Critical Mass

What Are You Looking Forward to Reading, Daniel Mendelsohn?

By Eric Banks

This summer I’ve been doing something I’ve always wanted to do, which is to listen to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on my iPod. I’ve read lots of it in the past—first, of necessity, when I was in grad school, and more recently when working on the commentary for my Cavafy translation (Cavafy was a huge fan of Gibbon, and many poems are based on episodes from D&F)—but, as often happens with books on tapes, the experience of listening to the text makes for a totally different experience. Obviously it’s a great story, but I suppose you could say that I’ve never experienced the story-ness of it quite so much. The reader, Bernard Mayes, nails two crucial things beautifully—the weary tartness of tone, but also the magnificent architecture of the sentences. Wonderful.

I’m always reading several things at once, with usually some fun, interesting thing for the early mornings while I have coffee and get the day going (I get up usually by 5:30), then the “work” reading, which takes up most of the day, and then something for myself right before bed, which I tend to fall asleep with. Right now—inspired by my recent re-reading of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s amazingly wonderful books about travel in Greece, Roumeli and Mani—the early-morning reading is Steven Runciman’s zippy and fun history of Mistra, “the lost capital of Byzantium.” The “work” reading is all-Cheever, all the time, for a big Cheever piece I’ve been preparing for some months, and so most of the day is taken up with that—right now I’m winding up the new biography. (When doing this kind of piece I like to read everything by the author first, so I have a clear sense of what I think of him or her before immersing myself in the secondary stuff, the biographies and criticism—what other people think.)

As for the night-time reading, that’s the fabulous correspondence between Voltaire and the great saloniste Mme. du Deffand, which is lively, often very funny, tart, and sometimes poignant (they were getting on when the correspondence began, and she went blind), and—something that’s useful just now, I think, when the quality of civil discourse is at an all-time low—a lesson in tone, in the varieties of ways that one person can address another (even when irritated or in disagreement). I’ve always loved reading correspondences, and this ranks as a high point in the genre, certainly.

All that should take up the rest of the summer. Afterward, I have to plunge into Proust again for a piece I’m writing about Paintings in Proust, which I’m really looking forward to; and I’m also planning to read all the Sookie Stackhouse books, since I’m a huge True Blood fan. Then I’m starting a new book of my own, so whatever further projects I have for “pure pleasure reading” will have to wait for … uh, 2012, I think.

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of the NBCC-award winning The Lost, published a new translation, with commentary, of the complete poems of C. P. Cavafy (Knopf) earlier this year.  The collection of his critical essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, will be published in paperback next month (Harper).