Category Archives: Books

To find

Listening to the NYT Books Podcast this AM:

John Lanchester, The Wall…sounds awesome.

Also, in talking about climate change, he used the following quote:

Death like the sun is to big to contemplate. The interwebs offer this version and source:

Rachel Cusk, Kudos

Can’t say if I like or dislike this book but I can’t stop reading it. I can’t say if agree with her or not but I can’t stop debating it in my head.

12: If you were unfamiliar with the political situation in our country, you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain.

34: A degree of self-deception, she said, was an essential part of the talent for living.

39: …Since the defining motivation of the modern era, he said, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures of hardships of any kind.

Halfway through, just three of the quotes I’ve been churning on.

R Nesse

Heard Professor Nesse on Start the Week and will eventually find this book. But I liked that he began the book with this quote:

Nesse, Randolph. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry.New York: Dutton, 2019.

Early Work

“Getting there, ” I would say, though as anyone who’s ever pretended to be a writer know, “the book” was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of Word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of ice and fire that were imagining.

Martin, Andrew. Early Work (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), p.25.

Meant to find this book today

Found this today ($2).

Here’s the opening line:

I learned a surprising thing in writing this book. It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper — by “diving into the wreck,” to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), xii.

Yesterday at Bindlestiff

As the school year began, I’d not picked up a novel, so I wanted to get Daniel Gambiner’s book The Boatbuilder, which I’d seen in Bindlestiff’s window. Last copy. Good thing…Amazon won’t have copies until October.

Started yesterday, finished today. Review soon.

Also found a copy of this book, which I’m hoping will help me in the current American history unit I’m teaching.

And for $16.00, I found a huge gardening book — The Flowers and Herbs of Early America — a bargain.

Daniel, Marcus. Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy. 1 edition. Oxford?; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Griffith, Lawrence, and Barbara Temple Lombardi. Flowers and Herbs of Early America. 1 edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Gumbiner, Daniel. The Boatbuilder. McSweeney’s, 2018.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

I think I’ll use the opening piece as part of a “personal essay” unit. I think students will like and recognize the opening anecdote. I hope they’ll see how you can take one story from your own life and work it into a larger reflection. And if it makes a few young men uncomfortable, so much the better.

The essay I really loved, though, was Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable. I could teach with this one, too — how do you weave together an interpretation of multiple books — but it would be just as helpful thinking about language, how to use it, when it needs to be concrete and when it can’t be.

“We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.”


We could argue about this quote for days. I thought about how often I urge students to be bold in their claims and I felt a flash of guilt. But I think what Solnit is urging us to consider is that we need to be bold in our ambiguity, in laying out both sides, in understanding that you make your best effort to understand through careful assessment of a situation and sources, but that you may fall short.

Several pages later, Solnit quotes Susan Sontag about war and what’s knowable:

“We’ — this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying, war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”

She follows by saying, “Sontag, too, calls on us to embrace the darkness, the unknowability, not to let the torrent of images that proud down on us convince us that we understand or make us numb to suffering.” (p.84)

I read this as a way of helping students understand that ambiguity is different than relativism. There are lots of ideas and experiences out there that need to be constantly interrogated and contextualized. They can’t just be set aside or neatly labeled. That’s our work as students, scholars, and human beings.

Finally, in talking of the role of criticism, Solnit writes:

“This (an essay of Virginia Woolf’s) is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens an exchange that need never end.”

I love this framing and will use this quote with students. How do your write in a way that invites exchange around ideas? How do you write something that leaves someone scrambling to write back, to want to respond?

Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Updated edition. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015.

Used books today

Burmese Days, 1963 Signet Classics Paperback.
Sirens of Titan, 1970 version.

I will always buy copies of George Orwell or Kurt Vonnegut’s paperbacks at $1.00. Always.

A very good Modern Library copy of Washington Square.
James, Henry. Washington Square. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Edging towards collecting these. ($3.00)

McMurtry, Larry. Roads: A Millennial Journey Along America’s Great Interstate Highways. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. I read Lonesome Dove in college but I also liked Moving On and Cadillac Jack. I think this book is a return to the roads he traveled as a book collector (and that showed up in Cadillac Jack.) Indeed, it’s Cadillac Jack where the rabbit heads show up in the grill of the Cadillac, a scene I revisited this weekend when a bird got caught in the grill of our Prius. ($3.00)

Stutzman, Paul. Hiking Through: One Man’s Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail. Reprint edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Revell, 2012. I’m also a sucker for these sorts of long journey books, particularly on the AT, as Kara wants us to do this hike someday. Autographed copy — $2.00