Friday, September 18, 2009

The only place where something like a conversation can be started about a poem of Ben Jonson's

William Pritchard has been a literature professor at Amherst College for over 50 years. He's written a memoir on the subject, English Papers: A Teaching Life (1995), of which I have read some excerpts. Looks pretty good.

But today I want to share another bit of the Preface to the new On Poets & Poetry that I think book bloggers will enjoy. In the Preface, Pritchard discusses why he writes book reviews, and then turns to his teaching:

"Selfishly, the classroom is central to my life because it is the only place where something like a conversation can be started about a poem of Ben Jonson's, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, or a novel by Henry James. One doesn't expect to have such a conversation when dining at a friend's or even when passing the time with a professional colleague. They might not have read or been reading the right book at the right time; for that to happen, something like a captive audience of more or less agreeable students is necessary." (p. xii)

Well. I suspect that some book bloggers might want to modify a word or two in that passage. It's almost exactly right.

I started Wuthering Expectations as a result of moving away from a fine, fine book club, still active and reading challenging books. We read Swann's Way, Bleak House, and The Leopard; Balzac and Byatt; Sebald and Waugh. We had a few disasters. Everyone loved Midnight's Children, but no one (including me) had anything to say about it. We could have used a professor that night. And The Crying of Lot 49 - no, I don't want to talk about that. Nine times out of ten, the book conversation, which generally lasted not much more than an hour, was excellent. This is all aside from some extraordinary food and wine.

So I missed that conversation. I still don't exactly count what I do as real conversation. We all understand the differences. But often, it is close, and occasionally very close. Book Blogger Appreciation Week has made visible to me some of the other ways that people try to create what Pritchard finds in the classroom.

Perhaps what I find mot heartening about what Pritchard writes is that, after the perils of a PhD, an admirable shelf of books, and a half century of teaching, he still wants that conversation. The act of reading the book is presumably the priority. But it's not quite enough.

It's not, is it?


  1. You're right, reading a book isn't quite enough. That's why I started blogging, because I had no one to talk about books with unless I wanted to subject myself to the bestseler lists and I just couldn't. Reading a book might be a solitary act, but it's talking about it with others that really completes the experience.

  2. No, reading the book is not enough. I close it and I have all sorts of thoughts swimming around. I turn to people in real life and they get all "glassy eyed." So that's why I write up those thoughts and post them on a blog.

    I do have to say, though, that that is quite a book club you were a part of. Even if no one had much to say about some of the books, at least you had all read them together!

    I'm starting a new book club at the library, but we're a little less ambitious.

  3. I suppose you're right - reading isn't enough. But it must not be conversation per se that I personally require because I keep reading and blogging about books that no other book bloggers appear to have read! I like the writing best; getting feedback is extra, extra gravy.

    I'll be interested to see if you, AR, respond to my posts about Ben Jonson when they eventually go up - I'm currently reading his complete poems - given the title of this post. ;)

  4. Colleen,

    I agree about the writing being a huge part it, almost more than the conversation. I find it therapeutic. I think of it as talking to myself, and if someone hears, it's great!


  5. Colleen and Rebecca - I agree; the writing/reading synergy is the best part of it for me, and then the ensuing conversation is the delicious cherry on top of my reading sundae.

  6. The nature of the internet beast is that everyone, at least when they began, had to assume that they had no audience whatsoever. Hence the emphasis on writing and introspection. A writer starting with a higher profile might have a quite different approach.

    Colleen, Ben Jonson has one of the best "Complete" collections in English. His minor poems are fun, and he's almost never boring. In his poems - he's boring in his serious plays, Sejanus and whatever the other one is.