Thursday, August 2, 2018

Would anyone be interested in a readalong of classic, or at least good, or at least one hopes so, literary criticism?

My fifth idea is to read some literary criticism.  Classics of.  Books that are great in their own way, perhaps even works of art of some kind.  I have two impulses.

First, to steal ideas, or let’s say to find some new ways of looking at what I read. Spur some thought, if possible.

Second, it is clear that some of the best parts of the blog have been readalongs, and some of my worst ideas for readalongs have actually been my best (e.g., What Is To Be Done?), so why not invite interested people to join in.

The number of participants is of little importance.  A readalong of Melville’s Clarel had only one other reader, and she made an original contribution to Melville scholarship!  And anyway the important thing is that I learn a lot.

Two ideas.  One is to schedule a series of relatively short books, one every two or three months.  A variety of subjects, approaches, countries, forms.  Nothing too Theoretical.  For example, in ten months or a year, with readers joining as they like (all books I have not read):

Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations
William Empson’s Milton’s God
Barbara Hardy’s The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form
Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism
Paul Valéry’s The Art of Poetry

Except I feel obligated, for competing educational purposes, to read the latter in French, which seems unlikely, really, so let’s say a collection of essays by Eugenio Montale or Umberto Eco or something like that.

Maybe I am wrong about what is in these books.  My understanding is that they are good books.  But there are many other possibilities.

The other tack would be to tackle a monster.  E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Mikhail Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore.  Books that might take months to work through.

I am thinking of this project as work, maybe more like a study group than a readalong, but the kind of work that can be intensely pleasurable.
A good readalong ought to give the readers a lot to do, right?

Maybe this is a bad bad idea, rather than a good bad idea.  Please let me know what you think.  Feel free to contribute suggestions – favorite books, logistics, anything – even if you have no interest at all in participating.

We all have plenty to read.


  1. I would love to participate if it could be done purely online as I live on the other side of the world. The only one of the books mentioned above that I have read is ‘Mimesis’, but would be happy to reread it as I need to review another Auerbach book for an online journal. I have always wanted to read ‘European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages’ so an excuse like this would be most welcome.

    PS. I really like your blog!

  2. This is a good idea, I think.

    Some books your lists reminded me of, from a list I've been compiling for myself: Laöcoon, by Lessing; World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance, by Eva Brann; the anthology, Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, ed. by Michael McKeon; Reading Rilke, by William Gass; Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare; Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann; The Essays of Saint-Beuve; Helene Cixous' The Laugh of the Medusa; Essays on Criticism, by Matthew Arnold; Biographia Literaria, by Coleridge; The Rhetoric of Fiction, by Wayne Booth; The Mirror and the Lamp, by M.H. Abrams; Beginnings: Intention and Method, by Edward Said.

    Just some ideas.

  3. The Curtius, and some of the other longer books, almost seem to demand a class, a semester - a year. Any assistance or motivation to get through the book it helps. Any assistance in absorbing its contents.

    From Robert's list, I've read Lessing, Coleridge, Arnold, and the simpler version of Booth's book, "The Company We Keep." All terrific.

    The Abrams is quite tempting. The Brann I did not know at all - fascinating - also enormous. Cixous probably - no, certainly - is too much in Theory world. An exercise in frustration. Exercise is good for me, I am told.

  4. I don't have to participate, but the last posthumous collection of essays by Eco is fantastic:

  5. Eco's essays are fun. His essay on Hugo (Excess and History in Hugo's Ninety-Three) is v interesting.

    Albeit the translation of the essay by Michael F. Moore is marred by a mistranslation of "commissario politico" as "police commissioner" (yes, commissario usually refers to that in Italian, but he simply ignores the "politico" and fails to check the novel referred to, which contains no police commissioners whatsoever).

    So that particular translation, I would avoid.

  6. This is an interesting idea, and I'd consider participating. I have very little pre-knowledge of literary criticism, so it would all be new to me.

  7. It is a minor art, literary criticism, but it is an art. There are a number of wonderful books, doing all sorts of things. They do presume a bookish interest, but we hardly lack that.

    The Eco-on-Hugo essay Maya criticizes is in one of Moretti's gigantic The Novel books. Now that is a readalong idea. A lifelong readalong.

    I barely know Eco. He seems to have every characteristic I enjoy in a writer, but I have only read scraps.

  8. I criticize the translation, not the essay. The essay is excellent!

  9. Well, if I can find a copy of Frye, I’m all in just for the helluvit. I turned my back on lit crit when I turned my back on academia, but I could do an about face for Frye.

  10. I think Eco's "The Open Work" is a great book. I'd be interested in what others have to say about it.

  11. I'm thinking of switching Frye books, though, to the shorter, and I think easier, Fables of Identity. It sounds easier. Maybe I'm wrong. It is definitely shorter.

    The Eco does not have too much semiotics? I have no idea how much is too much. The book sounds great.

  12. Tell me when you're ready for a readalong of a classic, and I'll jump right in. Literary criticism sounds a bit heavy for mw right now. I'm retired from the classoom, you know, and feel like an indulgent fall for the first time since I was five.

    Not that some don't find criticism indulgent, of course.

  13. I vote for the monster! I've started both Curtius and Auerbach and would love to have an excuse to finish one of them, or to give Bahktin or Wilson a shot. But whatever you choose, I'll follow the discussion with pleasure.

  14. These are all stone-cold classics! But some of them are on the heavy side.

    I am beginning to lean towards a short-then-monster plan.

  15. First the overture, then the concerto. Good programming.

  16. Your post sent me scurrying to Curtius for the first time. I can't put it down; it's taking over my life. What a wonderful wonderful book it is. I hope you do the Curtius. I would love to see you making what you will make of it.

  17. You have Curtius in your haversack? Aren't you hitchhiking in Wales or something like that?

    Second try at a response: Yes, exactly! Although at this point the weight of interest leans towards Mimesis.

  18. I have only read the first and last chapters of Mimesis: both magnificent, though Auerbach is pretty hard on Woolf. I think it might be a tough book to read if you haven't read the texts he's writing about--though you and your readers have probably read most of them. I suspect I won't have time to read along, but I will watch with interest.

    Now, if you want to read along with my literary theory class in the spring, that would be awesome!

    Haversack! Love it!

  19. The parts of Mimesis I have read were quite hard, and that's when I knew the works under discussion. But at this point I have read about three-quarters of the relevant works.

    Maybe this winter let us know what's in the theory class. You might have some takers.

  20. Yes, I'm traveling. But I've a Kindle, you see.

    In the intro to Curtius, Kermode's SENSE OF AN ENDING is mentioned as part of a trinity involving Curtius and Auerbach. Might add Kermode to your list for consideration.

  21. In the intro to Curtius, Kermode's SENSE OF AN ENDING is mentioned as part of a trinity involving Curtius and Auerbach. Might add Kermode to your list for consideration.

    Yes! That's another one I'm dying to get to -- I've loved everything I've read by Kermode.

  22. I'll join you with Illuminations since I have it somewhere. I've read bits of it before but I don't remember them.

    The curtius sounds like exactly my own ideas about things written down in book form, and I really should read it. I've long thought there was no modernism, but recently I've become much more interested in the connections between classical, medieval and Renaissance literature. Medieval literature is so obsessed with classical literature, that you wonder what the Renaissance could possibly be. However it seems a bit expensive for now, so I will stick with my earlier 2 volume FJE Raby's A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages, which is possibly the most fascinating book I possess (I have the additional 1 volume Christian Poetry book too).

  23. Switching in Kermode is a good idea. Giving up breadth and randomness for a more coherent set of books. A more German set of books, Kermode aside.

    Kermode's book is also, bless him, short.

    The Renaissance had more money. Maybe that's the big difference. I suspect that the reader of Raby needs Latin, yes?

    This is all quite helpful. Jake, yes, something will happen.

  24. Auerbach is pretty hard on Woolf. I think [Mimesis] might be a tough book to read if you haven't read the texts he's writing about--though you and your readers have probably read most of them.

    No, it's not like that -- I've read very few of the texts he's writing about in the part that I've gotten through so far (not even Augustine's Confessions, shame on me!) and I had no problem following his discussion, which is about changes in the ways everyday life has been represented in literature, not about the works as such -- he quotes big chunks so you can follow what he's saying. And I wouldn't pay too much attention to his judgments about the more recent period; he was a stuffy old-fashioned German philologist who was not likely to appreciate Woolf.

  25. About the last thing I expect great critics to be is right. Ruskin is incessantly wrong. Curious thing how little that matters.

  26. LH is right as usual. Those big chunks Auerbach quotes help a lot. It's amazing, the way he segues from description to interpretation. I still think it's helpful to know the books he's close reading, though. And I think the Woolf stuff is important because (1) his criticism is so obliquely presented it's hard to tell if that's what it is (I have wrestled in many seminars with students over the last pages of that chapter) and (2) his attitude to Woolf and by extension to modernism has repercussions for his judgements on 20th century literature. Have the modernists expanded realism or have they failed to pursue it? Are they, in other words, good writers or bad writers?

  27. That is a good example of what I mean by "wrong," if those are the categories. This afternoon I am read a Czech play about robots and a Ronald Firbank fantasy. Good writers who chose not to pursue realism. "Failed," please.

    So I reject a premise, who cares? I can pretend to accept it and see what I can learn from Auerbach or whoever. My experience with him is that the chapters in Mimesis are exploding with ideas. They are difficult in part because there is so much going on.

  28. That was my experience as well -- I had to keep putting the book aside to cogitate about what he was saying. You can feel your brain expanding as you read.

  29. Don't disagree with either of you. Local insights always trump the big picture, in my book.


  30. Long ago I read Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, could see a selective reread

    I checked The Barbara Hardy book on Eliot on Amazon, hard back for sale for $585.00,paperback $55.00. There being no libraries near me, this I must pass on.

    Northrop Frye. Found this priced at $10.00 and I added this to my wish list

    Last year I read E. R. Curtius’s book, expanded my overview of European literature. Very much worth the effort.

    Mimesis by Erich Auerbach. I have read the chapters on works I have read. Dense reading but really deep. I would be up for a long read along on this work.

  31. Sadly, I'm dropping Hardy, and Empson, too, the single-author studies, in favor of the aiming-towards-Mimesis idea. Maybe next round.

    "long read along" - exactly!

  32. Interested in Illuminations too. Like obooki I have read bits from it. Surprisingly some of his essays were translated locally and his ideas are appropriated in Eastern lit context. He is a good representative of translation studies.

    The availability of a title in Kindle might also be a factor for me.

  33. OK, I have made some choices and put up a schedule. Everything should be widely available, I hope.

  34. A comment/warning about Bahktin’s Rabelais and His World: it's unfortunate that this was the first book of his to be translated into English (in 1968) and that it is pretty much all people (other than specialists) know about Bahktin. It is not only unlike everything else he wrote, it contradicts it. His immense contribution to literary studies (and perhaps even philosophy) is his emphasis on the vital importance of dialogue -- not in the sense of people talking to each other, but of ideas and traditions confronting each other -- and his view of the modern novel as its high point. He shows how prior poetry and fiction was stuck in a particular chronotope (space-time conjunction, pattern of combining events); beginning with Goethe and culminating with Dostoevsky, the novel developed ways of presenting openness (unfortunately translated "unfinalizability") and showing the world as open to possibilities rather than closed (as in epics, utopias, etc.). I'm wildly oversimplifying, but the point is that the Rabelais book throws all this aside and basically says "Dude! Farting and shitting and cursing is what life is all about! Yeehah, screw the aristocracy!" (It may not be irrelevant that 1) it was his dissertation, and 2) it was written in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalinist terror and enforced uniformity.) It may or may not be a useful contribution to Renaissance studies -- scholars of the period disagree -- but it's definitely not representative of Bakhtin and I personally think it's the weakest thing he wrote.