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WRB—Nov. 26, 2022
A bigger-than-usual holiday weekend edition.
WITH UNFEIGNED REGRET IT IS WE ANNOUNCE THE DISSOLUTION OF A MOST RESPECTED MANAGING EDITOR
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, now stored on this page for non-paying readers to access, either by placing or responding to one;
and, if you’ve enjoyed the past ten months of the WRB and found our twice-weekly emails useful, amusing, diverting, or edifying, consider supporting our tireless efforts to produce these effects in you, now for a greatly reduced price for a yearly subscription through the end of the year:
[I’m making our entire posts this week free, in case you need enticement to the small sorts of things we get up to beyond the usual paywall. In the new year, it’s my hope to be able to add more regular content for subscribers: more Monday Supplements, more extensive collections of Rebecca West quotations, more of Julia’s wonderful comments on poetry, perhaps even real book reviews. —Chris]
There are indications that his notion of evil is not one of misanthropy, despite it sometimes perhaps appearing that way. Evil is rather something impartial, the rite of the everyday, commerce and its consequences, the oblivion of denial and inattention, lack of consideration for the consequences of one’s actions, unwillingness of imagination and empathy; the necessities of everyday life.
Sounding a similar note, for The Fence, Michelle Alexis Taylor on how dull T.S. Eliot’s letters are:
This iceberg lettuce word salad might correspond to what Virginia Woolf—a notably superior epistolary stylist—called the “non-being” or “the cotton-wool” of life, the better part of each day that is “not lived consciously.” It is very normal, which is why it is so dull: nobody loved being a normie as much as T. S. Eliot, a very secret weirdo who relished normality like a kink. And within the grand history of human epistolarity, “it’s actually the anomaly,” as Cuda insisted to me, to write truly entertaining letters, the kind we might pick up for an evening’s occupation.
[I was raised in a house with the Food Network always on (🎵), and grew up as I believe most boys do reading endless volumes of trivia, so I’ve thought quite a bit about the hackneyed passed-around folklore that attaches itself to popular foods. I’m glad, therefore, to read Ashawnta Jackson briefly break down the phenomenon on the JStor blog. —Chris]
Department of Once-Popular Music:
For the Fare Forward email newsletter, Sam Buntz revisits Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. [OK, but I’ll just note that when you say, “The Last Waltz is great because it is a liberation from the discourse,” you can’t immediately turn around and start picking at your culture war scabs. “the abstract theoretical consciousness of a contemporary New York–based musician, who is reading Deleuze and Foucault in his spare time”—what are you talking about? Who is this describing? I don’t know why I’m leaving this in here at all except to include this brief rant, which is maybe rude of me. —Chris]
For The New Statesman, Kate Mossman interviews Nick Cave about his music and his tragedies and things like that. Apparently, he’s found God or something less specific. Great arc. As it happens…
“Now artists are more likely to earn press by speaking frankly about personal trauma, or sobriety, or their battles with depression.” For The New Republic, John Semley reviews a brand new book by Paul Gorman (Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press, November) about the great old days of music journalism:
Could one fill out a book with the names of current critical tastemakers? And more pressingly, are such writers even able to make tastes and shape the culture at large? The long period of critical fertility that Totally Wired chronicles can seem almost unbelievable now. In hindsight, all genuinely cool cultural inventions feel like flukes—like a blowout party thrown while the parents are out of town. Is there any hope for such eruptions in the future? Or is a lively, engaged, tastemaking popular music press something that—as the “fall” of Gorman’s title assures us—has happened, in the past tense?
Semley continues: “For as long as there have been records, there have been too many records. And the music press emerged to help separate wheat from chaff.” Rebecca West says [I am not going to stop. —Chris]: “Criticism which applies certain standards to works of art, an atmosphere of culture which develops a general sensitivity to the quality of art, are therefore as necessary to a civilization as inspectors who tell the community whether bridges are safe or not, and a system of education which enables the community to grasp what they mean and to act upon it.” In an excerpt from her new book (Book Madness: A Story of Book Collectors in America, November) at Laphams, Denise Gigante writes about the new need for, and development of, ways to separate the cream out of the terrific mass of printed material in the 19th century (and an actually quite useful-looking system for annotating books).
In the present day, we have slightly different problems: Alan Jacobs has a fun little essay for The Atlantic about those fake “summaries” or “study guides” that fester on Amazon search results. To cut to the chase:
SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE
Do not buy a “summary” book off of Amazon, because they are nonsensical word salads created by bots or lazy cut-and-pasters with a shaky grasp of the English language.
However, as AI gets better at summarizing books, nonfiction authors might be in trouble.
In the meantime, buy my book!
An actually useful service: Charles Arrowsmith, in the local Post’s revived books section, makes the case for Proust after 100 years and lining up quite a good list of recommendations for someone looking to get started: “To read Proust is to glimpse how one might recover from one’s own life — with all its pain and boredom and frustration—something of immeasurable value: nothing less than meaning.” [Another West line: “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is like a beautiful hand with long fingers reaching out to pluck a perfect fruit, without error, for the accurate eye knows well it is growing just there on the branch, while Ulysses is the fumbling of a horned hand in darkness after a doubted jewel.” This week at Engelsberg Ideas, Agnès Poirier quips: “we have had Proust à toutes les sauces. As a result, many newcomers to Proust’s world must have had the curious delight of discovering the writer, not through his work first, but through mementoes, trivia, and exegesis. And why not?”
For the New Left Review, JW McCormack reviews the Storybook ND series [Noted here in WRB July 20, 2022] published by New Directions this summer. And Ryan Lackey takes a closer look at one of the six, by Helen DeWitt, (The English Understand Wool, August). [Previous WRB DeWitt content: Amber Husain for Believer, Mar. 30; Jared Marcel Pollen for Gawker on the same book, Aug. 13; Lee Konstantinou’s new book (The Last Samurai Reread, November), Nov. 5. No one ever tells me when they’ve bored of a topic, so I’ll just keep doing this. —Chris]
Usually in this section we plug whatever little book sales happen to be going on so far as we’re aware. Given what week it is, though, we can pretty safely say that most things, in the world, are a little bit on sale. [A reader notes that Routledge is 30% off, and University of Toronto is 40% off, right now, for instance. Stay safe out there.]
There’s also a book sale at the Georgetown Public Library next weekend [Sorry, GIANT USED BOOK SALE. —Nic]
Construction Physics is a Substack about “Why buildings are built the way they are.” Sold.
Indigo has made roughly half of its retail space devoted to books go poof and the transformation is far from finished. At its showcase New Jersey location, the mix is 40 percent books and 60 percent general merchandise, and it’s specializing in a particular kind of book. “We found a niche,” said an Indigo executive. “We became the preferred destination for New Yorkers for coffee table books. In fact, every decorator in New York comes to that store to buy these big format coffee table books for their clients’ homes. So we go from books about décor to books as décor… That store has had an incredible year.”
December 6 | Viking
A Private Spy: The Letters of John Le Carré
edited by Tim Cornwell
From the publisher: The never-before-seen correspondance of John le Carré, one of the most important novelists of our generation, are collected in this beautiful volume. During his lifetime, le Carré wrote numerous letters to writers, spies, politicians, artists, actors and public figures. This collection is a treasure trove, revealing the late author’s humour, generosity, and wit–a side of him many readers have not previously seen.
What we’re reading:
Chris read Rebecca West’s very long essay about why she doesn’t like James Joyce, [For more about which, see the Poem] and her lovely tribute to the French Riviera’s particular delights, “A Tribute to Some Minor Artists,” which dovetailed neatly with his La Collectionneuse (1967)-inspired resolution to move there and never speak to anyone again. He also finally read Justin Smith’s The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, which is full of interesting tidbits, sometimes a shave too clever, sometimes a bit digressive, but still worth an afternoon.
He also read The Sufferings of Young Werther, which is really a perfect little book, and reread the first three chapters of Ulysses, about which the jury is still out.
“Alone” by James Joyce
The moon’s grey-golden meshes make
All night a veil,
The shore lamps on the sleeping lake
Laburnum tendrils trail.
The shy reeds whisper to the night
A name—her name—
And all my soul is a delight,
A swoon of shame.
[This poem was published by Joyce in 1927 in Pomes Penyeach, but he wrote it in Zurich in 1916. Rebecca West has this to say about it at the beginning of her long essay “The Strange Necessity,” published in her 1928 volume of the same name:
…It may seem inconceivable that this poem should bring pleasure to any living creature, for as art is in part at least a matter of the communication to the audience of an emotion felt by an artist, this is plainly an exceedingly bad poem. “And all my soul is a delight, a swoon of shame” are words as blank as the back of a spoon. Nevertheless this poem gave me great pleasure, because I had considered it in the light of its authorship. For it is not the words to a song, it is not by Mr. Fred E. Weatherley (Known for writing “Danny Boy.” —Chris). It is not by Miss Helen Wills (A tennis player of the time. —Chris), whose sole poetical production (published, I think, in Vanity Fair) it very closely resembles. It is, on the contrary, as one might say, by Mr. James Joyce. It is one of the poems, and not noticeably the worst, included in the collection he has called Pomes Penyeach. And because he has written it I was pleased, though not at all as the mean are when they find that the mighty have fallen, for had he written three hundred poems as bad as this his prose works would still prove him beyond argument a writer of majestic genius. Indeed, the pleasure I was feeling was not at all dependent on what my conception of Mr. James Joyce is: it was derived from the fact that, very much more definitely than five minutes before I had a conception of Mr. James Joyce. Suspicions had been confirmed. What was cloudy was now solid. In those eight lines he had ceased to belong to that vast army of our enemies, the facts we do not comprehend; he had passed over and become one of our friends, one of those who have yielded up an account of their nature, who do not keep back a secret which one day may act like a bomb on such theory of the universe as we may have built for our defence.
For really, I reflected, as I went on my way down the Street of the Seine, this makes it quite plain that Mr. James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without taste.
This is so fun! What a good fake-out. West has just purchased the book at Shakespeare and Company; she spends the rest of the day having some Parisienne adventures, looking at art and buying nice clothing and things like that, but she can’t stop thinking about Ulysses, and how she thinks it is a work of genius and necessary piece of art, but also tasteless and flawed and sentimental rubbish. The essay has a long digression about ethnonationalism, and how it’s good, even if Dostoevsky might have believed in it for silly reasons, and an even longer one about Ivan Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes, about which she says: “If every such situation, every such collision of forces, were as truly described, we should be masters of all reality…. One is reminded of a certain book which suggests to one that some such ambition must be the inspiration of a part of literature; though curiously enough that book has nothing to do with literature, or any other kind of art.” (If you find yourself reading it, this is a great resource for help with some of the more obscure references.) It’s totally strange, and I’m going to be thinking about it for a while.
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