What I’m Reading

A description of the books and articles I’m currently reading.

The Sounds of Poetry

Posted on Dec 19, 2010 | 0 comments

by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.  A great primer on the rhythms and structures of traditional, blank, and free verse.

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Breaking The Child’s Spirit

Posted on Dec 12, 2010 | 0 comments

There is a striking passage in George Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens.  He is writing about David Copperfield.  It’s truly amazing how much attitudes have changed toward child rearing in the last 150 years.  Orwell writes,

In Dicken’s youth children were still being “solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen,” and it was not so long since boys of thirteen had been hanged for petty theft.  The doctrine of “breaking the child’s spirit” was in full vigour, and The Fairchild Family was a standard book for children till late into the century.  This evil book is now issued in pretty-pretty expurgated editions, but it is well worth reading in the original version.  It gives one some idea of the lengths to which child-discipline was sometimes carried.

Mr. Fairchild, for instance, when he catches his children quarreling, first thrashes them, reciting Doctor Watt’s “Let dogs delight to bark and bite” between blows of the cane, and then takes them to spend the afternoon beneath a gibbet where the rotting corpse of a murderer is hanging. 

Orwell’s own experience at Crossgates, a public boarding school, was similar, sadly, to what Dickens describes.  He was obviously greatly affected by it.

I’m looking for a copy of The Fairchild Family to read now ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_the_Fairchild_Family), (not for advice!).

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Tropic of Cancer

Posted on Dec 12, 2010 | 0 comments

By Henry Miller.

A fascinating essay called Inside The Whale by Orwell put me on to this novel.  Orwell argues that the arrival of Tropic of Cancer in 1935 signalled a new ethic in literature, a call to “give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.”  He puts the book in context as it comes out between the great wars, after the Nature poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge) and the modernists (Joyce, Eliot).  He says, 

…he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.

Intriguing.  Orwell also mentions A.E. Housman and describes him as a “country” poet, “his poems are full of the charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place-names, Clunton and Clunbury, Knighton, Ludlow…”  I had to check that out too, and enjoyed reading Housman’s Shropshire Lad.  I can see why it is derided as simplistic, manly, and patriotic, but it’s a fun read.

Orwell says,

At bottom it is always a writer’s tendency, his “purpose,” his “message,”, that makes him liked or disliked.  The proof of this is the extreme difficulty of seeing any literary merit in a book that seriously damages your deepest beliefs.  And no book is ever truly neutral.

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Wallace Stevens

Posted on Dec 12, 2010 | 0 comments

the Collected Poetry.

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A Collection of Essays

Posted on Oct 29, 2010 | 0 comments

by George Orwell.

At the Writer’s Fest this year I went to the Penprick of Conscience panel discussion, with writers Karen Connelly, Deborah Ellis, Steven Heighton, and Larry Scanlan.  It was a great discussion on the topic of personal and political engagement in the act of writing, lots of interesting points made, and amazing stories told.   

Karen Connelly described her time in Burma and how she spent time living in a house that happened to have a number of George Orwell books in its library, including his novel Burmese Days.  She read and re-read the books, comparing Orwell’s experiences in Burma with her own.  She also read his essay Why I Write.  She quoted from that essay,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.  My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.  When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

Connelly reminded me of how much I admire and appreciate Orwell.  These words are invigorating to me because I feel like I have the same initial motivation to write – even though it is unfashionable to say so in our age, when writing that is not purely literary in its intention is looked at with suspicion, if not scorn.  It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone and I feel some kinship with the great man.

Now, back to my brand new copy of Orwell’s A Collection of Essays (including Why I Write)…

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Posted on Oct 28, 2010 | 0 comments

by Raymond Carver.  Short story master.

Bleak, spare, and gripping.  Alcoholism a persistent theme (he wrote what he knew).  Possibly not the best reading if you’re already feeling a little down.

Before Cathedral I picked up, by mistake, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.   Very different, despite the prevalence of booze in both.

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