Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ten Formative Books: Part II

This is a continuation of Thursday’s post on formative books. The challenge, issued by Mental Multivitamin, was to compile “a list of ten books that reveals something about you […] ten books above all others that have shaped or even defined you.” Below are items six through ten on my list.

6. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French:
It was the mid-1980s, but I was dressing like a hippie, listening to a lot of Janis Joplin, and reading feminist tracts from the early 70s by the likes of Robin Morgan, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer. I was nostalgic for a cultural moment I had never experienced. I think that I was seeking political community in those books. Eventually I found my political community at the campus women’s centre. But until then, the book that brought the origins and the progress of second wave feminism most vividly to life for me was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

7. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco:
While I was getting political sustenance from 1970s feminism, I was getting literary inspiration from the expatriate writers of 1920s Paris. I immersed myself in memoirs, biographies, literary histories and criticism, novels, stories, and poems (just a sampling: Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together; Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris; Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast; Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank; Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation; Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday; Djuna Barnes, Nightwood; Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight). I could describe several of those books as formative, but Glassco’s memoirs had a particular impact on me. I fancied myself a poet then and I fear I was overly earnest about it. Glassco’s irreverent memoir of the two years that he spent on the fringes of that celebrated expatriate community cut through a lot of literary pretensions including my own. I realized that I had rather more in common with the eighteen-year-old John Glassco who drank more than he wrote in Paris than I did with the more famous literary luminaries with whom he hung about. At the same time, it was reassuring to know that Glassco had eventually buckled down and made a name for himself as a poet, as well as transforming the experiences of his dissolute youth in Paris into a very entertaining book.

8. The Manticore by Robertson Davies:
I’ve always appreciated the gateways that Davies’ novels provide into disparate fields of knowledge whether Arthurian legends, the mysteries of the tarot, or the mechanics of art restoration. What could be distracting digressions in the work of a lesser writer almost always prove to be of integral importance and of consuming interest in a Davies’ novel. I’m a fan of all of Davies work but I have a particular fondness for The Manticore because it generated my fascination with Jungian psychology.

9. Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx:
My graduate supervisor insisted that I read volume one of Capital. I was deeply engaged with a number of theorists who were deeply engaged with Marx, but I had read very little of his work for myself. Just the odd bit of early Marx in connection with undergraduate sociology courses. Go back to the original, my supervisor exhorted, and make up your own mind about what he had to say. It took me a good six months to read it, though most of that time was taken up with procrastination rather than with actual reading. I stalled very near the beginning when faced with the equations that are meant to illuminate the function of the commodity. I’m not good with numbers and those equations scared me. I tried to trick myself into it by, for example, embarking on long train journeys with nothing but Marx's tome to read. On one trip to New York, my travelling companion made great sport of the fact that she caught me reading the safety instruction booklet in the pocket of the seat in front of me in order to avoid resorting to Capital. I’m not sure what turned it around, but the day I finally made it past the equations I was hooked. Marx’s theories fascinated me and his prose had the grand sweep of a nineteenth century novel. I couldn’t put it down. Reading volume one of Capital was undoubtedly a formative experience on at least two counts. First, although I have my quarrels with Marx and with various strains of Marxist theory, I continue to find his work enormously interesting and useful. Second, it got me past a sense of intimidation that I hadn’t even realized I felt. On some level, I must have felt that I needed an expert to guide me through the work of the great theorists rather than having the confidence to dive in on my own. I have thoroughly internalized the lesson about always going back to the original rather than relying on secondary sources. And in nearly every case (Lacan and Derrida are notable exceptions), I have found the original text to be more lucid and compelling than second-hand accounts by experts in the field.

10. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara by Brad Gooch:
In the early 90’s, I came to terms with the fact that I’m not much of a poet. I abandoned the pursuit and focussed my literary efforts exclusively on fiction. This turned out to be a wise course of action. My first collection of short stories was published shortly thereafter. But when I abandoned writing poetry, I also abandoned reading poetry. It wasn’t intentional; it just happened. City Poet brought me back to poetry. It reconnected me with my love of Frank O’Hara’s work, and also got me interested in the work of other poets in his circle. I dusted off my copy of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, and I went out and bought collections by Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery. Gooch’s detailed consideration of O’Hara’s links with various visual artists and his work at the Museum of Modern Art also provoked me to think about broad connections between writing and visual art and about personal connections between my fiction and my experiments with photography. Finally, because Gooch does such a beautiful job of depicting O’Hara as part of an artistic community, the book got me thinking a lot about the literary communities in which I have participated, what I take from them and what I have to contribute.

That’s my current list of ten formative books. If someone asks me the same question next month, I might come up with a different list. There are many other books from my past that I could have included. And there are always new ones to add. This year, at least two books have produced epiphanies (one I wrote about in a previous post, the other I will get around to writing about eventually). Of course, you may think I’ve cheated in that I've mentioned many other books within my discussions of some of the listed items. That’s a reflection of the way I read though. When I get excited about an author, I race out to find their complete works, then I look for a biography or some critical commentary, and those sources often propel me into a quest to learn about some of the other people in that writer’s circle and to seek out their work, and so on. Is anybody else out there prone to this kind of reading immersion?

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