Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

Book Acquired Recently: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. 1953. New York: New York Review, 2012.

I first became interested in acquiring this novel after reading a post about it at A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff. Shortly thereafter, I saw that New York Review Books had just come out with a new edition. I love NYRB’s books because they are elegantly designed with a minimalist aesthetic that pleases me.

This evening I was shopping at my local independent bookstore, The King’s English, because a colleague had given me a gift certificate as thanks for doing some proofreading. While it is always satisfying to go to a bookstore with a purchase in mind and find the book on the shelf straightaway, I also love going book shopping with nothing particular in mind, letting the store’s selection lead me to something unexpected. The King’s English is a fabulous bookstore for this activity. I always find something there that excites me; it is the best new book independent bookstore I have ever been to. I was browsing their fiction section when I came across Lucky Jim, and immediately decided that it would be my purchase for the night. The store had both the NYRB edition and the Penguin Classics edition, and while I love Penguin Classics even more than I love NYRBs, and both copies were virtually the same price (the Penguin was $15.00 and the NYRB was $14.95), the Penguin’s spine was a little worn, so I went with the newer NYRB.

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On the Accumulation of Multiple Copies of the Same Book

In an article in the July 12, 2012 New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes that he “acquired five copies, of various size and vintage” of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake during the year that he worked his way through the novel. I love this little detail because I, too, find myself obsessively buying different printings of books that I treasure. Reading isn’t just about encountering ideas in a book, it is also about interacting with a physical object (which is yet another reason why ereaders are evil), and I like that Chabon acknowledges this by ensconcing himself both physically and mentally in the book.

Books that I keep buying include

James Baldwin’s Another Country, which is one of the best novels I’ve ever read about both race and LGBT issues. I think it is Baldwin’s best novel–more powerful than Go Tell It On The Mountain, more sincere than Giovanni’s Room. I have it as an old Signet paperback and in the Library of America’s collection of Baldwin’s early novels, and once I get to teach it I’ll pick up the current Vintage paperback.

Samuel R. Delany’s novels, the old cheap paperbacks (especially the Bantam ones) of which I encounter fairly frequently in used bookstores, and always buy because they are so aesthetically appealing even though I have most of them in their most recent printings from Wesleyan University Press or Vintage.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which, alongside Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is the cornerstone of American literature, thus one can never have too many copies of it. I have the Penguin edition, a hideous teaching edition from Pearson-Longman, and two beautiful collector’s editions, one from the Folio Society and one from the Franklin Library.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry: I have the indispensable Collected Poems edited by Donald Allen, which was the first of O’Hara’s books that I bought, and I also have the 2008 Selected Poems edited by Mark Ford, as well as O’Hara’s two major original collections, Meditations in An Emergency and Lunch Poems.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which of course was published in six different editions over nine printings during Whitman’s lifetime. I have the Penguin printing of the 1855 edition (the best edition), the Signet printing of the 1892 edition, the Library of America volume which includes the 1855 and 1892 editions plus much of Whitman’s prose, an illustrated edition by Heritage Press (I think it’s the 1855 edition, but I don’t remember off of the top of my head–I’m writing this at my office and the book is at home), a faux facsimile of the 1855 edition by Oxford University Press (it reproduces the exact typsetting formatting of the original, but is not a photographic facsimile), the New York University Press variorum edition that collates all six original editions, and a selection of poems which draws on all of the Leaves of Grass editions edited by Galway Kinnell and published by Ecco that I use for teaching because it includes “Poem on the Proposition of Nakedness,” which did not appear in the 1855 or 1892 editions.

Also, on a somewhat different subject, shortly after reading Chabon’s article, I encountered an article by Louis Menand in the July 2, 2012 New Yorker about biographies of Joyce. I haven’t thought deeply about Joyce in years because I’m not really a fan of his work (I recognize its historical significance, but it feels dated to me), but it always strikes me when I encounter several random references to a person or book within a short period of time. It feels uncanny. I find that this happens to me several times a year, usually with someone whose work I am not familiar with (Marina Abramovic is one example from several years ago, and Antonin Artaud is a more recent one). It is like the universe is telling me that it is the right time in my life for me to encounter the person in question in order to learn from them, and this is often the case–the timing is perfect. I don’t really have the time this summer to give Ulysses the attention that would be necessary for a re-read of it, but these recent encounters with Joyce make me stop and ponder.

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Women Readers and the Crisis of the Male Novelist

Elaine Blair has a fantastic article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (July 12, 2012) about how the fictional trend of oafish male protagonists has evolved from the work of hoary giants such as Philip Roth and John Updike through the work of present-day writers such as Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen. She points out that, while female readers in the 1960s were willing to read their sexist contemporaries because that’s what one did in order to keep up with the intellectual Joneses, female readers today (who comprise a much larger proportion of fiction readers than they did in the 1960s because all guys want to do now is play video games) are much less willing to put up with men’s misogynist shenanigans, fictional or otherwise. Blair posits that contemporary male authors are aware of this (logical) attitude, and as a result make their male characters so ridiculously pathetic that they are impossible to hate; one just feels sorry for them instead. As a result, maybe female readers will read their books. She shows, though, that this trend is just sexist pandering which leads to a lot of uninteresting novels.

I fully agree with this critique. Blair quotes a David Foster Wallace essay in which he recounts an instance of one of his female friends calling Updike “Just a penis with a thesaurus.” This description is spot on… but damn, that penis sure knows how to get the most out of that thesaurus. I have to admit that I like Updike, and I love Roth (and Wallace, and Franzen). They are my guilty pleasures. I enjoy their writing because I am their intended audience, no matter how much they try to attract female readers. I can’t imagine women enjoying their male characters because I don’t enjoy them either. But I appreciate their truthfulness, and their beautiful use of language.

This raises the question, though, of whether literature that is merely valuable for its formal and/or aesthetic qualities is worthwhile. To read for fun, maybe, but I don’t assign these authors in my classes because they are so off-putting to women. The ideal texts to teach are those which are both aesthetically beautiful and politically engaging–Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo, and the like.

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