The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The literary journals

Posted on: January 11, 2007

Joy! I opened last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement with anticipation. I had found the year-end double issue a disappointment. The only article really worth attention was Patrick McGuiness’ Commentary on Bruges and Symbolism, primarily in literature. The first for January boasted Longfellow’s glorious return from the critical grave. Christopher Benfey’s supporting article was a bit more hopeful and less triumphant than the exclamation on the cover but he gives a decent account of Longfellow’s largely precarious, much mocked position in the canon and cites recent scholarship that signal a turn for the better. I am not a fan of Longfellow’s poetry but I like to imagine closet Longfellow fan’s the world over jumping in glee and moving aside the Lustra to make way for the well-thumbed Selected Poems.

Most of the primary reviews covered history and cultural studies books. The two I liked were on early modern history. Chris Given-Wilson’s review of SamuelCohn Jr.’s Lust for Liberty, titled “Insurrections”, was particularly entertaining because of all the statistical info. Cohn Jr. studied the revolts that occurred in medieval Europe between the 13th to early 15th century and concluded that most of them were of a political nature rather than economic, taking place in towns and not the countryside. He asserts that there were about 1, 112 in all and uses a single chronicle, I believe, as his primary source. The lack of qualifications accompanying the generous offering of percentages and decimal points aroused some wonder in both Given-Wilson and myself. Who knew that such dependable records were available back then to give us such a clear picture? Given-Wilson also criticises Cohn Jr.’s downplaying of the economic factors behind the revolts, arguing that issues of taxes and abuses of power played a part as well. In summation though he recommends it as a well-written, clearly researched text that challenges the current orthodoxy and will become course material.

David Abulafia reviewed Stefanie B. Siegmund’s The Medici State and the Ghetto of Florence, which covered a particular instance of Jews being segregated in 16th century Italy. Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (1570-1) ordered all the Jews in Florence to be resettled in their own walled community, located in the aromatic, less savoury part of town and came with the lovely incentive of a perky yellow hat which had to be worn; prostitues had earlier made this the height of fashion. Unlike prostitutes the Jews operated as a self-governing body, adjudicating their religious affairs, and only going to the Italian authorities for important legal issues, making them more similar to groups of alien merchants or convents. Abulafia finds Siegmund’s efforts competent enough, agreeing with her that study in this area is great for understand state-building in the 16th century. He does find her scope too narrow, a general complaint in this area of scholarship he says, lacking any wider context in Italy or even Europe and finds her argument for the idea that the walled community was “feminised” during the day when the “strapping” young men went out for work rather silly.

If you are interested in a rigorous book on homosexual culture, one that avoids the casual, lazy scholarship that typically comes out of queer studiesdepts look no further. Robert Aldrich has edited the impressive Gay Life & Culture: a World History and is among the few that match the excellent quality of Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, written a few decades ago. So says Richard Daven-port Hines in “The throne trembles”. The writing may be a bit dry but the views and analyses make up for it. One gets sensible rather than hysterical essays onpederastry in ancient Greek, Islamic and Japanese society; a wider idea of sexuality that runs throughout avoiding the hetero-normative concept of gay or straight; and essays on little considered tribal societies in New Guinea. Even better these are accompanied with a beautiful and relevant selection of photographs, provided by a loved employee of the British library (unfortunately I’ve forgotten her name) who was accidentally killed last year.

Last of all was the Commentary on Patrick White. The first thing I gratefully noticed was that Commentary was back to two full pages, rather than the splitting in two bits or a simply briefer offering, squashed into the top of the page by a university press ad or something. (Keep it up TLS!) David Malouf’s Castle Hill Lear: Patrick White reappraised accomplished the unexpected: it persuaded me to give Patrick White a go. (Reading list and wallet groans.) The Literary Saloon holds much admiration for White and makes a point of highlighting any article about him, accompanied by exhortations to read him, read him, read him! I didn’t listen. I cannot say why: name was a bit too boring? Australian writer not exciting enough? Nobel Prize (which tends to elicit a yawn as often as interest, depending on the moon phase)? No matter as Malouf’s cogent take, free from hyperbolic language, convinced me that White’s books deserve a peek or two at the very least. (Aha! I see NYRB has his Riders in Chariots available. Love the cover.)

Oh and don’t forget the letters. People are still battling it out on whether Hardy’s wife really had syphyllis. So far everyone is against the poor doctor who did a bit of poetry analysis and came up with the belated diagnosis.

In the current NYRB the editors have taken the holiday spirit to heart and are making it Christmas the whole year through. For there are not one, not two, not three but *five* female contributors. (Out of 20 but everyone knows percentages are for losers.) Five! I thought this day would never come. I can’t say I was very interested in any of the articles, penned by male or female, but there did seem to be a less uneven balance between the politics and the fiction coverage. (Christmas every month indeed!) I tried to read Messud’s review of Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land but she spent half of the first page giving me plot lines of all Ford’s books and I lost interest. The usual spate of Iraq articles were there, one of which was actually a bit unconventional. Christian Carlyle’s article actually focuses on the Iraqi citizens in What About the Iraqis? (Freely available on NYRB as it deserves to be.) The books reviewed are either by Iraqi citizens (a collection of blog posts by Riverbend ) or are in-dept interviews done over a period of time with them, where the authors allow the citizens voices to be as dominant as possible. All of them seem to be a worthwhile purchase and I urge everyone to read the article. Also, do check out letters to see the continuing argument about the benefits of the current way foreign aid is dispersed in African and the idealogical assumptions behind the different positions.

(I flipped through Quill & Quire and decided lit magazines were not my sort of thing . Lots of stuff about author’s successes (who cares?) and reports on YA fiction–“Are there too many kids series?” My word!–and the “Hottest Spring titles!” Bleh.)

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6 Responses to "The literary journals"

It’s crossed my mind that maybe I should subscribe to the TLS — it sounds quite good. But … maybe I read enough review journals and literary magazines already. I don’t want to take too much time away from books, after all.

Oh, I think it’s excellent but I have the same problem with balancing my lit journals vs. books; and I read only three! :p What journals and lit mags do you read?

Let’s see, the NYReview of Books, the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic. I guess that’s it. But that keeps me busy 🙂

That’s plenty IMO. I’d be wary to add another lit journal to the mix, especially if most of them are weekly.

TLS looks like a wonderful journal. I only get Bookforum, but I think I may have to break down and subscribe to the NYRB as I can’t find it in bookstores. Juggling journals and books though is hard for me, I tend to want to pick up my books!

Yeah it is quite a juggle! I usually sigh in relief (weirdly enough) if I finish a journal without wanting to add any new book purchases to my list.

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