As the last couple of days of summer appear, here is poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke on her summer and fall reading
I usually read a few books for pleasure at one time, an old bad habit, since it can also mean it takes a while to decide which one I’m focusing on. This summer, I was doing research for a nonfiction book and also at long last tackling Proust. So I’ve been reading the Moncrieff translation of Swann’s Way. After years of starting this wonderful book and putting it down, interrupted by work, at last I finally finished the first installment. Moncrieff can get a little flowery, but the book (unsurprisingly, I guess) knocked my socks off. Proust is so good at describing village life and the little glances that take place off to the side of the stage, turning these exchanges into pages-long riffs that are as illuminating as they are entertaining. I’m now reading the second installment.
For fun, I recently read Harry Mathews brilliant, witty, and poignant novel-in-episodes Cigarettes. Moving between 1936 and 1963 (I think) the novel chronicles the lives of an assortment of interconnected couples and their children (who also sometimes couple up) in New York City and Saratoga Springs. At the center (sort of; or, you might say, centrally off to the side) is Walter Trale, a peer of Jackson Pollock’s who began as a painter of animals. Racehorses, to be specific. Mathews shows himself to be brilliant at characterization and the interlocking structure ingeniously plays with questions of authority and perspective.
Finally, for research, I’ve been reading about mourning customs and death – hardly summer vacation fare. But I do recommend Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, a wonderful and accessible history about how the Civil War shifted the way Americans think about death and burial. For one thing, the absolute chaos the war wrought led to the institutionalizaton of national cemeteries and made evident the need for some kind of identification system for soldiers. For years after the war ended, families were still trying to figure if their loved ones were dead and where they were buried.
And I am always reading some poetry; usually it’s by my bed, and I read it before sleep and in the morning, when I’m not reading it more purposefully in order to teach a class or write an essay. Right now, I’m on a Wallace Stevens kick, thanks to the new Selected, edited by John N. Serio, from Knopf.
Meghan O’Rourke’s collection Halflife: Poems was published in 2007 by Norton.