Critical Mass

Guest Post: What VQR Young Reviewers Contest Winner Emily Wilkinson Is Reading

By Jane Ciabattari

Emily Wilkinson just finished her Ph.D. in Restoration and eighteenth-century British literature at Stanford University. She recently won the Virginia Quarterly’s Young Reviewers Contest (which included a membership in the NBCC). She writes for the literature blog The Millions; she is also a reviewer for The Washington Times. She lives in Pasadena, California.

One of the strange things about the final months of writing a dissertation in literature (as I have spent the last six months), is that you’re not actually reading much at all.  I spent a lot of time writing and thinking, and a lot of time re-reading in a rather scattershot way—finding quotes, making sure a certain critic had indeed thought or said what I thought she had in a certain chapter—but there was no real reading, not in the way that had gotten me into English departments in the first place. I was, though, as I was finishing, laying aside books to read after I’d filed (once I was free of the millstone that the dissertation inevitably comes to seem in the end days of graduate schoo1).

I filed my dissertation last week and here’s what I’m reading now:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation., M.T. Anderson. Oh, the creepy underside of Enlightenment rationalism! Anderson’s series of young adult novels tell the tale of a young black boy raised in eighteenth-century Boston by the members of the College of Lucidity, a group of empiricist philosophers who dream of restoring “the Golden Age of Man.” As with all societies that aspire to utopia, this one too has made sinister moral compromises in pursuit of its ideals.—a realization that Octavian, the college’s most important experiment—comes to in the first volume of the series, The Pox Party.

Anderson is a masterful stylist (evocative of Daniel Defoe and J.M. Coetzee) and the form of the book is also innovative: bits of newspaper clippings, diagrams, hymns, and poetry are incorporated into the novels.  This technique brings the cultural world of eighteenth-century America to life in a vivid, material way and also reveals Anderson’s consciousness of (and introduces contemporary readers to) perhaps the most popular literary form of the period: the miscellany.  (Schott’s Original Miscellany reincarnated this form for our era and John Hodgeman’s The Areas of My Expertise is perhaps the most popular recent revival of this hodgepodge form that collects various pieces of writing, whether literary, non-literary, or both, into a single volume.)

The Book of Dead Philosophers. Simon Critchley. This compendium of short essays and reflections on “190 or so dead philosophers” is also in the miscellany tradition.  While Critchley acknowledges that one might merely dip into his book here and there for a certain morbid entertainment (to discover, say, that the ancient female philosopher “Hypatia was killed by a mob of angry Christians and her skin was peeled off with oyster shells”; or that “Nietzsche made a long, soft-brained, and dribbling descent into oblivion after kissing a horse in Turin”), the book is better read straight through. For all of the strange and entrancing trivia that this doxography (a collection of the lives and tenants of philosophers) contains, it is also a serious book in the tradition of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn—a memento mori—a collection of reminders of the inevitability of decline, destruction, and death. Chritchley offers the lives, teachings, and deaths of philosophers as a means of coming to terms with death’s inevitability and omnipresence.  Our society, he explains, is intent on denying death through theories of eternal life, or through the oblivion offered by material acquisition and pleasures—neither of which presents an honest acceptance of mortality. Socrates explained that death was not to be feared: “either it is an annihilation”, “a long dreamless sleep” or it is “a migration of the soul from this place to another,” where we might see old friends again and converse with the thinkers and heroes of the past. In an age obsessed with looking young and living longer, eating organic and working out, it is instructive to be reminded that no matter how few cigarettes you smoke, or how many hours of pilates you do a week, some death lies in wait, beyond our control (as in the case of the speeding dry cleaning van that killed Roland Barthes).

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.  Norton recently released a handsome, hardbound boxed set of Patricia Highsmith’s most famous novels.  Ripley is the most enthralling a-moral character ever written—a Gatsby-esque self-created individual, a composite of wicked, calculating intelligence and cool charm.  You want him to win in spite of his heartlessness and I devoured the first three novels in less than a week.My favorite novel is the first, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which we see Ripley becoming Ripley.  Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture—a charmed, leisured life—is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know.