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Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984-94

by John Barth

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 1995
ISBN: 0-316-08324-0
Publisher: Little, Brown

Like The Friday Book (1984), a collection of eclectic and irregularly insightful essays by the noted novelist--an admixture of reminiscence, manifesto, and review. Barth devotes one day a week to writing essay-lectures on such favorite topics as literary forms, traditions, and styles; the Chesapeake Bay area; his own books; or all those subjects at once in "a kind of thinking out loud [or] teaching oneself." Throughout these discursive pieces, the writer links his ideas loosely with his literary touchstones: Scheherazade, Don Quixote, Borges, Garcia Marquez, and the inconclusive, contested definiendum "postmodernism." His professionally well told memoirs of his second wife's profession ("Teacher") and his encounters with Borges are shot through with both incidental allusions and in-depth references, as are his idiosyncratic critical pieces, ranging from the aesthetic merits of the Chesapeake local arts and crafts to a concentrated reading of "Jack and Jill" and a consideration of Poe's gruesome genre effects in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. '4' Lectures: The Stuttgart Seminars on Postmodernism, Chaos Theory, and the Romantic Arabesque'' and a bravura triad on minimalism, maximalism, and the short story skillfully interweave all the sources and concerns of Barth's shorter, unrelated essays. Some of his comparisons are highly inventive (for example, the similarities among postmodernist referentialism, chaotic feedback, and the repetitive patterns of Persian carpets, together with their parallels in literature), but they tend to lack, or avoid, a conclusion. If this noncommittal reflex handicaps the writer's scrappy mini-manifestos against creative writing programs and realism ("Very Like an Elephant"), it keeps his discussions of storytelling clear and effective. A dilettante par excellence, Barth has read intelligently and indiscriminately enough to have something interesting to say at almost any time.