My Ideal Bookshelf
Eight years ago, when My Ideal Bookshelf was first published, I assembled the collection pictured above. Atop the stack on my desk this morning is one of those books, Harriet the Spy. Favorable reviews (e.g., here and here) of the recently published Louise Fitzhugh biography prompted me to revisit Harriet for the first time in many years; I have not been disappointed.
Most of the other books on my desk are marked with dogears and slips of paper for this entry. Since my last annotated list, I’ve read nine, bringing my 2020 total to 221.
■ Gideon Falls, Vol. 5: Wicked Words (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
This series is barreling toward the conclusion.
■ Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Ruth Klüger; 2001. Non-fiction.)
As I mentioned, Klüger’s is “an unforgiving memoir of growing up Jewish in Nazi-occupied Vienna and escaping death in a concentration camp.” (NYT, October 16, 2020) It was recommended in the lively discussion that occurred in the comments during Court Theatre’s Deep Dive: Leopoldstadt.
Remembering is a branch of witchcraft; its tool is incantation. I often say, as if it were a joke — but it’s true — that instead of God I believe in ghosts.
Of course, that’s always the case: men go to war because they are drafted. They usually go with enthusiasm, which lasts as long as their side is winning, never mind if their cause is good or bad. A minority know their minds, and the rest mistake the collective mind for their own.
I shed these prejudices quickly and quietly, as one takes off a pair of nylons under the table, secretly, so that no one will notice you’ve been wearing them.
No one is as dependent as mothers are on the dependency of their children.
■ Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel; 2009. Fiction.)
When The Mirror and the Light was released earlier this year, I quietly added “Read the Mantel trilogy” to my 2020 goals. These books are proving to be the perfect companions for long-nighted December days.
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and the processions. This is how the world changes….
■ Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (Alice Oswald; 2011. Poetry.)
In this startling and powerful reframing of the Iliad, two similes (on facing pages in my edition) begged to be pressed into my commonplace book. The first reminded me of the most exquisite passage in all of literature written in English (see below):
Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork
The second was so poignant it hurt:
Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting the whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip
■ The Dead (James Joyce; 1914. Fiction.)
In which one finds the most exquisite passage in all of literature written in English:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
■ The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (M.T. Anderson; 2018. Fiction.)
One of the most delightful books I read this year. Related article here.
■ In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book (Joel Stein; 2019. Non-fiction.)
Yes, Stein’s humor is an acquired taste. Related interview here.
■ Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myth (Helena Morales; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Related article here.
■ The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Bryan Doerries; 2015. Non-fiction.)
A wonderful reader recommended Theater of War to me in late spring. Since then, I’ve watched seven readings — most recently, The Book of Job with Bill Murray. Doerries’ book is as riveting as those performances.
It is not our job to judge the characters in Greek tragedies — to focus on their “flaws.” Tragedy challenges us to see ourselves in the way its characters stray from the path, and to open our eyes to the bad habits we may have formed or the mistakes we have yet to make. Contrary to what you may have learned in school, tragedies are not designed to fill us with pessimism and dread about the futility of human existence or our relative powerlessness in a world beyond our grasp. They are designed to help us see the impending disaster on the horizon, so that we may correct course and narrowly avoid it. Above all, the flaw in our thinking about tragedy is that we look for meaning where there is none to be found. Tragedies don’t mean anything. They do something.