Friday, February 09, 2007

Somewhere in the middle

Beginning new books is a pleasure exceeded only by finishing them. I am in the middle of so many books, I decided to make a brief list of them.

The Literary Discipline by John Erskine--I picked this up again this week and continued reading about Erskine's opinions of art. I was struck by the way his comments about art, nature, and primitivism resonate with what some of what I've been reading in Dawn To Decadence. Not surprising, I suppose, since Barzun was a student of Erskine's in some sense.

For art is the use of the materials of life for human benefit, a method employed for a premeditated end in a world which except for art might seem given over to chance. Because it is a rearrangement and a control of nature to effect the will of man, life itself, so far as it becomes civilized, becomes an art.

Next, of course, I should mention Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. I'm only on page 57 of some 800 pages, but it feels as if I've already traveled a long way.

For natures inclined to mysticism, Plato satisfied a strong desire akin to the Reformers' for a pure faith. Michelangelo, for example, whose hand was subdued to matter like any ditch digger's, valued his works not for their artistic merit, as we do, but for the ideal beauty that he put into them and that, for him, made their materiality disappear....To all this the materialist opposition says that the ideal does not exist apart from the natural, the abstract from the concrete.

I am, of course, also in the middle of my Polish book, W pustyni w puszczy by Henryk Sienkiewicz, but I shall spare you all a quote from that book.

Yet another non-fiction book I am reading is School Education by Charlotte Mason. She has so much to say, so many principles to discuss, and she brings them all to the table and applies them to education. If you find that sort of thing's fascinating.

The abuse of authority gives us the slave and despot , but slavery and despotism could not exist except that they are founded upon elemental principles in human nature. We all have it in us to serve or to rule as occasion demands.

In addition to being in the midst of several non-fiction books, I am in the middle of fiction, too.

The everlasting War and Peace has been in my "current reading" pile since June of last year. Pierre has been my favorite from the beginning.

Pierre had been educated abroad, and the soiree of Anna Pavlovna's was the first he had ever attended in Russia. He knew that all the intelligentsia of Petersburg was assembled there, and like a child in a toyshop, he was dazzled and continually fearful of missing any clever conversation there was to be heard.

I've started and set aside A can of Peas by Traci DePree, because, in spite of the fact that this novel plays around with time, weaving the past into the present (a device I always enjoy), I find much of the story trite to the point of absurdity.

"You see this field??"

Peter nodded as the scent of dark, rich earth and fresh-cut peas lingered in the air.

"People are like these here peas. They come in all sizes, you know. Some are big, some small. There's floaters and sinkers, but it takes all kinds working together and helping each other out. That's what makes a family, a town, work."

I'm also reading The Secret, by Eva Hoffman--the same Eva Hoffman who wrote Lost in Translation, which I mentioned a few days ago. Although I began this book most recently of the pile, it also most likely to be the first one finished.

But then he let on that the Project was actually a novel. When I could bring myself to ask him what it was about, he answered in an insulted voice that it wasn't "about" anything. It was itself. He'd only say it was called The Supreme Fiction, and that it had epic scope and a large and varied cast of characters. His ambition was to create people so three-or-more-dimensional, so undeniably vital, that they'd put the poor shallow creatures we'd become to shame. They'd show the reader the extent of our diminishment.

I suppose you could technically say that I'm in the midst of Henry Esmond by Thackeray as well, but I'm not sure it counts if you don't plan to finish the book, and I really do think I'm abandoning it.

Instead, for my Victorian lit fix, I'm reading The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, which is a hilarious "diary" of a lower-middle class Victorian clerk with delusions of grandeur...and intelligence...and taste...and pretty much every other kind of delusion you can imagine.

I felt as if we had been invited to the Mansion House by one who did not know the Lord Mayor himself. Crowds arrived, and I shall never forget the grand sight. My humble pen can never describe it. I was a little annoyed with Carrie, who kept saying, "isn't it a pity we don't know anybody?"

And with all that whirling around in my head, I have no business casting a greedy eye at the to-be-read stack, nor thinking about starting yet another book of any kind. However, some of these books are long-term projects that aren't intending to be finished soon, and others, like The Diary of a Nobody, are being read in measured portions. I will soon be ready to begin another novel or biography.

I feel quite surrounded by riches of literature, history, and philosophy. Sometimes being in the middle can be good, too.


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