Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Year in Books: 2016

The New Year, whether we are looking at the Gregorian or the Lunar calendar, is well under way. Time, the very attar of the rose, is running out. If I don't write my reflection on last year's reading soon, nay now, then you, my readers will just give up on this blog and find something else to read. Well, probably not since my only reader is me, this solitary self. But, hey, I should try to be consistent  anyways right?

So, every year I have a theme. 2016 was Chinese and Asian literature. I had a sizable list of books I wanted to tackle, but I must admit that I barely scratched the surface. Especially near the end of the year where I all but gave up on my list. Nonetheless, I did start off the year well enough and did read some very memorable and important books. 

I read close to half of the 5 volume Richard Hawkes translation of Hong Luo Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber; the Story of the Stone). As much as I liked it I was happy to leave off where I did. It was enjoyable, but the episodic nature of the book gave little narrative compulsion to see my way through. Likewise, I only made it through 100 pages of Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. I listened to two very good audiobooks on Asian history—The Fall and Rise of China by Richard Baum and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Mark Ravina. Richard Baum's audiobook was particularly eye-opening. He had many first hand experiences of the closing years of the cultural revolution and the transition to the opening up of China. I also began a R. Taggart Murphy’s very interesting history Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Taggart's approach to Japan should set a standard for all books of its kind. He is, first of all, passionate about his subject and writes so that one can come to share in his passion. Secondly, he gives a very useful bibliography of great books on Japan. I've been rather discouraged by the meager bibliographies of many of my books on China. I refuse to believe that there are not many great and passionate books on China. I'm simply not finding them. After these I have browsed through a few other books on Chiense history, philosophy, poetry, and religion (mostly Buddhism). I skimmed several of David Hinton's books, including Hunger Mountain and his translation of the Chinese classics. Needless to say I only touched the surface of this vast topic. One of my favorite books on China though was, oddly enough, written by a Westerner—Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens. The book is a memoir of his travels through China. I read this in conjunction with The Melancholy of Resistance. Both books share a common concern with entropy. In some ways the pathos is even higher in Destruction due to the brilliant way in which Krasznahorkai juxtaposes the longevity of Chinese culture which has maintained its cultural identity for five thousand years, but which is now, with the onslaught of the modern technological and capitalistic world finally coming to an end. This tension between hope in China’s ability to withstand these modern forces of entropy and his relentless questioning with whether his suspicions are true and Chinese culture is dead is what propels the book.

Another element in my reading plan each year has been to reread a few favorite books. The book I was most excited to reread was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and it did not disappoint. If anything the book actually improved upon rereading. There were many passages that vividly struck me, but perhaps the most memorable was this:

"Two hundred years ago," Settembrini said, "you had a poet in your own country, a fine old confabulator, who set great store by beautiful handwriting, because he said it leads to a beautiful style. He should have taken that one step further and said that beautiful style leads to beautiful actions." Writing beautifully was almost synonymous with thinking beautifully, and from there it was not far to acting beautifully. All moral conduct and all moral perfection emanated from the spirit of literature, from the spirit of human dignity, which simultaneously was also the spirit of humanity and of politics. Yes, they were all one and the same force, one and the same idea, and could be summarized in a single word. And what was that word? Well, it consisted of familiar syllables, but the cousins had probably never truly grasped their meaning and majesty. And that word was--civilization! And as Settembrini released the word from his lips, he thrust his small yellow right hand into the air, as if proposing a toast. 

...Hans Castorp listened to Herr Settembrini. With the best of intentions he tested the man's views on reason, the world republic, and beautiful style--and was prepared to be influenced by them. And each time he found it more permissible afterwards to let his thoughts and dreams run free in another direction, in the opposite direction. To put our suspicions and true understanding of the matter into words--he had probably listened to Herr Settembrini for one purpose only: to be given carte blanche by his conscious, a license it had been unwilling to grant him at first. And what or who stood on the opposing side of patriotism, the dignity of man, and beautiful literature--the side towards which Hans Castorp believed he should direct his thoughts and deeds? There stood... Clavdia Chauchat--listless, worm-eaten, Kirghiz-eyed; and whenever Hans Castorp thought of her (although thought is an all too inhibited word for describing how he inwardly turned toward her), it seemed to him that he was sitting again in that boat on the lake in Holstein and gazing with dazzled and bewildered eyes out of glassy daylight across to the eastern sky and the moonlit night draped in a web of mist.”

The entire book was entirely memorable. Most vivid on rereading were Han's reading of the physiology of the body, a very Blakean chapter, his vision in the snow storm, and of course, the marvelous appearance Mynheer Peeperkorn! I also began rereading Wuthering Heights, which I had to put down. I found the novel too dark, the drama too real, to push my way through. Rossetti’s description of the book seems very apt, “The action takes place in hell, although it seems the people and places have English names there.”

No doubt there were other books I read last year and so I will have to update this list as I remember them. For this year I’ve decided to catch up on some random books that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. They are mostly Science Fiction, although there are a few others that have creeped in. I’ve already read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and am nearly finished with Charles Williams The Greater Trumps. I’ve begun reading Louis Trondheim’s brilliant Donjon books, which are by far the books I’m most in love and obsessed with right now.

So, here is my list:

Winter Quarter
Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
Williams, The Greater Trumps
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.1)
PKD, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
Elizarov, The Librarian

Middlemarch: Prelude; Books 1-2

Spring Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.2)
Zelazny, Lord of Light
Abaitua, The Destructives
Disch, The Businessman
Acher, My Mother: Demonology

Middlemarch: Books 3-4

Summer Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.3)
Garner, Red Shift
Swanwich, Bones of the Earth

Middlemarch: Books 5-6

Autumn Quarter
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.4)
Park, All Those Vanished Engines
Hoban, Riddley Walker
Yourcenar, The Abyss

Middlemarch: Books 7-8; Finale

In addition to the novels above I hope to continue working on my larger projects. I have several intersecting interests: the works of Hans Blumenberg; studies on metaphor (Lakoff, Langer, etc); studies on complexity; studies on unity; and studies on Utopia. I had at first considered dedicating this year to Blumenberg, but I think that is too heavy for me just yet. Rather, I may start working with some books on Utopia and see how they branch out into other areas. Later projects I would like to start on include a renewed study of Romanticism; a deep dive into Finnegans Wake, and a deep dive into Shakespeare

But I’m quite sure I will focus on Utopia this year. Current books on my Utopia reading list include:

·      Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope Vol. 1-3 (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), MIT Press, 1995.
·      Gray, John. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
·      Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London & New York: Verso. 2005.
·      —. An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London and New York: Verso. 2016.
·      Marin, Louis. Utopics (Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences),Humanity Books,1984.
·      Sargent, Lyman Tower. Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010.
·      Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1991.

·      Young, George. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. Oxford University Press, 2012.