Thinking the Twentieth Century

I’ve been reading Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder this week – and finding it totally engrossing. Here’s a bit from what I read on the way in this morning (Judt’s narrating here):

In 1995, I was offered the Nef Chair of Social Thought at Chicago; after agonizing for a while, I turned it down. Looking back, I now realize that I was beginning to see myself in a different light: not just as a historian, nor even as a “public intellectual,” but rather as someone who might apply his skills and energies to a new task. I was drawn to the idea of forging an institutional forum to encourage the sort of work I admired and to bring together the sorts of people I found interesting and whom I wanted to support. This, as it seemed to me then, was more readily achieved in Manhattan than in Chicago, much less in the rarified atmosphere of Hyde Park.

New York, after all, was special. Until I moved there I had spent my entire adult life in Cambridge [England], Berkeley and Oxford: each, in its way, an isolated ivory tower. But here in New York the universities – NYU, Columbia, CUNY Graduate Center – could not pretend to separate themselves from the city. Even Columbia, gloriously isolated upon its little hill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, could hardly deny that the reason most of its faculty and students were drawn there (rather than to its competitors in Princeton, New Haven or Cambridge, Mass.) was precisely its location in what was still, if perhaps anachronistically, thought of as the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

From an academic point of view, New York resembles the continental European model rather than the Anglo-American template. The most important conversations in town are not those conducted among academics behind college walls, but the broader intellectual and cultural debate exchanged across the city and taking in journalists, independent writers, artists and visitors as well as the local professoriate. Thus, at least in principle, universities are culturally and intellectually integrated into the wide conversation. In this sense at least, by staying in New York I could also remain European . . .

What I wanted to create [at NYU] did not even have a name. Above all, I was setting out to facilitate an international conversation: providing it with an institutional infrastructure and practical resources . . .

And also this:

The consequence of the impossibility of both the Whig and the moralizing approaches [to history] is that historians don’t know what they’re doing anymore. Whether that’s a bad thing is a different question. If you asked my colleagues: what is the purpose of history, or what is the nature of history, or what is history about, you would get a pretty blank stare. The difference between good historians and bad historians is that the good ones can manage without an answer to such questions, and the bad ones cannot . . .

Of course I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I find it immensely interesting – and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing intellectual history by setting it within a specific person’s experience and, in a fairly explicit sense, exploring that person’s own intellectual history.

Book me

Friends, followers: I am starting to construct my summer reading list, and I could use some of your suggestions. At this point I have very little non-reading work to do and so I’m hoping to tackle three books per week, in three main categories: political philosophy/ethics, history/biography, and novels (particularly ones I should have read by now).

I recognize these will be mostly “academic reads,” not deep reads, but right now I’m just trying to fill in the gaps. (All of my school-related reading in the school year is creative nonfiction, so hold off on that.)

So please comment with suggestions?

Books I've Been Annotating, Pre-Residency II

So I’m headed off to my second MFA residency tomorrow out on (I suspect) rainy Whidbey Island, and in preparation I’m putting together my projected annotation list for the next quarter. (Footnotes: There’s another correspondence quarter from now till June, because SPU, being on the West Coast, does that weird quarter-instead-of-semester thing; part of each correspondence quarter is ten two-ish page writerly “annotations” on various books in my discipline, most of which I choose, some of which are chosen by my faculty mentor [presently Paula Huston, then, for my second year, Lauren Winner], and the program director, Greg Wolfe, who chooses common readings for each residency that everyone in every genre reads – you know what, if you’re confused, just go look at the program website.)

Right, so: I thought I’d post what I’ve got here. Asterisks indicate they were assigned by Paula or Greg.

First quarter annotations (submitted in December):

  1. *Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  2. *The Lady and the Monk, Pico Iyer
  3. Life Work, Donald Hall
  4. The Florist’s Daughter, Patricia Hampl
  5. The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen
  6. Maps and Legends, Michael Chabon
  7. An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis
  8. Looking Before and After, Alan Jacobs
  9. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
  11. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  12. Blue Arabesque, Patricia Hampl

Second quarter annotations (just submitted last week):

  1. Tete-a-tete, Hazel Rowley
  2. *Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt
  3. Air Guitar, Dave Hickey
  4. The Best American Essays 2011, Edwidge Danticat (ed.)
  5. Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm
  6. Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
  7. *For the Time Being, Annie Dillard
  8. *Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
  9. *King Lear, William Shakespeare
  10. *The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Some books I’m thinking about for the third quarter (which ends in June; assigned books will probably supplant some of these):

  1. Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder
    (Just arrived and realized it’s half memoir, half history, which is so awesome it makes me grin)
  2. Let’s See, Peter Schjeldahl
    (Which I’ve been teaching; super fun.)
  3. The Broken Estate, James Wood
    (I like Wood’s criticism, and this is his early work)
  4. When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson
    (Just arrived!!)
  5. Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens
    (It’s time, and, so.)
  6. The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers
    (I shamefully have never read this, though I’ve referenced it.)
  7. Dakota, Kathleen Norris
    (I’ve read everything else she’s ever written.)

I’ve also been slowly working my way through Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which will probably end up in a fall annotation, along with a Really Thick Book of Updike’s criticism.

Over there

There’s now a Cardus staff blog, and along with some of my colleagues, I’ll be posting there once a week or so. So I blogged something very brief about the KJV Bible today. (I also quite frequently post to the Comment Tumblr.)

And speaking of colleagues, Rob and I have a point/counterpoint piece in the May/June Books & Culture on food politics. Some of it may sound familiar if you were in our workshop at Jubilee this February, though it’s more developed here. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it at Books & Culture’s website or in the print edition if it’s shown up in your mailbox. If you’re not a subscriber, well, shame on you. For Christians who want to actually thoughtfully engage with both books and culture with some depth, there is, quite literally, nothing else like it. (So subscribe!)

What I Read in 2009

I shamefacedly produce my list of sixty books, thanks to some reading for reviews, articles, and my M.A. thesis. I won’t be forced to plow through enormous books of theology or philosophy in one sitting this year, so fifty-two books will in fact be a bit challenging.

I’m always surprised how much more nonfiction I read than I think I do. However, I am a very bad poetry reader – something I’m trying to remedy. Do you read poetry? How exactly do you go about doing it? Whole bunches at a time? One or two poems a day until the book is done?


Unveiling – Suzanne Wolfe
A Gate at the Stairs – Lorrie Moore
The Forecast – Caroline Ferdinandsen
Light Boxes – Shane Jones
Netherland – Joseph O’Neill
Johnny Hiro – Fred Chao
Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion
The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust
Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
The Brooklyn Follies – Paul Auster
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
Another Faust – Daniel Nayeri
The American Painter Emma Dial – Samantha Peale
The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
Silence – Shusaku Endo
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
Lush Life – Richard Price
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
The Wild Things – Dave Eggers

Memoir & Journals
A Homemade Life – Molly Wizenberg
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food – Judith Jones
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1964 – Susan Sontag
Lit – Mary Karr
The Red Leather Diary – Lily Koppel
Girl Meets God – Lauren F. Winner

Thesis Research
On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art – James Elkins
Art and the Bible – Francis Schaeffer
Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic – Nicholas Wolterstorff
Rainbows for the Fallen World – Calvin Seerveld
God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art – Daniel A. Siedell
Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical – Hannah Faith Notess (ed.)
Not That Kind of Girl – Carlene Bauer
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Surprised by Hope – N.T.Wright
The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection – Robert Farrar Capon
An Altar in the World – Barbara Brown Taylor
Mudhouse Sabbath – Lauren F. Winner
Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church – James K.A. Smith
The Strategic Smorgasbord of Postmodernity: Literature and the Christian Critic – Deborah Bowen
Real Love for Real Life – Andi Ashworth

Other Essays and Nonfiction
How to Read a Book – Mortimer J. Adler
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays – Zadie Smith
Through a Screen Darkly – Jeffrey Overstreet
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry – Kathleen Flinn
Nuts & Bolts: A Practical Guide to Teaching College Composition – Thomas Newkirk
The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers – Cathleen Falsani
The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York – Luc Sante
Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life As a Christian Calling – James W. Sire
What the Best College Teachers Do – Ken Bain
The Well-Educated Mind – Susan Wise Bauer
Real Sex – Lauren F. Winner
Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There – David Brooks
Up in the Old Hotel – Joseph Mitchell
Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life – Barbara Kingsolver


This past summer, as I realized that my graduate work was winding down, I came home one day and told Tom I wanted to start a book club.

So in August, we had the first meeting of the Bluestockings. Definition of bluestocking from Wikipedia:

A bluestocking is an educated, intellectual woman. Such women are stereotyped as being frumpy and the reference to blue stockings refers to the time when woolen worsted stockings were informal dress, as compared with formal, fashionable black silk stockings.

The term originated with the Blue Stockings Society – a literary society founded by Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s. This provoked derogatory usage in the late 18th century, specifically in reference to women — previously the term had referred to learned people of both sexes. Such women have increased in number since, as women now enter higher education in large numbers. For example, in Britain, women are now 55% of new entrants to university and outnumber men at every level up to PhD.

It goes on to talk about the prejudice toward women who dress certain ways, but that’s only vaguely relevant to the group. We are young New York women, and so we are more or less fashionable (maybe less in comparison to some young New York women, but more in comparison to our friends in less hyperfashionable places).

In any case, we are all about reading good books, which at this point has been mostly literary fiction and some nonfiction. What we’ve read so far:

  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Lush Life, Richard Price
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
  • The Red Leather Diary, Lily Koppel
  • The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell
  • The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon
  • A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

We’re reading Olive Kitteridge for January. We get together with snacks and drinks and talk about the book – and, of course, whatever’s going on in our lives. It’s completely delightful to read good books and talk about them with other people who actually like good books as well. I maintain that someone’s book list is a better indication than even their taste in film or music of “the tribe.” If you and I like the same books, we’re probably kindred spirits.

Many of us Bluestockings are also taking the Fifty Two Fifty Two challenge (read 52 books in 2010). Any books are allowed – YA novels, graphic novels, the world is your oyster, etc. If you want to join us, you can sign up here and occasionally drop in to list off what you’ve read recently. Most of us are also on Goodreads.

Reading in 2010

It’s December, and so I am now taking recommendations for books to read in 2010. Leave a comment with a book you think I ought to read next year. Especially interesting for a variety of reasons: books on urbanism, accessible tomes on philosophy (particularly Heidegger, Arendt, de Beauvoir, and the “trinity” of postmodern theorists), literary theory, biographies, poetry, literacy/language, and the practice of writing. I’m pretty good at finding fiction and essays, but you can recommend something if you really liked it.

(Nothing with vampires in it, please.)

A Homemade Life

Mary Hawthorne at the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” blog talked a little today about Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.

Wizenberg, of course, is the author of the highly-acclaimed food blog Orangette, which boasts great recipes and food photography – two of my very favorite things. And incidentally, I bought A Homemade Life a month and a half ago, but only got around to reading it on Tuesday. I don’t really read food memoirs, but this was a good read. I finished it in an evening – it reads fast if you don’t stop to read all the recipes, too – and though some of it’s the kind of food I’ll never really make (much heavier on baking and creamy things than I am) it was a sweet homage to Wizenberg’s family, especially her father, who died of cancer, her mother, and her beloved husband, as well as numerous cities she’s lived in.

That’s the very best kind of food book, with a good heart and no real agenda. It would make a fabulous gift for the cook (or eater) in your life.

On Cosmic Realism

Let me highly recommend this essay, which is a review of Mary Swan’s book The Boys in the Trees but contains an interesting analysis of “cosmic realism”, a new strain of literary-ness perpetuated by the likes of Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard.

On the basis of these rhythms, the cosmic realist novel develops a distinct syntax of its own. Typically, the prose is lyrical and crisp–rich without being lavish, sumptuous but not florid. These books find the fewest strokes with which to paint the freshest image. “She watched blue shadows on his white shirt stretch and shrink as he moved,” Dillard writes. But the economy of language is not merely pretty. It calls to mind the classical Chinese poets– like them, commanding attention by demanding it. This prose promises to be experienced as poetry. It engrosses when it engages.

Oh, T.S. Eliot, you must be backflipping in your grave

While working on my term paper, and reading T.S. Eliot’s Collected Essays, I ran across this quote in his essay “Religion and Literature”:

It is our business, as readers of literature, to know what we like. It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like. It is our business as honest men not to assume that whatever we like is what we ought to like; and it is our business as honest Christians not to assume that we do like what we ought to like. And the last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.

When you're Garrison Keillor, you can say what you want

What the Writers Almanac website says Garrison Keillor said today on the show:

The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded on this day in 1917. Laura Richards and Maude Elliott won the prize for biography, with their book about the 19th-century writer and suffragist Julia Ward Howe. Jean Jules Jusserand (zhawn zhool zhoo-say-RAWN), the French ambassador to the United States from 1902 to 1925, won the prize for history: With Americans of Past and Present Days. Herbert B. Swope of the New York World won the prize for journalism, and when he picked up his award, said: “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula of failure — which is try to please everybody.”

What Garrison Keillor actually said (I just listened):

The first Pullitzer Prizes were awarded on this day in 1917, and the authors were all writers whom you or I never read, nor does anybody else today.