The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The literary journals

Posted on: November 22, 2006

I started to read two literary journals recently: the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books. The local bookstore used to carry the London Review of Books, and still has a spot marked out for it, but no evidence of actual copies. There is a Literary Review of Canada but every major headline I see on the front page is always political. I cracked it open once and nothing grabbed me.

The TLS is my favourite by far. (I enjoyed that one issue of LRB but with no more experience…) The columnists may write about topics, literary or historical figures that I have never heard of but I am scribbling notes furiously in my notebook at the end. It is also unstintingly academic which is another draw. Recently they had a History issue in which columnists reviewed the current academic state of economic history, of religious history, discussed the merit of popular history books, and that is only from the articles I read. In another A.S. Byatt wrote this splendid one on John Donne’s poetry, on how it…operates I guess, what it asks the reader to do and how his metaphors comparing the tangible with the ethereal help to do this.

I had never studied Donne in school and so only knew him from chance meetings: quotes in novels (To His Mistress Going to Bed); a selection in an anthology (Death Be Not Proud), in a Miyazaki (Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star) or Emma Thompson film, in a song learnt in grade 5 (No Man is an Island). Experiences that were pleasurable but intransient. His words were a part of my life on a subconscious level, but I never consciously, purposely engaged with him beyond a Google and a rewarding five or so minutes. Until Byatt’s article. Now I have The Complete English Poems of Donne by my bedside.

I also have the Collected Works of Wallace Stevens, a poet who was also mentioned in that article for his works’ similarity to Donne’s (from a certain perspective). Abashedly I admit that I haven’t given it half as much as my attention, but I was intrigued by what I read. All in all it was a very rewarding experience.

That is what it is to read the TLS every week. There was an article on Carl Sandburg that I really appreciated because I had met up on the poet during a random Bartleby browsing; his work, until that moment, had been a solitary thing. Now I had someone else.

The last issue introduced me to a wholly new author: Ronald Fairbank. Arthur Hollinghurst wrote the article–I thought to myself, that name sounds familiar…perhaps he’s a literary critic of some sort whose work I’ve read before. Anyway I was completely taken in by Fairbank as an author, his embrace and envelopment of the aesthetic, his prose’s modernist style, the fragmentary prose, the undercurrents of sexuality, yes even his homosexuality. It was all so so so fascinating and I scribbled my notes and I checked my library’s and local bookshop’s inventory.

Then I came home, googled Alan Hollinghurst, and lo! he was a Man Booker Prize winner: The Line of Beauty. Of course I had heard about his novel title before but never anything about the actual plot. The Prize win plus the title allowed me to convince myself that it was probably some stuffy book about a white, tenured professor somewhere. (Oh, ho how wrong I was.) The fact that he had been an editor for the TLS cinched it: I had to get his books.

All this, plus a stray review piquing my interest in “New Woman Literature”. (What is that? I have no idea but I must find out. Makes me wish I had taken a few feminism courses.) I also love the poems that they sprinkle throughout the issues; not many this time around, sadly, but I do take note of the ones to which I strongly responded. The commentary and the freelance articles and the letters…I am an official TLS nut. I would subscribe for a year in a jiffy but I don’t have the funds. 😦 If I could I would take out a second job just to fund my habit. (Damn international student status.)

The New York Review of Books?–oh, oh wait I forgot to mention that fantastic article that opened the TLS on the Velazquez exhibit at the National Gallery in London. I fell in love–Nothing to write home about. It is fantastic if you are a political, non-fiction nut, I guess, because that is all they seem to write about. I browse dutifully through the issues every other week or so because I love their classics series and, sometimes, I am rewarded. There was an article on white Australia’s history with the aboriginals and how that has been expressed through visual and literary art; it was then tied in to the country’s attitude to immigrants now and how that was dealt with in plays and novels.  A decent one on the Getty Museum, the work done on it by some fab architect lately, and how it is dealing with all the scandal. The best one would have to be on Hungary and how it has been dealing with its Nazi collaborative past post-WW II.

So, you see, not so bad, but not consistent. The fact that the editor seems to have an aversion to female contributors does not help. In memory of MobyLives podcast days I count the number of female columnists every issue. I swear it has not gone over three since I have been reading it–no more than two or three months, I admit–and in the last issue there was none. Zero. I am not sure what their problem is considering that the TLS will often have as many as half of theirs written by women.

Oh yes, there was an article I read on Chinese literary figures and how the oppressive government had affected many of their writing styles for the worse. One positive figure was Eileen Chang whose works sounded right up my alley–and lo! NYRB Classics has Love in a Fallen City. I’m tellin’ you–buy the books, forget the journal.

London Review of Books? I wish I knew. I am now resolved to ask my bookstore manager why they have stopped carrying it. For now I subsist on the free sample offerings online.

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3 Responses to "The literary journals"

Hello. The London Review of Books here. We’re sad that you can’t get copies in your local bookstore; can we send you some? Just email us (edit at lrb.co.uk) with your address . . .

Oh! I am ecstatic. *does a jig* Thank you very, very much and I will be sending you my address in a jiffy.

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