Tag Archives: thoughts

What I’ve Been Reading

Lately school has tipped into the “overwhelming” stage of the year, especially with the bar exam coming up (not really coming up–I have until the beginning of June to start worrying about the real studying) but I’m in the process of finishing up my application and one class I have is a constant, nagging reminder about how much I’m going to have to re-learn and how hard it’s going to be.

As a consequence, I haven’t really wanted to read much by way of “serious” literature.

I read Heat Wave, the first Castle tie-in, ostensibly written by Richard Castle himself–it’s a “cute” conceit, that the novelist main character of the TV series has actually published his Jameson Rook/Nikki Heat books in the real world. The writing was about what I expected, it seems kind of run of the mill “popular mystery/thriller” style, with a number of ridiculous cliches sprinkled liberally throughout. It was kind of fun as a fan of the show to try and pick out moments inspired by tidbits from the episode, but that couldn’t really make up for the predictable plot (twist, another twist, big twist at the end) and the fact that if you are at all a fan of mystery or crime novels (I am) you will be able to pick out the murderer as soon as that character appears for the first time. I started the second book, Naked Heat, but lost interest a few pages in and just put it down, never to pick up again.

Also read recently, the Medicus series (murder mysteries where the main character is an army doctor set in Roman Britain? yes please) and enjoyed them. They are by R. S. Downie but I don’t have much to say about those, other than that they are entertaining murder mysteries, and not bad as historical novels, from what I can tell (and I’m very picky about historical novels–these strike a good balance between modern affectations and humor, and period atmosphere).

ALSO reading, an annotated addition of Pride & Prejudice. P&P is my “chicken soup” reading, what I tend to pick up when I’m feeling down, and this has been fun. Some of the annotations are a little condescending (yes, I KNOW the dialogue is ironic, you don’t need to explain to me WHY) but some of the historical information and extra detail they provide is the kind of thing I like to know. So I alternate between interest and frustration.

At some point, I will go back to reading serious literature and things I haven’t read 50,000 times already.


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I’ve been feeling rather uninspired lately, as evidenced by the amount of fantasy novels and murder mysteries that I’ve been reading, and the amount of books declining. In general, however, by the end of the school day I either don’t have the time or energy to read, or I have to catch up on emails, or I just have absolutely no attention span. There’s also the matter of my own writing, which has stalled as well… rather depressingly. I had a good momentum on both things going for a while, but school always interferes once it picks up again.

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Apologies for absence

Apologies for my absence. The weather here lately has been so hot, so sticky, so cloying that I haven’t felt like doing much of anything besides laying on the couch in between two fans. And then we’ve been to Sea Isle City where I meant to read but wasn’t able to because we spent all of our time either in the ocean or walking along the beach trying not to step on jellyfish, and now we’re leaving for Florida today. We’re staying longer and it will be a less frenetic experience. The idea of reading on the beach in the sun is an attractive one. Hopefully I’ll have something more to write soon.

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A note on translation

I’m usually very picky about translations of books that I read, especially when I find a translator or translation that I really love. For example I rarely read any other translations if Pevear and Volokhonsky have done one (though I do own two editions of War and Peace but that’s mostly because I had my first one before theirs was published). I hadn’t even thought about another translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum because I was perfectly satisfied with Manheim’s. Even went so far, when I picked up Breon Mitchell’s new translation, to think: do I really need to read this? So far, though, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. It’s almost like reading a totally new book. A team of translators of all different languages worked closely with Grass to try and restore his voice (I hadn’t even known that Manheim had left out a lot of things and done a more “literal” rendering.) Also, this section in Mitchell’s afterword really made me rethink branching out into other translators of different works that I love:

It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of the existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.

We translate great works because they deserve it–becuase the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.

It’s always a good thing to widen your horizons, especially when you haven’t even realized how close-minded you’d been.

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Italo Calvino — If on a winter’s night a traveler

Picking up If on a winter’s night a traveler, you can immediately tell that Calvino is ready to lead you on a merry ride. He addresses the reader directly, teasing them about their reactions to reading the book–but this isn’t what the author’s voice sounds like at all, even though he’s known for changing it book to book! It’s a strange and challenging book but recognizably Calvino, simply because you can just feel the love of books radiating from it. For example, this passage, I loved:

Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you, But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books that Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of othe fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexpicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified…

Anyone who’s ever spent time in a bookstore knows that Calvino got it right, that’s exactly the sort of books lurking to find you in a bookstore. The “plot” follows two readers as they try to actually finish the titular story, which ends up being several other stories, all leading to a stunning conclusion. It’s a very clever book but somehow manages to not be annoying. I loved it.

This isn’t going to be a review however so much as it will just be a few random thoughts I had while reading it. I reacted very strongly to the paragraph that I quoted above and so did a number of people who I know love books. Recently I lent my boyfriend (who has been asking me for book recommendations but never enjoys what I recommend him) Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, whose opening paragraphs is also one of my favorites of all time, a sweeping quote about the power that a book can have on one person. My boyfriend, however, thought it was ridiculous. “Man, all I got out of it was that this guy REALLY LOVES this book and won’t shut up about it.” He showed it his coworkers, who are all science types, and they all had similar reactions. So when he asked me what I was reading while I was finishing up If on a winter’s night a traveler I instantly got defensive and hid it from him. There are certain books, it seems, that you really have to LOVE BOOKS in order to enjoy. And that makes me kind of sad–that so many people don’t feel that way.

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On commonplace books and 18th century literature

Since the next few books–The Savage Detectives and 2666–are going to take me a little longer to get through, I thought I would intersperse them with a few things besides book reviews.

When I was younger I was very set in my ways about what I read. While my reading covered a lot of topics (various kinds of fiction, several historical periods, poetry), when I had a bad experience with a book, I would dismiss it out of hand and not give anything similar another chance. For example, I thought that anything written pre-1800 and post-1560s was boring.

When I started college, I was frustrated with most of the entry-level English literature courses that I took. A lot of them covered books I’d already read, so not only was I annoyed that I wasn’t learning anything new, but the professors were trying to cover too much material in too short of a time, and it was never enough to hold my interest, the way that the books were taught. It wasn’t until some of the upper level courses that I really started to enjoy myself.

But the real turning point for me, at least in regard to being more open-minded about certain periods of literature that I neglected, was a course that I took with Professor Olmert in my sophomore or junior year (I can’t remember which one unfortunately). Originally, I’d only signed up for the course–British Literature from 1688 to 1800–because it was an upper level course that fit in with the rest of my schedule, and I remember dreading it, absolutely sure that in no way would I enjoy this boring period of writing. Of course I would end up eating my words.

I’m not sure if it was because Professor Olmert’s enthusiasm for all things history-related was so infectious, because I had reached a point in my life where I was more receptive to holding back my judgments and trying new things, or the style of teaching encouraged discussion and tapped into my love of history, which made reading the literature more immediate and enjoyable, but I ended up loving the class and almost everything that we read in it. If you had asked me a year before that if I would have enjoyed Tristram Shandy I would probably have laughed in your face. And here I was, reading it, enjoying it, and then actually going on to seek out more works in this period than we covered in the class… and some of those authors, Fanny Burney included, rank among my favorites. A whole new world of wonderful books that I would have passed over as “boring,” now unlocked. Since then, I’ve tried not to make the same mistake in assumptions about certain periods of writing.

Professor Olmert also encouraged us to keep commonplace books, scrapbooks of interesting articles we’d read or quotes we’d encountered, a way to compile all of the interesting, random little tidbits that made up our intellectual lives, a practice that I have tried (sporadically, but constantly) to keep up since those classes.

So for those things, at least, I am incredibly thankful–while college might not have been the experience I thought it was going to be, I took some important things away from it, at least.


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Although I read a lot (as you may have guessed) I always feel like I’m stupid and not absorbing it properly, and that I don’t express my thoughts about what I’m reading properly. This has been especially exacerbated since I started law school, when I discovered that no, I am definitely not as smart as I thought I was. A little bit of that has transferred over to the rest of my life as well. It makes me sad to think of how broad but shallow my depth of knowledge really is.


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