What’s on my reading shelf for the third week of July:
- The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford—Like Spufford’s other books this one is hard to categorize. On the surface, it is simply a memoir of childhood reading, an autobiography told through books. But along the way, Spufford delves into the origins of his favorite boyhood reads, the pleasures of losing oneself to the spell of a novel, and the implications of a life lived with books. Spufford’s words at the end of the first chapter give a feel for the whole work:
What follows is more about books than it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward biography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us, and the related borders of what’s acceptable; their potent images, calling on more in us than the responses we will ourselves to have, dart new bridges into being between our conscious and unconscious minds, between what we know we know, and the knowledge we cannot examine without thinking. They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination (21-22).
- Readers of all sorts will find a good friend in Spufford. I recommend this book to those who can’t imagine life without those sweet hours given to books. The spouses of such people may want to read this as well. (Amazon: Print)
- The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad—This is the story of the overweight Mr. Verloc, a shop owner who also provides information to British intelligence services about the anarchist groups that meet at his house. When his superiors threaten to stop paying him unless he can stir up these groups to take action by planting a bomb, Mr. Verloc begins a desperate attempt to preserve his livelihood. The result is tragically ironic and reveals the ultimate futility of terrorism.
- Conrad’s novel explores the perverse logic of the anarchist (or terrorist), who thinks that the only answer to existing injustices is to create new injustices. The anarchists in Conrad’s novel tend toward the hypocritical and inactive. They meet to voice their anger against capitalism, but then go home to the rich widows who care for them. Along the way, Conrad shows that though some terrorists act out of a pure idealism, most revolutionaries are motivated simply by resentment and envy.
- This book is a good summer read (it is a spy novel, after all). I recommend it to those interested in a literary exploration of the motivations of revolution. I especially recommend it to those who lean in revolutionary directions: Occupy Wall Street sympathizers, AR-15 hoarders, etc. Conrad says much that will challenge your view of the world and the steps you think you will have to take to achieve your ideal. (Amazon: Print, Kindle)
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—Sir Gawain is easily one of the best poems from the medieval period, as well as one of the brightest gems in English literature. It blends the genres of courtly romance with fairy-tale. The result is nothing less than a new myth that has instructed and ennobled generations of readers.
- The poem begins when a mysterious Green Knight interrupts the New Year’s Feast of King Arthur’s court. He proposes an irrational Beheading Game: you cut off my head, and I’ll cut off yours. The proposal is so weird that Arthur’s knights are stunned silent—except Sir Gawain, who gladly accepts. His blow is clean and strong, and his axe bites into the floor. But the Green Knight simply grabs his head in hand, reminds Gawain to meet him in a year and a day to receive a similar blow, and departs.
- There are several good translations of this poem, even one by J.R.R. Tolkien. Simon Armitage’s new verse translation seeks to preserve the alliterative poetics of the original, yet also produce a beautiful contemporary translation that keeps the imagery of the original. Seamus Heaney, who wrote a beautiful translation of Beowulf, recommends Armitage’s translation. He writes, “[It] drives the force of the old poem through the green Armitage fuse. Highly charged work.”
- I recommend this poem to everyone. Read Spufford’s book and The Secret Agent if they interest you. Read Sir Gawain because you are human. (Amazon: Print, Kindle)
Question: What are you reading this week?