Articles I liked: Paris Review interviews of Philip Larkin, Dag Solstad, Sam Lipsyte; the NYRB reconsiders V.S. Naipaul, and others

I also have a strong desire to become one of those people who links to articles, so that's what I'm gonna do.

"The Trouble With Money" in London Review of Books - The economics I learned in college wasn't very self-reflective, on a philosophical level. It never worried about the nature of money or what it represented. Money was merely a medium of exchange: a thousand dollars equals a thousand dollars worth of butter equals a thousand dollars worth of guns. They are the same thing. But a whole class of late 19th and early 20th century economists devoted their time to grappling with the concept of money. What did it mean? How did it function? And not just practically, but psychologically as well. Loved this article on John Maynard Keynes, who wrote about the death-grip money has on our psyches, and the way that after a certain point, saving can become a mania that interferes with the production of goods and services.

"Art of Fiction No. 230: Dag Solstad" in The Paris Review - At various times in my life I've had the ambition to read all the Paris Review interviews. But I inevitably realize that if I haven't read and enjoyed the author, then I don't really care about what they have to say. I really liked Solstad's interview, just as I really like his novels! He seems to have his head on his shoulders--very practical writer, who seems to enjoy his work. I was however amused by his 3-1-3 schedule, where after every third day of writing, he gets blind drunk for one full day. LOL.

"Art of Poetry No. 30: Philip Larkin" by The Paris Review - Larkin is one of the few poets that I truly love. I deeply enjoyed this mildly grumpy interview of his, where he describes his solitary life, how he hasn't read poetry in years, how his only encounters with Auden and Eliot were awkward and terrifying, and how he basically doesn't know anything of life outside Hull, where he's lived for the last twenty-five years. What a genius he was.

"Art of Fiction No. 242: Sam Lipsyte" in The Paris Review - Another deeply likeable interview. Just enjoyed playing around in his mind, same as I enjoy his fiction! No great revelations. I just like the guy!

"2022 was not the year of consilience" by Erik Hoel - I subscribe to Erik's substack. He's both a researcher into consciousness and a novelist. Which is to say, he's researching consciousness from the inside and out. In this post he talks about attempting to bridge the science / art divide, and how most of the resistance to that idea seems to come from artists. I thought he was smart in talking about the one thing scientists can do to maybe help heal that divide, which is not be reductive about art. Even if you can explain some things about art using science, there's still a phenomonological level to it that'll never be directly accessible to science.

"Naipaul's Unreal Africa" in The New York Review of Books - I really like Naipaul's work. I've read a lot of it. His best and most humane books are his early ones, set in Trinidad, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas. His later books, especially those set in Africa, are interesting and evocative, but extremely cruel. He was a cruel man, and he was undeniably racist. This author reexamines the legacy of his Booker-nominated A Bend in the River, and the ways its racism would be received if published today, instead of in 1979.

"A New King for the Congo" in The New York Review of Books - This essay, written by Naipaul and published in the NYRB in the 70s, is an example of the way he wrote about Africa (it's also discussed in the article above)

My answers to a questionairre recently given to me by a friend

A friend is writing a blog post about peoples' favorite books. I am going to repost her questions and my answers here because I am short on time to write today's post

If you could please provide your favorite:
1. Book you could read over and over and over again.
2. Book from your childhood (childhood ends whenever you decide it ends but please specify).
3. Book that you would be embarrassed to admit is your favorite book.
7. BOOK OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you have one of those.
Answers to question 1, 2, 3, and 7: My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. It was my favorite when I was 14 and it's my favorite now. I've read it at least a dozen times. I think it is sublime. (And no, I don't believe in her political philosophy. But then...I don't believe in Tolstoy's either...) I wrote about it here.
4. Academic/pretentious favorite book... this category could also be thought of as "book that you maybe wouldn't read again but really loved being forced to read in school" or "favorite book in the opposite of category #1 type of way."
Answer to question 4: I really did love In Search Of Lost Time (which I read on my own and was not forced to read in school). But I also probably wouldn't have stuck it out if it wasn't as famous as it is. It's also the book I've gotten by far the most mileage out of having read. It's so expansive and so much stuff is related to it and even most people who love books haven't read it. I do recommend it to anyone who has a few months to spare, though!
5. Out of genre/ "not my typical steeze" book (ie: "I normally never read Sci-fi/Fantasy, but I really liked [insert book title here]" or "Poems make me want to vomit except that one time when they didn't because I read {insert poetry book here})
Answer to question 5: I don't read much poetry, but the collected poems of Philip Larkin was amazing (only 250 pages, at least the version I got [which had all his published poems], though they have a much longer one now, which strikes me as BS. If you have an amazing 250 pages, why pad it out with 100 unpublished poems to make a turgid 450.)
6. Book to put on your shelf and admire... (you can pick a certain edition or cover or send me a pic if that's important to you. This can also be a coffee table book that you have never read full of pictures of naked women.)

Answer to question 6: I keep my bookshelf in my bedroom, so few people ever see it. And, in any case, I recently got rid of most of my physical books. I guess the most impressive books I still have in physical form is my copy of Democracy In America by Alexis De Tocqueville. I read the first half of it ages ago, and am still planning on reading the 2nd half someday.

The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin

There are alot of books on the market about how to read in a hoity-toity, analytical fashion (Mortimer Adler's How To Read A Book, Thomas C. Foster's How To Read Literature Like A Professor, etc., etc.). I think that these books are really dumb. The purpose of a book--whether it's The Berenstein Bears or James Joyce--is to give pleasure. Insofar as the teachings of lit professors come to prevent their students from reaping a harvest of pleasure, they are actually undermining the purpose of the books that they purport to uphold. Some English classes would do less damage to literature if, instead of teaching, the instructor just went out and burned as many books as he could find.*

There is no branch of literature that is so ill-served by formal education as poetry. In English class, we're taught to pick a poem to pieces and try to "discover" the various readings that the teacher is eventually so good as to hand to us. Or maybe we go through it on a structural and formalist level: we count the syllables and mark the stresses and sort out the meter; we categorize the rhetorical devices; we pluck out the allusions. But what we don't learn how to do is pick up a book of poetry and enjoy it.

Until I read Paradise Lost two summers ago, I don't think I had ever willingly read a volume of poetry. My whole exposure to poetry was through a few isolated "Best of All Time" type poems (like Byron's "So, we'll go no more a roving" or Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" or Poe's "The Raven"). These poems are fine and these poems are entertaining, but they're also, in some sense, dead ends. If you love a poem like "So, we'll go no more a roving"--love it in a way that requires no interpretation, because an emotional reaction flickers forth in your heart as you read--then how do you keep pursuing that feeling?

If your answer is to go to the library and check out some more Lord Byron, then you'll end up with cradling a monster like this 1120 page edition of his major works.

Now tell me, what is a person to do with something like that? That's not a book for someone who's trying to have an enjoyable reading experience; that's a book for someone who's got some kind of score to settle with Byron. Even this Penguin edition of his Selected Poems (my god, they actually left something out?) is 864 pages long.

Modern poetry is presented in a more manageable form: the 50-100 page book. However, modern poetry doesn't even have an in. It's not easy to discover a modern poet (unless you're in the poetry world yourself).

But even if you do find a good poet and a nice book that's of readable length, then what're you supposed to do with the damned thing? All of your previous experience with poetry has told you that poetry is best consumed in singletons. That first you find a poem and then you pick it apart for every dash and jot of meaning. And then, presumably, you go onto the next one?

However, even a first glance at a book of poetry suffices to tell you that this can't be right. For one thing, the book is too long. Surely one is not supposed to analyze every single poem therein? And secondly, all of this work of analysis seems a bit abstruse. Is this really how poetry is meant to be consumed? Was Shakespeare's audience of groundlings rigorously engaged in puzzling out rhetorical devices as the actors declaimed onstage? When Omar Khayyam writes about curling up under a tree with a book of poetry and a bottle of wine is he really planning on getting some fine, rousing intellectual enjoyment from it? When one of Jane Austen's heroes (I think it's in Sense and Sensibility) is transported with delight by a book of poems, is it really because she's managed to work out the cleverness of its meter?

No, of course not. In previous times, poetry was held to be something that was accessible to everyone. Plato hated poetry because he thought that poetry's artifice could dress up falsehoods and make them sound like truths. But something of that confidence in poetry is lost to us. When I open a book of poems, I usually feel nothing. Sometimes if I strain and strain and read and reread, I finally manage to eke out a little joy. But I rarely feel anything like the ecstatic transport that Jane Austen would have me believe is a common feeling.

For a long time, I thought that perhaps the answer was to skim a book of poetry until you found "the good ones" and then read those ones over and over and over. To a large extent, this is how I enjoyed Wallace Stevens' Harmonium. I think I've read "Tea at the Palace of Hoon" more than fifty times. And it has provided me with alot of joy.

But it also feels wrong, somehow. I mean, this is a way to enjoy a book of poetry. But it doesn't feel right. It just feels like an extension of the "Best Of All Time" method. It lacks depth or understanding.

Well, I still don't have any answers to the above questions, but I can add a datapoint. I just read The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin cover to cover in about 2 days. The edition was approximately 200 pages long and contained all** of the poems that he collected during his lifetime (as well as a few uncollected poems). And it was great! I definitely had some kind of emotional reaction to the book as a whole. I did no analysis! Mostly, I read each poem twice, and by the second time I had a pretty good sense of it. If I didn't understand a poem, I just kept going.

In fact, I read a good portion of it while I was standing on a sunny Oakland sidewalk and waiting for AAA to come and jumpstart my car. And it was marvelous. As I was standing there, I thought, "You know, poetry is just like everything else. We don't really remember most of what we read. We just read in order for momentary pleasure, and to gain a certain lasting sense of things."

In Larkin's case, the sense was vague and dim. It was a world of bookish men in tweeds who were forever looking in on dancehalls and scoffing at the people they found there. In fact, there was quite a bit of scoffing in this world. Much of it, rather strangely, was directed at children and people with children. But a significant amount of it was inward-directed, and aimed squarely at artistic pretensions. And then there was the scenery of the place: a distant English provincial town where there are still wheat fields in between the shopping malls.

I also loved the tone of Larkin. It was this almost-colloquial diction--all "chap" and "bloke" and "bloody" and "junk" and "bastard" and "sex"--combined with an intensely mannered syntax--the phrases proceed at a very stately pace. I am engaging in a light bit of biocrit here, but it does sound a bit like a born librarian who's trying to mimic the voice of undergrads.

I feel as if I've already run far too long here, but I encourage you to read the book. One of my more favorite poems within it was "High Windows" (which I also think is pretty representative of what you'll find within). I've excerpted it below (in what's probably an act of copyright infringement).

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Read it and tell me what you think***.

*Okay, I feel like I was way harsh on English teachers. There's nothing wrong with you, really. You're just ordinary peeps who're doing a thankless job. And it's not really your job to teach people to love literature. It's your job to educate them: to teach them how to extract all that juicy philosophical and moral and emotional goodness that literature is supposedly so jam-packed with. It's not the fault of the English teacher that his whole enterprise is so dubious. I mean, English class is this astrological game where you examine a set of symbols and use them to build up little stories. It just seems totally out of place when compared to all the other, rather more straightforward, subjects. I mean, literary interpretation is fun and all, but it doesn't really seem like it deserves to be such a big part of every young person's education.

**There's another version of Larkin's collected works that is 400+ pages long and has twice as many poems. I thank God that this is the one that I picked up instead. Basically, the editor had this kind of change of heart and was like, "If Larkin chose not to publish these poems then they do not deserve to be published!" so in the next edition, he only stuck to poems that he published before he died. Larkin did not publish very many poems during his 40 year career. This just goes to illustrate a common truth. For a living author, it's best to be prolific, so that you keep popping back up onto the radar with each book release. However, for a dead author, it's best to be alive. Wait, I mean it's best to have just a few books, so that people can read you and then feel like they really understand you. That's why John Updike's critical reputation has been dropping like a stone since his death. People don't really know how to approach his oeuvre. Since it's so big and diverse and hard to handle, they just skip it entirely.

***For your reference, my favorite poems therein were: VI; VII; IX; XI; XII; XVII; XX; No Road; Born Yesterday; Maiden Name; Next Please; Reasons For Attendance; Coming; Wires; Church Going; Toads; Poetry Of Departures; Desolations; Arrivals Departures; At Grass; Mr. Bleaney; Love Songs In Age; Faith Healing; Water; Selfs The Man; Take One Home For The Kiddies; Days; Talking In Bed; A Study Of Reading Habits; As Bad As A Mile; Reference Back; Forget What Did; High Windows; Going Going; Posterity; Homage To A Government; This Be The Verse; Sad Steps; Annus Mirabilis; Vers De Societe; Story; A Writer; Fiction And The Reading Public; Since The Majority Of Me; Continuing To Live; How; Life With A Hole In It; and Party Politics