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NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Reamy Jansen: How Do You Decide What to Read Next?

By Reamy Jansen

Another response to the third question in our Next Decade in Book Culture series, from former NBCC board member Reamy Jansen.

Reviewers: I'll read the reviewers in the NY Times daily, also those in the business section, and pretty much the New York Times Book Review. However, I often find the Times simply too Mandarin–the reviews there of Hitch-22 are a good example of how to write a dull review. Close critical readings came from Ian Baruma in NYRB and David Bromwich in LRB–both had done considerably more background reading than the American reviewers I read–perhaps NY Times writers had had dinner with Hitchens, tossed back a few, woke up they knew not where. When it comes to politics, the Times is often dull and characterless…. For The Times, too often there is a general tendency to pass over analysis in favor of dutiful summary. Often, it's just not criticism.

I read Time Out/New York as example of good writing in a relatively small space, and they look at small and independent presses, which the Times doesn't do enough of, or of poetry.


As for what I'm reading next. That's much more of a puzzle. I usually have a summer reading plan: one year the Orestia and Martha Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness. Another time, the Hollanders' translation of Purgatorio. Last year, Victorian Novels: Dickens, Bronte, and Hardy, plus biographies, Milgate on H, Gaskell on Bronte. Lots of post modern criticism, plus Mieke Bal and Barthes.


This year I was going to read War and Peace (this is my unattainable “smart girls” standard. In junior year in high school they all reported that they had read Gone with the Wind, the longest book they thought had been written. Senior year lots of them did War and Peace; plus they all knew French, knew how to type, And most played the oboe. My 50th reunion is coming up and I'm going to hand out copies of Musil's The Man Without Qualities).


So this year–War and Peace–I get out the new translation and start struggling with the French, which reminds me that I never finished Swann's Way, but in looking for my copy, I see Zola's Germinal and The Debacle on my office book shelves. I start reading the first page of The Debacle and am hooking up and marching with Jean and Maurice–certainly one of the greatest war novels ever. I order La Terre to get some of the back story on Jean, but by then I've found my copy of Swann's Way, which I am completely sucked up in, particularly the comic quality of Swann's desperation over Odette. Every sentence is a work of art.


Then I read Edmund White's short bio of Proust–exemplary version of a short take of Proust's life–elegant, knowledgeable, dramatic, and a multitude of sources. So then I finish Swann's Way, but I'm always thinking of what to read next–piled up on my porch are five volumes of poetry and David Means latest short story collection, The Spot–my wife later piles this pile up somewhere out of sight, largely out of mind, and my sinuses are better. La Terre has arrived, but I've now taken down Balzac's Lost Illusions, which, according to White, was an early model for Proust.


These things all begin to connect–there's Sechard's printing press and I'm also reading Matthew Campbell's Shop Class as Soul Craft, An Inquiry into the Value of Work–I'm trying to discern why this semester's students are so singularly unmotivated and not particularly concerned with not handing in work–plus there's the usual cohort of students who were in high school English Honors and started out doing D work with me (they finish with honest C+'s). This book sends me off to Richard Sennett's The Craftsman and also looking for Aristotle's Rhetoric to look up “stochastic.” I don't have a copy, luckily, but Sennett, in mentioning Adam Smith's use of the term, “Impartial spectator” in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, which I have, of course, along with a volume of his literary essays.


So that's my next read after I've finished Sennett, although I do have The Culture of the New Capitalism, and there's La Terre and Within a Budding Grove. This is my brain on books.  

Reamy Jansen is Professor of English and Humanities at Rockland Community College, SUNY and taught Arts Reporting for many years at Fordham University's College at Lincoln Center. He is a Contributing Editor to the Bloomsbury Review of Books and initiated its quarterly short nonfiction section, The Out of Bounds Essay, which is now in its third year. He is also nonfiction editor of the the online journal The Hamilton Stone Review. His most recent book is a memoir, Available Light, Recollections and Reflections of a Son, a series of linked essays published by the author collective, Hamilton Stone Editions, whose president is the novelist, Meredith Sue Willis. It's been getting good reviews.