The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What I’m Reading

Posted on: June 7, 2007

The latest Penguin Classics edition of Paradise Lost has a 43 pages introduction. Typically this sort of thing would make me groan out loud, and I did sigh a bit when I flipped through them. But I am happy to say that John Leonard of the University of Western Ontario (imagine Western having anything academic to brag about :P) wrote an useful, informative, inviting introduction. He places the work in historical, theological and political context, only mentions the relevant parts of Milton’s life, and familiarizes the reader with the “universe” of Paradise Lost (for eg. what Milton means when he uses the word “universe” vs “world” vs “Chaos” etc.). And he gives a nice run down through some of the poem’s major themes, what critics like C.S. Lewis and William Empson have opined and what he thinks about it all. He is careful to leave a lot of room for the reader.

Throughout this edition I have endeavoured to annotate Milton’s allusions in a way that opens rather than closes a reader’s interpretative choice. I do this not because I am determined on indeterminacy, but because I want to provide readers with the materials that will enable them to determine interpretative matters for themselves.

His intro lacked the stuffy tone of the usual Oxbridge contributors. Not that I mind the tone so much, unless the intro is terrible and then I can’t bear to read another word. What I am finding a little bothersome is that the edition has endnotes instead of footnotes and there is no notation to tell you which word or line has been explained. The latter wouldn’t be such a problem if the notes were on the same page, but when every few lines you have to flipping back and forth to the end of the book….well! not the best reading experience. Does anyone know of a Paradise Lost edition that has the notes on the same page, like the Arden Shakespeare editions (oh, I love them so)? Maybe such a move would ruin the form of the poem or something…

It’s going to take me a very long time to finish The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. She has a knack for opulent descriptions of just about everything, from a mother’s wearied face, to the bloody phlegm that the tuberculosis patients cough up into buckets at a seaside hotel turned sanatorium. I had to take a break after one description, I thought I could Cory’s imagined sightings of mountains and castles that he saw in said bucket that he had to empty, then I had to stop when he peeked into a room he shouldn’t have, and Hall was going to take eager pen to describe in colourful, lurid detail an amateur surgery. (Have you seen Vera Drake? Then you know to what I’m referring.)

Amanda A. I can see what you mean about the over-writing: in some cases it exasperates, in others it doesn’t but I have not reached very far yet. We’ll see.

I’ve been reading a lot of on-line literary sites in the past few days. Do check out Estella’s Revenge which has a great set of articles this time around, including my favourite, the Book Tour. Stuart Sharp has written an entertaining overview of that most literary of sports: cricket. Open Letters Monthly has a lot of good stuff for this month, including a Peer Review of the critical pages devoted to Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, another review of Hermione Lee’s Wharton bio by Steve Donoghue (probably my favourite contributor right now) and translated goodness with a review of César Vallejo’s “unparalled” poetry. A browse through the archives turned up this gem, a peer review of the critics’ take on Robert Fagles’ “good” translation of Aeneid.

[There is a] deeply ambivalent undertone running through almost all the major reviews of this work. (A notable exception would be Thomas Cahill’s hysterical encomium in the Los Angeles Times, in which he mentions the work’s “inexplicable greatness,” calls it “magnificent,” and says “all I can do is point, like a child watching his first parade, at some of the delights he [Fagles] has bestowed upon us.” Lost in this childlike – more accurately childish? – wonder, Cahill seems unaware of the fact that when he says of Fagles’ Aeneid “classicists may fail to recognize it” he’s not, in fact, paying the book a compliment).

Donoghue’s reaction to the LRB book review mirrored mine.

A searcher for measured, intelligent praise of Fagles might think they’ve found it in Denis Feeney’s review in the London Review of Books. Feeney calls the work “a fitting cap to a distinguished career” (if I were Fagles, I’d be a little dismayed by the obituary tone of so many of these reviews) and goes on to say it’s “powerful,” “moving,” and “strikingly successful.” But the reader would then go on to read that Feeney is mentioned in Fagles’ acknowledgments with, as Feeney says, “characteristic over-generosity.” At which point the entire review goes to the bottom of the birdcage, and the reader continues the quest.

When you’re done cackling with glee — oh, that was only me was it? Maybe Sylvia joined in — trip over to The Quarterly Conversation which has reviews of Chris Abani’s Virgin of Flames, Murakami’s After Dark and three interviews with translators of Latin American works.

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18 Responses to "What I’m Reading"

I really think it’s time for a U.N. resolution banning endnotes forever.

Rough one about the endnotes. I imagine they’ll be very useful with Paradise Lost. Certainly, it’s awesome having them at the bottom in the Grossman Don Quixote.

I need to make this more of a priority when deciding what edition to purchase. This would rule out Oxford Classics and most of the Penguins, however. Alas!

Sylvia I don’t mind them for novels so much. The longer narrative in comparison to the number of endnotes makes it bearable. For a poem centuries old though, and one like Paradise Lost, it gets tedious very quickly.

Ted right, it wouldn’t be so bad if it wee any other poem except Paradise Lost for which endnotes are necessary. Especially for me who has never met this poem in a classroom.

I can only groan at the thought of what Don Quixote would have been liking trying to lift 12 lbs of pages to get to the back.

There was another gorgeous edition of the Milton Poem, all illustrated but with zero endnotes. The intention of the editors who wanted the reader to simply enjoy the poem on its own terms is nice but really, for the average read like myself, I don’t know what I’d take away from the poem with no sort of proper introduction and helpful explanation of archaic words, meanings and so on. Good rhythm?

The Paradise Lost intro sounds marvelous. I despise endnotes. I think Norton has a Milton with footnotes. Don’t hold me to that though, I could be wrong.

You’re right Stefanie, thanks a lot! The only drawback is that the annotations are much more “closed” than Leonard’s but it. has. footnotes. And, it seems, most if not all of the essays Leonard referred to in his introduction. God bless Norton.

Well, what a pleasant surprise, not only coming across such a treasure trove of a book site (one of my young co-editors sniffed you out and sent me the link, bless the little spud!) but finding that it has the excellent taste to praise ME! Hee.

I’m glad you liked my Fagles round-up (my two young co-editors, perhaps more intimidated by the task we’ve undertaken in maintaining Open Letters, seldom just outright go for laughs in their own reviews, so I try to get in as many zingers as possible), and of course I’ll eagerly gobble up any praise you might have of anything else!

But what I really want to do, having spent a delightful hour snooping around this site, is to get you and YOUR crowd of regulars to start commingling (literarily, that is – settle down over there!) with me and MY crowd of regulars, over at my very own book-blod, http://www.stevereads.blogspot.com. We could double our fun! I’m certainly going to direct all my little ewoks your way.

And maybe if you look at stevereads, you can tell me why your site LOOKS so much better than mine – is it just because I was born in 1608 and so can’t be expected to know any better?

In any case, I’m now a fan! I’ll be checking in with vaguely unhealthy regularity!

Rather predictably, I got my very own URL wrong. Sigh. Can’t we go back to quill and parchment?

It’s actually http://stevereads.blogspot.com

And THEN I noticed that the weird coloring of my name in the body of your entry means you ALREADY linked to my site.

So I’m going to take out my false teeth, unscrew my various plastic joint-replacements, and go sit quietly in the corner.

Norton Critical Editions have footnotes, but they sometimes abridge works, and they are pricey. Fabulous critical materials, though.

Steve all I can say is that your comments made me laugh for almost a full 5 mins. Welcome! and thanks for commenting. 😀

Sylvia they abridge stuff!? That’s terrible. And I actually noticed that with the latest edition, according to an Amazon reviewer who posted an example, they messed a bit more than warranted with the syntax. Ick.

But it’s ok about the price — for the older one the only option available on Amazon is third party sellers and they’re sellin’ it for a $1.44. I love the internet.

The first of Steve’s ewoks reporting for duty. I think I’m going to enjoy this site a lot. I can’t get enough of them books.

Oh gawd … I forgot to warn you all about Beepy. She’s been infatuated with me ever since my brief stint as a member of the Platters (yes, I was the sixth Platter). Pepper spray, wire mesh, big plastic owls – nothing seems to deter her. Hopefully, she’ll confine her comments to books, instead of nattering on about how DREAMY it would be if I’d go with her to Inspiration Point.

And can I just say – a site in which all and sundry come together to a) loathe endnotes and b) irately condemn abridgements? I’m in love.

Beepy, welcome I hope you like it here.

Steve we don’t cotton to abridgements around here so your love is justified. (I’m actually rather horrified that Norton would publish abridgements under its “critical editions” line. I mean…seriously? Why not just publish a collection of the critical materials and leave the art unmolested? Yeesh.)

Well, I certainly don’t like abridgements, but I can understand WHY Norton would do it – after all, the very existence of their great critical matter in the back of every edition speaks to their target audience, college students. I’d rather have a college student who’s on the fence about the whole ‘reading’ (versus video gaming) thing TRY ‘Moby-Dick’ in a slightly abbreviated form instead of bolting from the whole idea because of the thing’s sheer size.

Fortunately (or is that hopefully?) we’ll always have Penguin and Oxford serving things up in complete editions!

So pardon a nosey question from a newcomer, but what are you reading NOW?

Hmph. Then they shouldn’t assign Moby-Dick. About the only abridgment argument I find persuasive is the one done for ESL students. Surely once students reach the tertiary level one can stop molly coddling? (Especially if it’s for English majors. Just assign shorter works if its for general students.)

You can find out I’m reading now by checking out my sidebar under the title “Present Absorptions”. But to make it easier:

The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman
Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity – David Brakke
Paradise Lost – John Milton

plus assorted journals

Oh come ON! I mean, I love the purist in you, but surely you’ll agree that it’s possible to create a thoroughly absorbing, totally representative abridgement of ‘Moby-Dick’ that a smart but wary high school student could love? That you’d WANT them to love, so they’d eventually move on to the whole, unedited work? The long factual digressions on cetology, while gorgeous meditations deserving of immortality, will inevitably confuse and discourage most first-time readers of them – and removing them removes nothing from the central matter of the book. So what’s the harm, if helps lure students into deeper reading?

Because the book is not Moby-Dick. Maybe if one could argue that the Melville novel is some kind of vital text that every child, woman and man should know, so important to Western canon that you’ve got to chop it up in order to trick them into the Wonderful Word of Reading I could maybe understand and concede a point. But I don’t. I don’t see the point of chopping up a book to lure in the smart and wary when there are several hundred other novels that are shorter and, many would say, more interesting and of equal if not better quality.

Who gets to say what makes it absorbing? Who gets to say what’s representative — to decide what the book is “about” what the major “themes” are? Once one starts going down that path it leads to the distasteful view of literature as a cipher for an author’s message or morals and completely ignores its aesthetic attributes. Let’s make sure we keep the main plot, the whaling action and the stuff about man against fate, leave out the “trimmings”.

Not all novels can be accessible to high school students. If a classic is so big, so confusing, so complex that it would turn them off the act of reading why not choose classics better suited to the job (and you can’t tell me there’s a dearth of those), that will not only prepare them for deeper reading, but will make them readers for life and they can wrestle with M-D on their own time?

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