Aghast at the notion of hobbies and “free time” (since it cannot be defined apart from the time already subordinated to the unfreedom of the always laboring individual), Adorno declares that “making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them.”
On a somewhat less haughty note I offer here the first of an intermittent series of ongoing extracurricular reading, with a sideways glance at the “extra” since it, too, is already enfolded within the larger syllabus of attention. “The sideways glance” is a telling trope. These are books that give me pleasure or excite my interest in some way and have little or preferably nothing to do with my work as a scholar. But the sideways glance is merely the deferral, or diversion, of full attention. It is attention attended to on the sly.
Anatheism, Richard Kearney
Kearney’s earlier work has been important for me in thinking through my own projects and desires set in the ruins of theology, especially the groundbreaking The God Who May Be. The book’s seductive subtitle “Returning to God After God,” drew me in inspite of myself , since lately I’ve wanted more critical subtlety and less overdetermined affirmation on this subject than Kearney seems able to offer. The post-structural turn in religious studies, as exemplified by Kearney, Caputo, Winquist and Taylor, has fallen prey to a certain set of rhetorical pieties. A predictable and inevitable turn, really. But one wants more. I don’t know yet if this book has it. But Kearney’s work is marked by a largeness and generosity, a compassion toward the anxiety of our deepest questions about God, that I find uplifting. OK, so this is actually a book I’m reading (more like skimming through) with an eye toward my chapter on Oppen, trauma and theology. As is the next book, sort of.
The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz
In the late 90s, I enjoyed a lively, if short-lived, correspondence with Tom Mandel while I was wrestling with my review of his remarkable and haunting book, Prospect of Release. Steinsaltz was an important thinker for him and I’ve returned to this book, which I never really found my way into, in the hope that it will speak to me more clearly this time around. Again, as with Kearney, I’m really after the academic angle here. Norman Finkelstein is organizing a panel on Mike Heller for next year’s Louisville conference and I have an idea of writing about Mike’s work in conjunction with Tom’s, especially the latter’s Letters of the Law, which I’ve recently returned to.
Thing of Beauty, Jackson MacLow
How is it I’ve never really appreciated the magnitude of MacLow’s accomplishment till now? Probably a suspicion about the legitimacy of procedural poetics. That suspicion has been laid to rest since I picked up this beautifully produced volume from UC Press at The Coop last week and have been stunned repeatedly by it. In Boulder I’d owned the jaunty little Burning Deck edition of The Virginia Woolf Poems, which I enjoyed, but somehow felt fell short of Major Significance. The big revelation in this book is the excerpt from “The Light Poems,” a series of procedurally-determined permutations which open continually onto themselves in a kind of slow cataract of shifting panoramas. And the elegy for Paul Blackburn is exquisite.
The High Window, Raymond Chandler
Since December, when I came across Judith Freeman’s lovely The Long Embrace, a very perceptive and moving biographical homage to Chandler and his wife, Cissy, I’ve been re-reading The Master’s collected works. And I’ve been reading them slowly, often at the rate of a single chapter per night, lingering over descriptions or particular constructions. There’s no particular order to my reading. I began with The Little Sister, which I’d only read once, then read Playback for the first time. I think I was always afraid how disappointing I’d find it, but while it’s not on the level of his earlier work, it’s still enormously pleasurable. The descriptions of La Jolla, in particular, take on special resonance after knowing the biographical details of that time in Chandler’s life. And some of the set pieces, such as Marlowe’s conversation with the old man in the hotel lobby, are as rich and eccentric as anything Chandler wrote. After that I went back to his earliest stories: all four pieces in Trouble Is My Business, two of which I’d never read before, and then a few from The Simple Art of Murder, which I didn’t find quite as satisfying. That was followed by The Lady in the Lake. The last time I read it, about two years ago, I raced through it and the plot seemed jumbled and faintly preposterous. This time around, read at a savoring pace, it gained strength and clarity. Now, The High Window, which I also recall as ending on a dismal note as far as plot resolution goes. Though no one in their right mind would read Chandler for his plotting. In all the novels what comes across most powerfully is a picture of a certain species of modern loneliness. They’re only moments, casually occurring here and there, seeming throwaways, mere transitions before the next thing happens, as when Marlowe enters his office, opens the windows, buys himself a drink from the office bottle, and contemplates the dusk, the smell of cheap cooking, and the dust gathered on his desk. These are the best moments in the work. They are also the quietist. The sense of someone being alone with himself, looking out the window at the city.
Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell & Back Where I Came From, A.J. Liebling
About the beauty of human foibles and eccentricities, they were never wrong, the Old Masters. These paeans to mid-20th Century New York and a now nearly vanished scene of convivial urban modernity are without peer. Part social anthropologists, part lyric poets, part hardnose investigators, and all-round aficionados of all things Manhattan, Mitchell and Liebling immerse themselves in the rich detail and odd rituals of unsung lives that make the city The City: an emblem of heterogeneous abjection and delight. Along with James Agee, Mitchell and Liebling were New Journalists avant la lettre. To read these books is to fall in love with writing all over again.
Last fall I took up with a spate of turn-of-the-century romances of the primitive. It began with Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, then moved on to Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars. The Haggard was the best of the lot, with Tarzan the biggest disappointment. I’d never read it before and seemingly missed the crucial age range when it might have stirred me. These boy’s own stories still have the power to thrill, while their racist and primitivist constructions of Otherness and history offer endless grist for the scholar’s mill.