Late Fall Reading
It’s a week until the winter solstice and the official beginning of winter, even though there has been snow on the ground (if not constantly, consistently) since mid-October here, so I thought it might be time to share some of my late fall reading with you. November and December are normally extremely busy months for me. This year is no exception, though the nature of the busy-ness has changed somewhat. Instead of frantically writing lectures and marking assignments, essays, and exams, I’ve been writing (fiction, non-fiction, cards, letters, tweets, academic articles) as fast as my fingers will fly. And when I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading.
I started off November by reading Herbert Read’s English Prose Style. It’s been on my light for quite some time, but library copies of it are rather hard to track down (the nearest to me is in special collections at the University of Alberta library and my college copy whilst in Oxford had gone walkabout). The book is divided into two parts—Composition and Rhetoric—mirroring the traditional North American divisions of the way in which English writing is taught at post-secondary institutions. One note: I’m saving the second part on rhetoric for a post-holiday read, I won’t discuss it yet.
Read tackles Composition by breaking it down into its constituent elects: words (the smallest practicable unit in a non-grammar book), epithets (next smallest until), metaphors (slightly larger unit), the sentence (again, larger), the paragraph (larger still), and arrangement (not really largest, but a reflection of how the units fit together). It was noticeable how often the statements Read would make, in particular in his chapter on words, sent me following up on his sources. Thankfully, I have a number of volumes of Jespesen’s A Modern English Grammar to hand and could use the Internet Archive to source many of the rest, otherwise falling down this philological rabbit hole might have been less convenient.
I think I enjoyed his chapter on metaphor the most, even though it is the shortest, because of the way it challenges the association of metaphor with poetry. Read draws throughout from a rich body of prose writing. Where else could you find long quotations—necessary as good and bad examples of what is being discussed—from William Morris, William Hazlitt (quote enough to clearly be a favourite), Walter Pater, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Edmund Burke, C. M. Doughty (also a favourite), John Bunyan, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lord Macaulay, Laurence Sterne, John Milton, D. H. Lawrence, Oliver Goldsmith, Emily Brontë (a woman!), and Henry James all in one place? You’d also of need an English degree to identify all of these authors. One does, after reading all these overwhelmingly male authors, better understand the frustration of writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, lamenting the dearth of female predecessors, or models for the style of écriture femimine with which they experimented. But then again, a recent conversation on the VICTORIA list-serv suggests there not only a dearth of female essayists writers but an even larger gap in awareness (still) of what female essayists writers there are. Equally surprising is the number of instances Read points to scientific texts as examples of good prose style. I see an article here….
Why should I read it? Have you ever wondered why you study/ consider the form of poetry but not of prose? Do you want to know why you prefer some author’s style of writing over others?
Difficulty level: If you can identify (or, indeed, enjoy identifying) the subject, object, and verb of a sentence, you can read this book.
If I like this, what should I also read? Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence
Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Nothing less than amazing. I don’t want to say much more about it at the moment, as I’m hoping to write something longer about it in the future, but I highly recommend this collection of loosely intersecting short stories.
A. S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia”: I read this for the purposes of research for a prose fiction project I am working on but also out of an enjoyment of neo-Victorian fiction. I had watched the 1996 film adaptation of the novella—Angels and Insects a few weeks ago (it features Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas) and wanted to compare the two. While the film is a successfully faithful adaptation of the novella, the medium of film isn’t really equipped to address Byatt’s metafictional interests. For instance, we hear only vaguely that William is helping his father-in-law with a book on design (i.e., a mediation between natural selection and mid-nineteenth century theology), we are only told about Matty’s book of fables, and we only see parts of William and Matty’s chronicle of local ant life. In the novellas, we experience them directly and are left not only to judge their merit but to glean moral and ideological lessons from them (without much interpretive guidance, I midget add). I understand the purpose of this activity, though I’m not sure I enjoyed reading the excerpts of those texts (even though I am someone who has read widely across the different genres and registers of nineteenth century literature). I do feel, however, that Byatt tackles the issue of the reception of natural selection in a very nuanced and persuasive manner in “Morpo Eugenia"—I’m sure lots of discussion could follow from setting this as a text in a literature and science course or module.
Peter Middleton & Nicky Marsh’s Teaching Modernist Poetry: I sheepishly admit the following: Why oh why didn’t I read this before I taught Modernist Poetry & Prose last year?! Every essay in the edited collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking, though I benefited (intellectually and pedagogically) most particularly from Peter Nicholls’s "The Elusive Allusion: Poetry and Exegesis,” Michael Whitworth’s “Science and Poetry,” and Carole Sweeney’s “Race, Modernism, and institutions.” (Michael supervised my doctoral thesis while I was at Oxford, but I don’t let that stop me from recommending his work.) Nicholls’s essay reminded me of when I taught Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley for the first time and frequently had to exhort my students to “just trust me,” when I would expand on one of the footnotes or explain one of the many un-footnoted allusions or words in their course text (I have a love-hate relationship with Laurence Rainey’s Modernism: An Anthology). Whitworth’s essay, in which he asks “[h]ow can one help students to become knowledge producers rather than passive acquirers, in the face of the real and perceived difficulties of science?”, put in perspective the differences of teaching students in the UK versus in North America, where most will have taken some science classes in high school but also potentially as mandatory electives at university. Sweeney’s essay not only reinforced for me the importance of addressing race when teaching modernist poetry but also pointed to concrete ways in which to achieve this as a part of the course rather than as an addendum or supplement to it. (And here continues my love-hate relationship with a Rainey’s anthology: if there are no (few) writers of colour in the anthology, they will always seem supplemental, or an exception.)
Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart: I’m 75% of the way through and really only started reading it now to see if it would make a good Christmas gift for my husband (I always pre-read his Christmas gifts to prevent the great Mieville’s Kraken incident of 2011). It is so well crafted and nimbly written that I am gliding like butter through its ~900+ pages.