Memoir of Jewish intellectual life and universal history alike, told through a houseful of books, their eccentric collectors, and the rooms in which they dwelled.
Chimen Abramsky (1916-2010) and his wife, Miriam, were easily overlooked people who made a long life in a brick house in North London. But they were giants of a kind, for what a house it was: sprawling and ramshackle but jammed to the rafters with books and papers, serving as “one of left-wing London’s great salons.” In this entertaining, deeply learned book, Sasha Abramsky (Writing/Univ. of California, Davis; The American Way of Poverty, 2013, etc.) adds materially to Chimen and Mimi’s 20,000 volumes. On another level, the book, like that grand library, is a narrative of the broad sweep of Jewish diaspora history. Chimen was a collector of useful books. For him, that doctrine of usefulness embraced the works of Karl Marx in explaining how the modern world works, Charles Darwin in explaining how life evolved, Maimonides in explaining how life should be lived, and so forth. Chimen had a sticky mind that remembered everything, and he made connections among all the things stored within: Abramsky the grandson remembers marveling when, as a very old man, Chimen, who “had almost certainly never once kicked a ball,” was able to discourse smartly on David Beckham’s career prospects simply by virtue of all the oddments he had collected about him. As the story unfolds, we follow Chimen and Mimi from room to room, most of them colonized by the former as the children grew up and moved out, and we hear their stories: of Chimen’s angry annoyance when someone said Hitler was crazy, which “gave Hitler and the Germans a free pass,” of the couple’s rich minds and witty conversations, and of the thought of vicariously “touching a book that Marx had owned and commented on.”
If you finish this brilliantly realized book thinking you need to own more books, you’re to be forgiven. A wonderful celebration of the mind, history, and love.
An illuminating look at the origins and impact of writing.
In this richly detailed cultural history, Battles (The Sovereignties of Invention, 2012, etc.), associate director of the research group metaLAB at Harvard, traces the evolution of writing from cuneiform in the fourth millennium B.C. to digital communications. Emerging as an accounting system in Mesopotamia, writing became evidence of power as well as a means of personal expression. It also changed the human mind; writing “exploits (and transforms) circuits in our brains….Writing teaches our brains to do all kinds of somersaults and tricks.” Besides communicating immediate needs, writing allows for the transmission of cultural knowledge, bears witness to the past, and influences the future. All writing, Battles has discovered, is composed of “lines that cross, connect, and loop, and they arrange themselves into linear sets,” whether it takes the form of Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or Greek, Sanskrit, or Cyrillic alphabets. Battles underscores the way writing shapes reading and thinking: “in the form of word and sentence, chapter and verse,” he asserts, “writing teaches.” The author highlights several texts as especially significant, including the saga Gilgamesh, unearthed from clay tablets, which imparted lessons about kingship and heroism that influenced later literature; and the Bible, which “hides its own writing from us in a haze of myths and mystical formulae.” Before the printing press, hand copying made all books—including the Bible—vulnerable to changes: “Each instance of book production was a reading, and an editing.” Movable type changed the production and availability of books, but early printed volumes allowed for ample margins so that illuminators could ply their craft. Battles deftly excavates layers of human history from a wide range of sources to reveal that writing “is always palimpsestic; there is no setting-down that is not a setting-among, a setting-upon.”
A fascinating exploration stylishly and gracefully told.
Elegiac, gracious literary ponderings that group and compare 12 giants of American literature.
Pairing these seminal authors of the “American Sublime” sometimes by influence (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James) or because they are contemporaneous (Walt Whitman and Herman Melville) or populist and ironical (Mark Twain and Robert Frost), literary titan Bloom (Humanities/Yale Univ.; The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, 2011, etc.) lends his enormous, shaggy erudition to their works. Now 84, the author examines the poems of Whitman or of Hart Crane (his avowed favorite), as well as such characters as Isabel Archer from James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady, Candace Compson from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Wildness might be another way of characterizing the “daemonic” elements in the works of these authors, a ferocious unbounded self-reliance, as espoused in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was full of ambivalence, pageantry, and “heroic erotic vitality.” With each author, Bloom carefully considers his or her specific work (Emily Dickinson is the only female), cited in fairly robust extracts, in terms of “tricks, turns and tropes of poetic language,” which he delights in tossing up and playing with—e.g., Shakespearean influences and great American tropes such as the white blankness of Ahab’s whale. Yet as gossamer as Bloom’s pearls of literary wisdom are, his personal digressions seem most true, striking, and poignant. He characterizes himself as the “Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarian” who arrived at Yale at age 21 and was not made to feel welcome. He brought with him a boundless enthusiasm for Hart Crane and uneasiness with the “genteel anti-Semitism” of T.S. Eliot (one of Bloom’s “Greats,” but grudgingly so).
As always, Bloom conveys the intimate, urgent, compelling sense of why it matters that we read these canonical authors.
Acclaimed scholar and biographer Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, 2013, etc.) brings decades of study to this analysis of William Blake’s art, poetry, religion, and philosophy.
Those with little experience with the 18th-century poet will probably benefit the most from this fascinating work. As the author writes, Blake’s poems are undeniably strange, and his genius has always challenged the focus of his readers (he was overlooked during his lifetime). Especially difficult is tracing the complications of the unpublished poem “The Four Zoas” and their feminine emanations. Blake’s outlooks on the divine, which is contained in all nature, and institutional religion, which he loathed, show in his invented symbols and unique myths. He sought the incarnation of the divine spirit of the human in the everyday, and he looked at conventional marriage as institutionalized prostitution and conventional religion as theatrical performance. In “London,” nothing is sacred as Blake indicts church, law, monarchy, property, and marriage. He produced his own engravings and writings, and those who bought them tended to ignore the text. The author’s study of the man and clear style make this much easier to read and tempt readers to seek out more. Blake was a complicated man, given to visions and paranoia, and he often heard voices, and Damrosch guides us through the paths of Blake’s mind to ease our journey. Blake’s poems and art were used to challenge and inspire, never to preach, and his first works had a social message. His long prophecies were not epics, however; a better analogy is music, as they resembled oratorios with key changes and tempo contrasts. Damrosch expertly navigates Blake’s “question imagination,” which “has never ceased to startle and inspire.”
General readers looking for a challenge will love this book and will dive into Blake’s work. Many will find him just too far off the beam, but they, too, will enjoy the many color illustrations included in the text.
The author of The Life of Kingsley Amis (2007) returns with the first installment of a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow (1915-2005), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Leader (English/Univ. of Roehampton) is a believer in the hefty biography (Amis’ nears 1,000 pages), and his new volume—which takes us to the publication of Bellow’s Herzog—will bend a hardwood shelf, as well. The research underlying the text is formidable. Leader certainly read everything, talked to everyone relevant who would talk with him (not everyone would), and visited numerous significant sites. Throughout, the author expresses his gratitude to the (few) Bellow biographers who have gone before, occasionally pausing to disagree—especially with James Atlas, although Leader later provides some praise in source notes. In structure, this volume is traditional. After an introduction that praises Bellow, he takes us to Russia (Bellow’s ancestral home) and then marches steadily forward chronologically. In many places, the author stops his narrative to explore fictional analogs among Bellow’s actual experiences, friends, and lovers. This occurs in every section and sometimes goes on for quite a while, occasionally trying even an indulgent reader’s patience. But what a busy life Bellow had. He taught at the University of Minnesota, Bard College, the University of Chicago, and at other venues, including Puerto Rico, where he found the heat oppressive. Among his students were William Kennedy and Donald Barthelme. Bellow also traveled around Europe, and he hung out with Ralph Ellison, partied with Gore Vidal, dined with Marilyn Monroe, attended a Kennedy White House tribute to André Malraux, had sex with myriad women—but was stunned to discover that his second wife had been having a long affair with one of his friends, writer Jack Ludwig. Some violence ensued. The volume ends with some pages about Herzog, the novel that propelled Bellow into celebrity.
Will now stand as the definitive Bellow biography.
A New Yorker editor since 1978, Norris provides an educational, entertaining narrative about grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The author devotes chapters to commas (who knew a printer more or less invented comma usage in 1490?); apostrophes; hyphens; the difference between "that" and "which"; the proper usage of "who" and "whom" (would Ernest Hemingway have published For Who the Bell Tolls?); dealing with profanity in a national magazine (a chapter in which Norris demonstrates that not all copy editors are prudish); which dictionary (if any) to rely on; and, as a bonus, an ode to pencils with and without erasers. Raised in the Cleveland area, Norris had a vague notion growing up of being a writer. But after attending college, she did not know how to proceed toward that goal, so she worked jobs that included delivering milk to homes, packaging cheese in a factory for sale to supermarkets and washing dishes in a restaurant. The possibility of an editing job at the New Yorker arose only because Norris' brother knew an important person there. Once at the New Yorker, the author engaged in spirited debates with more senior copy editors about all manner of decisions about grammar, punctuation and spelling. Though she observed the rules, she also began to realize that sometimes she had to compromise due to the fact that accomplished writers for the magazine followed their own logic. Norris delivers a host of unforgettable anecdotes about such famed New Yorker writers as Philip Roth, Pauline Kael, John McPhee and George Saunders. In countless laugh-out-loud passages, Norris displays her admirable flexibility in bending rules when necessary. She even makes her serious quest to uncover the reason for the hyphen in the title of the classic novel Moby-Dick downright hilarious.