her story strikes me as perhaps not quite believable, but it’s an appealing story anyway. She is the daughter of a working-class father who sells vegetables for a living; after her mother dies, her father places her into service and shortly thereafter the family she now works for discovers her intelligence and her interest in reading. They provide her with an education, which eventually allows her to shift from being a personal maid to focusing solely on her studies. She attends university, and then World War I begins. Maisie serves as a nurse during the war, seeing much suffering that has left her with many painful memories.

But this story is actually sandwiched between sections that tell about Maisie’s life after the war where she is establishing her business investigating cases often of a personal nature — her first case begins as an investigation into a possible marital infidelity. This investigation soon takes Maisie mentally back into the war period as she investigates a series of mysterious suicides amongst war veterans. Along the way to solving her case, she must face her own personal history and the losses she suffered in the war.

Maisie is an appealing character: smart, talented, ambitious, and haunted by the past. She is, perhaps, too good to be true, but I’m willing to forgive that. And the material about the war is very interesting; Winspear gives a lot of detail about what it was like to be a nurse in France, the training that Maisie went through and what her actual work was like at the front. And what happens after the war is fascinating too, the way the class structure that was so rigid before the war (although it did bend enough to allow Maisie to rise from her working-class origins) begins to crumble.

So if you’re looking for an enjoyable read (or listen) with a historical focus, I think you might like this series.

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Your (almost) weekly Johnson post

I’m nearing the end of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and although I’m now feeling ready to move on, I will miss this book when I’m finished — it’s been such a nice almost daily companion for the last few months.

Death has been a recurring theme throughout the book, and, not surprisingly, it is appearing more and more often as Johnson ages — he talks about fearing death and not believing those who claim to face it with courage. He recognizes that it’s natural to fear death, but he also offers some wisdom as to how best to face it (this is Boswell’s recounting of Johnson’s conversation):

It is by contemplating a large mass of human existence, that a man, while he sets a just value on his own life, does not think of his death as annihilating all that is great and pleasing in the world, as if actually contained in his mind … It must be acknowledged, however, that Pope’s plaintive reflection, that all things would be as gay as ever, on the day of his death, is natural and common. We are apt to transfer to all around us our own gloom, without considering that at any given point of time there is, perhaps, as much youth and gaiety in the world as at another … Let us guard against imagining that there is an end of felicity upon earth, when we ourselves grow old, or are unhappy.

This attempt to keep a larger view of life — to realize that we are only a very, very small part of everything that exists — is a note Johnson frequently sounds. And I think it can be comforting to keep this larger view, especially when facing a particularly trying time. In the larger scheme of things, what does this little disturbance matter? On the other hand, when it comes to our own death, what else can we do but think of it as complete annihilation? Does it matter to me that the world goes on after I’m gone? Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live before a particular author existed — to not know about Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf because you lived before them, or to not know about the novel because you lived before it developed — and that makes me think about what I’ll miss. What wonderful writer will appear 100 or 200 years from now that I’ll never know about?

But as much as Johnson provokes gloomy thoughts of this sort, he also can be very good at putting them to rest. When Boswell complains to Johnson in a letter that he has “been troubled by a recurrence of the perplexing question of Liberty and Necessity,” this is Johnson’s response:

I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy of misery. What have you to do with Liberty and Necessity? Or what more than to hold your tongue about it? Do not doubt but I shall be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part about you but your affectation of distress.

Something about this combination of affection and gentle chastisement appeals to me. With problems that we can do absolutely nothing about, what use is there to dwell on them?

But lest you think The Life is all seriousness, I’ll include this amusing story. I’m not finding The Life terribly funny, but I did laugh out loud when I read this — speaking of the wife of a well-known author, Johnson says:

” … the woman had a bottom of good sense.” The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with a perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slyly hid her face behind a lady’s back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, “Where’s the merriment?” Then collecting himself, and looking awful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, “I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;” as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.

Can you imagine?

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On reading a friend’s novel

I’m reading a good friend’s novel-in-progress. She’s sent me the first part, about 100 pages, to read and give feedback on, and I’m finding it such a pleasure to do. Now, admittedly, reading and giving feedback on somebody’s novel is the kind of thing that makes me nervous. I’m not worried about not liking the book, at least in this case — I know this friend’s writing well enough to know that I’ll like it — but I do worry about getting it wrong, somehow, missing something important, or providing feedback that doesn’t make sense or isn’t helpful. Giving this kind of feedback is really kind of a test of one’s reading skills, not to mention friendship-negotiating skills — I need to make sure I’m just as clear about what I like as I am about what I think needs work.

But as I read, I feel more confident about it. I’m finding things to say — confusing spots, or places the transitions aren’t clear — but mostly I’m enjoying it and appreciating what a good novel it is. There’s a reason this author and I are good friends, after all, and it’s partly because we often like the same kinds of books, the same ideas and themes, the same kind of narrative voice. The novel is a consciousness-driven one; not much takes place, at least so far, in terms of plot, but the narrator follows the characters’ thoughts in great detail, and in the 100 pages I’ve read so far, I’ve learned a ton about the relationships amongst the characters, their ways of thinking, their worries and preoccupations.

I only know the first 100 pages, but so far the story is about a family, all the members of which are unhappy with one another for various reasons. It takes place entirely in their house and in the yard outside it. This can feel claustrophobic at times, which is very much the point — the novel seems to be about the give-and-take of family life and how people can come to feel trapped by it.

The novel is partly autobiographical, too, so I have the fun of reading it and enjoying it plus recognizing the characters and comparing them to their real-life counterparts. Mostly, though, in addition to enjoying it as a work of art, I like learning something about my friend — not the autobiographical details but the shape and meaning she’s given to them.

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Novels on novels

It always amuses and fascinates me when novelists comment on novels and novel reading in their novels — this happens an awful lot in the 18C when the novel is just becoming an established genre and people were really anxious about what it meant and how it was changing the culture of reading. It happens also in Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel Sanditon (1817).

Charlotte, the novel’s heroine, has decided that Sir Edward, who has spent some time flirting with her, is a complete idiot (my words, not hers), and she knows this partly because of the way he talks about novels. Sir Edward claims he is “no indiscriminate novel-reader,” staying away from “the mere trash of the common circulating library,” but when Charlotte asks him what kind of novels he likes to read, he has a peculiar answer:

You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn. — In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; — we distil nothing which can add to science. — You understand me I’m sure?

Charlotte astutely replies, “I am not quite certain that I do” and asks him a follow-up question. His answer is an even longer string of sentences that make little sense, including this extraordinary one:

They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomptible decision — and even when the event is plainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him…

Sir Edward’s problem is that he is a bad reader. He claims to be a good reader and to read only “quality” novels, but the narrator tells us otherwise:

The truth was that Sir Edward whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.

It’s not just that he’s read too many sentimental novels (which were extremely popular at the time), but that he’s not smart enough to make proper sense of them. He has a “perversity of judgment” that makes him sympathize with the villain when it’s clear that’s not what the author wanted. And he thinks reading well means pulling out every big word he can find and then throwing it into casual conversation — which results in the kind of atrocious sentence I quoted above.

Austen singles out Richardson in particular — Sir Edward is too fond of Richardson and those who have imitated Richardson:

His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character.

All of this amuses me because Austen was a Richardson fan herself, and, of course, she’s a producer of the novels that she’s here pointing out the dangers of. She learned a lot from Richardson, after all.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that novelists were very concerned about what novels were supposed to be, what makes a good novel or a bad novel, what novel-reading would do to people’s minds, and how people would interpret their own novels. Were their readers going to be smart and savvy, or stupid like Sir Edward?

So, many novelists have passages like this one from Sanditon where they seem intent on separating their own good, wholesome novels from those bad ones that have pernicious effects. And in these kinds of passages, they are also asking us to be smart readers — we are supposed to be more like Charlotte than like Sir Edward, to read this passage and condemn Sir Edward and determine not to be foolish like him. What novelist doesn’t want to have smart readers, after all, so why not throw in passages like this one that indicate to us how we should read — or how we shouldn’t?

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