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.

A Small Thought On Sci-Fi

I have recently realized that my great love of Battlestar Galactica (the newer one, obvi) and my obsession with The X-Files has grown into a full-blown crazy love of good sci-fi. Not movies, so much, but TV. My Postmodern World students this semester (that’s a class, not a commentary on them) have probably gotten tired of it, but that’s why I’m the professor, and also, sci-fi is ideal for illustrating things like postmodernism. (Hey, how have I not found a way to work Firefly in yet?) It’s gotten bad enough that I unprovokedly admitted to Tom a few days ago that it’s now time for me to start watching Star Trek. I squealed, more than audibly, when I noticed Quantum Leap showed up on Netflix. Oh no, and Dr. Who as well. It’s bad.

This seems to have some corollary with my growing obsession with superhero movies (which has yet to spread to comic books, but I’m just waiting passively for that swamp monster to sweep in). And also, dystopian fiction, which started in a highfalutin’ way when I was in my first master’s program, but now is basically just me reading Hunger Games and trying to explain why dystopian fiction is awesomer than full-on post-apocalyptic fiction, which is a conversation I found myself inexplicably having last Wednesday night in a crowded room of intelligent acquaintances. 

I sit outside myself, looking in, at some loss to explain what the frak is going on. I mean: I still harbor no particular affection for Star Wars, and I don’t think I’m in any danger of starting, like, Farscape, although I doubt I’m out of the woods. But seriously, self. What up?

Well, I’m starting to think I’m just happy to immerse myself in a genre where you can actually say things about our world, almost didactically, without having to worry about realism. I’m sort of loving that you can twist things, turn them on their heads, unsettle our assumptions, and make us look at our (real) world differently – but do it obliquely. I also love that good sci fi (and superhero stories and dystopian fiction and all that) is unabashedly entertaining, even when it’s being quite explicit about its intentions. 

Oh well. I tried to put up a fight. Happy surrender.

Recently Published

I’m trying to get better about updating this blog when I publish things, so here we go: the kind folks at The Gospel Coalition asked me to contribute to a series of articles on “the church and the cultural challenge,” and my piece went up on their front page today. Here’s a small excerpt:

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve too long thought of testimonies as stories that must move along the same path: I was terribly broken, and Jesus turned me around. Though this is a vital form of testimony, there are others, too. Jacobs refers to these as “life genres.” The Christian life can take the form of many different genres, just like a novel: there’s the fantastical adventure epic, the quiet domestic drama, even the enigmatic mystery . . .

There is the testimony of fall and redemption; there is also the testimony of the Christian scholar, lawyer, parent, friend, husband, wife, student, artist, and many more. We each inhabit several genres, and telling those stories is vital to the continuing health of the church.

Sleep No More

Last week, Tom and I went with some friends to the highly acclaimed production of Sleep No More here in the city, and it was staggeringly good. I wrote a bit about it at the Cardus blog today.

Love and admiration and Mark Zuckerberg

It was, apparently, the year of Mark Zuckerberg, between Sorkin/Fincher andTime and the Newark public schools donation and such. Oh yeah, and that website.

I’m supposed to hate Zuckerberg, I think, because of all of this. But I don’t. The whole way through The Social Network (which I reviewed), I thought I was probably supposed to hate him. But I couldn’t, and not just because it was actually Jesse Eisenberg, who I kind of adore.

On the contrary: I kind of get him, or at least the Hollywood/media version of him. We’re about the same age, we studied similar things in college (peering over “his” shoulder in the movie, I could read the code as if it were just plain old prose), we were in college at the same time, and we both seem to have the inability or perhaps underdeveloped ability to read social cues, though I think, or hope, that I’m better at it than him.

But, uneasily, I identify with him a bit. Mark, or his movie version and probably at least a good portion of his real version, really is just driven toward success by his desire to belong to something, to be accepted by someone, to be on the inside.

Oh, how I recognize that desire. I know its contours intimately. I’m neither old nor particularly wise, but when I peer uneasily backwards I can see how many of my choices have been determined by that same need. Some of those choices turned out to be good. Others probably should have been left alone. Sometimes it’s just been a hunt to be branded properly, accepted, fit into the slot that would let me be understood and known by the right people.

Earlier this year we published a piece by Vincent Bacote in Comment that I have returned to at least a half dozen times since. He starts out by talking about John Piper’s hiatus this year from the public eye, and its reasons:

One of the most interesting things he stated as he addressed his congregation was that in stepping completely away from ministry, he was not only refraining from preaching, blogging, Twittering, and writing, but also refusing to pridefully sip from “the poisonous cup of international fame and notoriety.” I found this quite fascinating and illuminating, because it displayed an understanding of the perils involved in a life of public prominence. Of course, this poison cup is not only available to public figures; it is a great temptation for any of us when we find ourselves admired by others.

What is it about the pursuit of our ambition, our legitimate and godly desires for success in vocation, that can become poisonous when it meets that admiration and recognition of others? I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with the late Stan Grenz at a conference in Nashville nearly a decade ago. I told Stan about my desire for an increase in public speaking opportunities as part of my vocational goals, and the first words out of his mouth were, “It’s seductive.” I was a bit stunned by this, because I thought he would give me some tips about how to accomplish my goals, yet the first words were a warning. As someone who did a lot of traveling and speaking, Stan was keenly aware of the pitfalls that ride along with those who travel the road of success. Stan never explicitly named the siren song with the sweetly dangerous tune, but my guess would be that he and John Piper had the same thing in mind: pride that can take root unnoticed and grow into a ravenous beast.

I don’t know what really drives Mark Zuckerberg. I only know the public version of him, and frankly, he doesn’t say a whole lot (probably wisely). I do know what drives me, though. I know how I’ve struggled against God these last few years as he’s shown me that the people and world I am called to is different than the one I might hope for – that the Venn diagram overlap between “those from whom I most desire admiration” and “those among whom I am actually called to be” seems to be smaller than I might like. And that this work is actually a joy and a blessing to me, not pain.

It’s a humbling recognition, one I couldn’t see clearly for long and am only glimpsing through shadows now. In his goodness, God has placed a few people in my life who know me instinctively (better, at times, than I know myself) and love me anyhow, and help me recognize that his yoke is easy and his burden, indeed, is light, and that admiration is worth very little if there is not love.

On tackling and linking

A last-minute trip out of town for family matters and I’ve spent the entire day (after class) trying to unearth myself from links and projects and emails. I have a Sharpied list of five enormous projects staring me in the face now, taunting me from my bulletin board. But seeing them there, they seem tacklable. Even if I’ve just realized one of the deadlines is in two and a half weeks, not six.

And I tacked my “we want you in our MFA program” letter from SPU to the board right above it, right below cards and notes from loved ones, to remind me that all I have needed, His hand has provided. The semester marches on. And then. And then!

Some links collecting in my browser:

Getting in

The last couple weeks have been very roller-coaster-y: some excellent time in Hamilton and in the Cardus office for a bunch of work on Comment, then returning home to stacks of work and some very late nights.

Good things, though —

  • I got an incredibly exciting call when I was sitting late in my office trying to meet a deadline: I got into Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative nonfiction! I’ve deferred my acceptance to the fall term, which means I’ll start at the Glen West in August. I did a lot of research and soul-searching before deciding to apply to SPU because, frankly, it’s the best program out there: selective, rooted, low-residency but also very rigorous. And I’m so glad I got in.
  • Yesterday, my spring course load was rearranged, and now I have my ideal schedule, giving me freedom to schedule conference and Comment-related travel into my week when needed.
  • And I’ve caught wind of some exciting teaching opportunities in 2011.

Leaving shortly for my sister-in-law’s wedding in the Richmond, VA area. Relishing the idea of Monday, which starts my first full week in the office in a month.


It is cold, grey, rainy, and wet in New York, and because this is New York and not England, it feels as if it’s been this way forever, even though it’s only been a week, or maybe less. So we bundle up and drink coffee and other warming things and pray for autumn sunshine.

I just noticed that my piece on “little magazines” for the Center for Public Justice was broadcast on Dordt College’s radio station (and I recorded it myself, so if you’re itching to hear what I sound like, now’s your chance). You can read it here or click next to it on this page to listen – though you’ll need Windows Media Player (grumble).

Also, have you read Lorrie Moore’s piece on the (objectively) best television show ever to hit the small screen, The Wire? (I haven’t, but it’s coming home with me tonight.)

Ask an academic about procrastination.

After class on Thursday I catch a plane in Newark bound for Toronto for almost a week of work on Comment mixed with visits with friends and many late nights of good conversation – balm for this weary soul.

And now it’s time for this academic to stop procrastinating and get back to work.

Revelations in the Key of K

Tonight we’re hearing Mary Karr at the New Yorker Festival, so I wanted to post one of her poems from Sinners Welcome. I bought the book at the Glen this summer and read this one in the airport in Dallas, while I was thinking about writing and mourning leaving Santa Fe, and it shattered me so thoroughly that I had to shut the book.

Revelations in the Key of K
By Mary Karr

I came awake in kindergarten,
under the letter K chalked neat
on a field-green placard leaned

on the blackboard’s top edge. They’d caged me
in a metal desk—the dull word writ
to show K’s sound. But K meant kick and kill

when a boy I’d kissed drew me
as a whiskered troll in art. On my sheet,
the puffy clouds I made to keep rain in

let torrents dagger loose. “Screw those
who color in the lines,” my mom had preached,
words I shared that landed me on a short chair

facing the corner’s empty, sheetrock page. Craning up,
I found my K high above.
You’ll have to grow to here, its silence said.

And in the surrounding alphabet, my whole life hid—
names of my beloveds, sacred vows I’d break.
With my pencil stub applied to wall,

I moved around the loops and vectors,
Z to A, learning how to mean, how
in the mean world to be.

But while I worked the room around me
began to smudge—like a charcoal sketch my mom
was rubbing with her thumb. Then

the instant went, the month, and every season
smeared, till with a wrenching arm tug
I was here, grown, but still bent

to set down words before the black eraser
swipes our moment into cloud, dispersing all
to zip. And when I blunder in the valley

of the shadow of blank about to break
in half, my being leans against my spinal K,
which props me up, broomstick straight,

a strong bone in the crypt of meat I am.

(From here)

Is a Persuasion

Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace: that the desire awakened by the shape of Christ and his church is one truly reborn as agape, rather than merely the way in which a lesser force succumbs to a greater, as an episode in the endless epic of power.

-David Bentley Hart in his introduction to The Beauty of the Infinite

The Senate and the Feminine Fork

Articles I recommended to students this morning and thought you might appreciate, too:

In the Queue

What’s in my browser and/or Instapaper queue today (which means I haven’t read most of it, but I was interested enough to open the link and plan to read it later):

  • An interview with Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio Journal, which I cannot possibly praise enough) from last year’s fall edition of Comment. In re-reading it, I find his suggestions to once again be immensely challenging.

    3. You believe individualism to be a corrosive, destructive force in the modern world. Do you have any suggestions for students who wonder how to live in way that is not individualistic in the context of today’s college or university?

    Some form of community is often prescribed as the antidote to individualism. But “community” involves more than getting together with a bunch of people just like you. So I would urge students to get involved as much as possible in the lives of people who are unlike them: different ages, different vocations, different stages in life. Local churches are (at least in theory) an ideal place for this, as long as the church doesn’t segregate students into the “student ministries.”

    Secondly, one of the great conveyors of individualism is the commodification of everything. Individualism goes hand-in-hand with the displacement of the idea of culture as a legacy or inheritance with that of culture as a set of sovereignly selected commodities. We now choose everything in our cultural life; we don’t simply receive anything. One way of fighting the mentality of individualism is to put oneself in a position where one is an apprentice, where one receives something offered rather than “consumes” it. For example, find someone (in that church community you’re a part of) who knows a lot about an ethnic food tradition and go to a restaurant with them, letting them choose the menu (and maybe you can even pay for their meal). Or find someone (a professor, even) who knows a lot about some artistic tradition that is foreign to you (German cinema, Renaissance choral music, English detective fiction) and apprentice yourself to them. You could do the same with master gardeners, cooks, bird watchers, woodworkers, motorcycle mechanics, even theologians. Yes, there is an initial act of individual choice, but submitting to someone else’s authority and expertise over time is a great way to fight the temptation to assert our own sovereignty.

  • From the Guardian: “Technology and the novel, from Blake to Ballard
  • Steve Garber in the Art House America blog on “The Epistemology of Love
  • Several students have approached me about leading film conversations in different contexts on campus this year, so I’m looking back at the Arts & Faith Top 100 list. (I think Babette’s Feast may be first on my list.)
  • Obama gets the new Franzen novel early, panic ensues. (I have checked Amazon basically every day hoping that the novel – which I preordered what seems like millenia ago – has shipped. It has not. I may be a little obsessed.)
  • Kevin Spacey will be in the Bridge Project’s Richard III at BAM this winter – directed by Sam Mendes.
  • David Brooks as public theologian?

Obligatory post about twentysomething article

The obligatory bellyaching over what’s wrong with twenty-somethings and the “trend” of emerging adulthood appeared in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. It’s not anything terribly illuminating – the Times is fairly legendary at being behind on trend coverage. As I read it, I was considering a response, but someone on the interwebs – I’m sorry, whoever you are, because I can’t remember who it was – pointed to this blog post as a great response. And it is.

In practical, hard-nosed American terms, freedom from necessity is good because it buys time, and time results in better decisions: “Maybe if kids take longer to choose their mates and their careers, they’ll make fewer mistakes and live happier lives.” This seems to be intended as the article’s most persuasive argument in favor of adopting emerging adulthood as a developmental phase. I don’t doubt that many adults wish in hindsight that their youth had lasted longer, but it’s not actually clear from such nostalgia and wistfulness that a longer youth would’ve resulted in a happier or wiser adulthood, assuming they ever made it to adulthood. Since time itself is not guidance in matters of marriage or vocation (especially if both are delayed because neither seem available or obviously worthwhile), 20-somethings may just take longer to make the same mistakes. Unless we believe that the longer one takes to make a decision, the better it will be (so people who marry at 90 are most likely to choose the best mates), we have to look to some other standard to determine the wisdom of such decisions.

Or maybe these past decisions were not mistakes at all? After all, the view that all previous decisions about marriage, work, and childrearing were wrong is the biggest assumption of this piece. What evidence do we have that the decisions people made in the past about these things were wrong?

Whether or not the decisions of the past were good or bad, however, we the twentysomethings have some kind of opportunity in front of us. How will we deal with the quarterlife crisis? (Rob addressed this in the latest print edition of Comment, but you’ll have to wait a month or so to read the actual piece online. That is, if you don’t subscribe. Which you should.)