Thursday, November 8, 2018

October 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month. You can see past lists here:

September 2018 Reads
August 2018 Reads
July 2018 Reads

Well, I'm making up for my very frivilous book reading all summer with some serious reads this fall. (And much shorter lists, you'll note.)

Poetry. I won't say I resumed my poetry in the morning routine, since it didn't last longer than a week or two—as much time as it took to read William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. A few Romantic poets were cited in the series of environmental literature lectures I've been so very slowly watching, and this was the only one I happened to have on my shelf. (Wordsworth and Shelley, I'll be looking for you at used bookstores.) What do I have to say about it? Lots of sort of lion-and-lamb religious sentimentality, especially in Innocence. A little more clear-eyed view of the inequalities of the Victorian world in Experience (little chimney sweeps feature regularly). As I've said before, I don't know enough about poetry to give a good critique, and while I didn't hate it, I can't say I feel compelled to pick it up and read it again anytime soon, though I would love to see some of Blake's original illustrated versions of the poems.

Nonfiction. Many years (we won't say how many) after first learning about Transcendentalism in high school, I finally read Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I now understand why everyone talks about Emerson but no one ever actually suggests you read him. Because all through this book? He didn't really say much of anything. Lots of vague generalizations. There are some nice aphorisms, like "But if a man were to be alone, let him look at the stars." I have no idea what that means, but it sounds nice and would look good on one of those Craftsman style fireplace tiles. Maybe part of my problem with the book is that whoever owned my copy before me underlined and annotated the text, by turns rapturously agreeing and vehemently arguing with Emerson. She (I say "she" because of the handwriting) obviously came at the text from conservative Christian point of view and got very bent out of shape when Emerson personified Nature, as a sentient entity ("humanism!!!" she shouted in the margins). Maybe if I hadn't been so distracted and entertained by her comments, I'd have paid more attention to what Emerson had to say. Then again, maybe I wouldn't.

I read Nature as a prelude to that most famous book by Emerson's friend, disciple, and squatter. I will confess here to having never read Walden before. I've started it many times, but never gotten much beyond the initial chapters of nickel-and-diming the building of the cabin and the cost of buying beans. I just never felt it was relevant to my life, and it seemed like a lot of senseless rambling. This time, however, the book struck a chord with me. Maybe because I was coming to the end of my own personal Walden, two years plus a bit (Thoreau spent two years at the pond, while writing the book to follow the seasons of a single year) at home, spending time reading, writing, and appreciating nature. I wasn't—and never will be—as free of responsibility as old Hank, but it was perhaps as close as I'll get to the simple life. It was very interesting to read Thoreau's musings on work—that the more you work the more stuff (and food) you need, or think you need, so then you have to work more to maintain those things and get more things—as I prepared to return to the working life.

"I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and rather not a new wearer of clothes," he writes. Oh, dear, becasue my year of now shopping, which had not been going all that well anyway, went all to hell with the prospect of a new job and nothing to wear to it.

I also thought his musings on the content of newspapers as really just gossip very relevant to social media. And I was amused by his taking of "homeopathic doses" of gossip by walking into town each afternoon. (The occasional dip into Facebook can serve the same purpose, no?)

And, of course his descriptions of the natural world are just outstanding. There's a passage on owls that particularly stood out for me. It's too long to quote here, but I loved the line: "I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men." I wonder what my anonymous annotator of Emerson would have to say about Thoreau? (Humanist!!! Pagan!!!).

Edited: A comment I got on FB informed me that I wasn't clear in this description about whether I'd enjoyed reading Walden. Here's how I responded: 
"I did find it enjoyable. This time. A dozen other times I wanted to throw it across the room. HDT struck me as boring, rambling, pompous, and entitled. But this time he was funny, self-deprecating, and self-contradictory (an unreliable narrator in the most endearing way) and honestly rapturous about the natural world. I don’t know what changed, but I think it was me not him."
Read-Aloud. Finally, the boys and I are nearing the end of our Amelia Peabody series, finishing up Children of the Storm in October. This one took us longer than usual—I think the start of the school year knocked us off our game—and it had a kind of complex plot, but it's a good one with lots of thrilling moments and twists. Having reread all these books at least twice over the past five years and reading them again now, I can see clues are planted along the way, all of which I of course missed the first time (or two or three) that I read the books.

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