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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

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Book Note: Twentieth-Century English Literature, edited by Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Britain, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, The Novel, Western Civilization, Writing on October 24, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following excerpt first appeared as part of the Routledge Annotated Bibliography of English Studies series.

This history of twentieth-century English literature addresses a wide variety of texts produced in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  Made up of 44 critical essays, this book is divided into four parts: 1) Writing Modernity, 2) The Emerging Avant-Garde, 3) Modernism and its Aftermath, 1918-1945, and 4) Post-War Cultures, 1945-1970.  This division is meant to read like a history and not like a companion, anthology, or compilation of essays. 

The book attempts to avoid treating “Englishness” or “English literature” as fixed or essentialized categories and, instead, to use those loaded terms as illustrative of multiple and differing conceptions of place and identity.  As with any historical account of modernism, this book explores the tensions between continuity and change, but unlike many historical accounts of modernism, this book focuses largely upon transnationalism, diaspora, postcolonialism, and dispersal. 

In an effort to complicate simplistic characterizations of time and place, this book acknowledges overlapping chronologies even as it maps out a quasi-linear study of English literature in the twentieth-century.  As an example of the editors’ resistance against oversimplified periodization, the book begins not with a set date (say, 1900) but with a section of essays exploring the lives and works of authors both before and after the close of the nineteenth-century. 

This first section of the book (“Writing Modernism”) incorporates works about major themes in literature and the role those themes play in the gradual replacement and displacement of the literature of the so-called older generation.  The second section of the book also addresses the fledgling stages of modernism, considering as it does the divide between Edwardian and Georgian writers and literature.  This section closes with an account about how the Great War influenced literary production in Britain. 

Part three is, unlike the earlier sections, rooted in a particular time frame (1918-45), and it focuses on how authors such as Joyce, Woolf, Ford, Conrad, Lawrence, and Lewis experiment with forms while investigating their and their countries’ recent (and in some cases not-so-recent) past.  This section closes with World War Two and the literary productions emanating from that event. 

The fourth section, dealing chiefly with issues of continuity and change, also deals with issues of class, education, nationalism, and internationalism, and the fifth and final section, “Towards the Millennium,” examines literature and literary culture from the last 30 years.  This final section focuses on new opportunities for writing, publication, genre, performance, and experimentation.  It undertakes to explore the vexed “postmodern” signifier while refusing reductive conclusions about that term.   

In general, the book pays particular attention to genre and the construction and representation of literary culture during eras of new technology and shifting social circumstances.  When addressing more recent phenomena of literature and literary criticism, such as anxiety over the term “postmodern,” the book’s closing essays are careful not to “take sides,” so to speak, but to register the complexity of issues and insist that all claims about the contemporary or near-contemporary are provisional and not summative, speculative and not conclusive. 

This ambitious project leaves certain loose ends, as any project of this magnitude must, but it is nevertheless an impressive and meticulous contribution to ongoing and unsettled conversations about twentieth-century British literature.  The sheer number and variety of authors contributing to and represented by this text are so bold and interesting that definitive or comprehensive statements about them are difficult to make.  Suffice it to say that the complexity of this book, and of all of the authors and essays appearing in this book, is in keeping with the complexity of a subject as expansive as twentieth-century British literature.             

 

Article Note: “Conrad in the Computer,” by Michael Stubbs

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Writing on October 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article uses quantitative methods of text and corpus analysis to interpret stylistic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The author carries out such method and analysis by way of computers—hence the title of the article.

A major goal of this piece is to challenge the linguistic community that is mostly skeptical of “stylistics.”  Put another way, the piece calls into question the prevailing idea that statistics is not a proper hermeneutic for interpreting literary style.

The value of computer-generated quantitative datum is its ability to clarify what is normal and predictable in texts.  The value, moreover, is to contextualize a vast amount of information by reducing it to simplified summaries.  For instance, this piece reduces Heart of Darkness to seven narrative frames within which are themes of vague impressions and unreliable knowledge (conveyed through words such as “blurred” and its variations, “dark” and its variations, “shadow” and its variations, and so forth).

The author concedes that his approach depends upon selection: which features to study and which to ignore.  But he believes his approach is valuable precisely because computers can identify features of texts that are not at first obvious to the naked eye or the pensive mind.  Humans carry with them various associative registers and preconceived notions, whereas software is a naïve reader.

One reason the author applies his quantitative method to Heart of Darkness is that this novel has not undergone rigorous explication in light of stylistics.  This method quickly provides the analyst with a concordance, and this method enables the analyst to index keywords (“Kurtz,” “seemed,” “river,” “station,” and so on) and then divide those keywords into numbers and declensions (how many nouns or adjectives, what variety of verb tenses, etc.).  This method is beneficial, furthermore, because the computer can catch allusions that the limited human mind cannot catch.  In support of this theory, the author cites to several allusions and possible allusions from the novel.

The article draws several conclusions about the novel—for one, that the novel’s phrasal patterns suggest that the narrative is tactically repetitive—but the overarching point seems to be to validate the methodology and not explicate the book.  That the author of this article has chosen Heart of Darkness (as opposed to some other novel) seems incidental.

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

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