Professor Borges on reading

Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966.  The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students.  The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them:  on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas.  It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.

But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today.  It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.

I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory.  Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”?  What for?  Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek.  Obligatory happiness!  We seek happiness as well.  For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students:  If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old.  If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me.  But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.  Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment.  It is the only way to read.

Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach.  I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that.  But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich.  Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me.  Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline.  But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges:  Read only what you enjoy.


The book is Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis.  New Directions, 2013

Jane to be worth 10 pounds

I’m currently reading Jane Austen’s biography by Claire Tomalin and I love Austen.  So this was good news:  Beginning in 2017 she will be on the British 10 pound note. This is a triumph for British women who petitioned for more women on banknotes.  According to the Guardian

Jane Austen has been confirmed as the next face of the £10 note in a victory for campaigners demanding female representation – aside from the Queen – on the country’s cash.

Sir Mervyn King, the Bank’s former governor, had let slip to MPs that the author of Pride and Prejudice was “waiting in the wings” as a potential candidate to feature on a banknote, and his successor, Mark Carney, confirmed on Wednesday that she would feature, probably from 2017.

“Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes. Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal and she is recognised as one of the greatest writers in English literature,” the new governor said.

He also announced that the Bank would carry out a review of the process for selecting the historical figures who appear on banknotes, to ensure that a diverse range of figures is represented.

And are the petitioners happy?

The Bank of England's design for a £10 note featuring Jane Austen

The Bank of England’s design for a £10 note featuring Jane Austen

Campaigners threatened to take the Bank to court for discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act and launched a petition on the campaign site which secured more than 35,000 signatures.

Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of feminist blog the Women’s Room, who led the campaign, and was called in to discuss the issue with Salmon, said the Bank’s announcement marked a “brilliant day for women”.

“Without this campaign, without the 35,000 people who signed our petition, the Bank of England would have unthinkingly airbrushed women out of history. We warmly welcome this move from the Bank and thank them for listening to us and taking such positive and emphatic steps to address our concerns,” she said.

“To hear Jane Austen confirmed is fantastic, but to hear the process will be comprehensively reviewed is even better.”

The only other women to be ever be depicted on bank notes are Elizabeth Fry, a prison reformer, and Florence Nightingale.

Austen will take her place on the £10 note in 2017, the bicentenary of her death, replacing the 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin, who has been on the notes since late 2000.

A writer of what many would consider light fiction or women’s fiction replacing Darwin who, we all can acknowledge, changed the way we look at the world?  Why not?  Both were revolutionary in their own ways.  As Ciado-Perez points out

Criado-Perez conceded Austen was not top of her wish-list as the next woman on a bank note but that she was a particularly apt choice given the context. “She was an incredibly intelligent woman. She spent her time poking fun at the establishment. All her books are about how women are trapped and misrepresented. It is really sad that she was saying that 200 years ago and I am still having to say that today,” the campaigner said.

So is there any controversy?  Yes.  The quote to appear on the banknote is not one that many would pick.

Yet surely there has been a blunder. The new note displays an image of Austen based on the only certain surviving portrait of her, a drawing by her sister Cassandra. Fine. It also blazons forth some of the great writer’s immortal words. You can imagine being the Bank of England employee given the task of finding the telling Austen quotation. Something about reading, perhaps? A quick text search in Pride and Prejudice turns up just the thing: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

The trouble is that these words are spoken by one of Austen’s most deceitful characters, a woman who has no interest in books at all: Caroline Bingley. She is sidling up to Mr Darcy, whom she would like to hook as a husband, and pretending that she shares his interests. He is reading a book, so she sits next to him and pretends to read one too. She is, Austen writes, “as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own” and “perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page”. He will not be distracted, so “exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his”, she gives a great yawn and says the words that will appear on the bank note.

For anyone who has actually read “Pride and Prejudice”, Caroline Bingley is one of the characters you like to dislike.  And she never reads anything.  The sentiment is wonderful, but does the Bank of England really want irony on its banknotes?  Austen wrote often about money:  Having it, not having it, marrying for it, being married for it.  I’m sure they didn’t want a quote about money.  But the one they picked is almost as bad.  I think it is time for them to consult some Austen scholars or even have ask people to submit their favorite quotes.

And while I’m thinking about it, if they had adopted the Euro, this discussion would never have happened.  Makes me happy.

Elizabeth, Darcy and Jane

The two hundredth anniversary of my favorite book was celebrated a couple of days ago.  I re-read it at least once a year and then I get into the various spin-offs, the best of which are by Pamela Aiden and P.D. James.  I haven’t read any of the zombie ones and don’t intend to read them.  I will then watch Colin Firth go swimming.

In his happy birthday post for the New Yorker, William Deresiewicz wrote

Two hundred years. But there seemed little chance, two hundred years ago,  that many people would remember either the novel or its author by now. The draft  that she produced at twenty-one was rejected by a London publisher sight unseen.  Other disappointments followed, and after a series of personal upheavals, she  gave up writing altogether. But circumstances stabilized and hope returned, and  by the time of her death, just four years after “Pride and Prejudice” came out  (four years during which she finished “Mansfield Park,” and wrote “Emma” and “Persuasion” from scratch), her brother was willing to venture the claim that  her novels were fit to be placed “on the same shelf as the works of a D’Arblay and an Edgeworth.”

How she got from there to here is a long story. The public soon forgot her,  but her memory was kept alive, like Bach’s, among the cognoscenti. George Eliot  reread all six of her novels aloud with her lover George Henry Lewes before  setting sail on “Middlemarch.” Mark Twain and Charlotte Brontë hated her;  Rudyard Kipling adored her; Henry James learned more from her than he was ever  willing to admit. Virginia Woolf installed her at the head of the canon of  English women novelists (“the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose  books are immortal”). F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling certified her academic  prestige. Then came the movies, and feminist criticism, and more movies, and  Colin Firth, and the fan fiction, and now the ever-growing, ever-changing  multi-platform media phenomenon and global icon.

One can re-read Pride and Prejudice again and again even knowing the story by heart.  You want to tell Elizabeth to beware of Wickham and Jane not to worry Mr. Bingley will come though in the end.  And Mrs. Bennet will always be insufferable. Back when I was teaching workshops on sexual harassment, I would name my scenario characters after those in Pride and Prejudice and once or twice one of the women would catch on.

Here are Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.  Elinor Lipman watched all the film versions for us and the Huffington Post. “I announce that the head-and-shoulders winner of Best Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth (1995 Masterpiece Theatre, 300 minutes.)”  I agree.  But back to Mr. Deresiewicz

So why do we love the novel so much? Because while Austen sacrifices  Elizabeth’s feelings, she lavishly indulges ours. Austen’s heroes usually aren’t  the wealthiest men around, or the handsomest. In many of her novels, there is  something troubling about the way that things work out. But not in “Pride and  Prejudice.” Here she gives us everything we want: the wittiest lines, the  silliest fools, the most lovable heroine, the handsomest estate. And a hero who  is not only tall and good-looking, but the richest and most wellborn man in  sight.

He’s also kind of an asshole, which makes it even better. Do women love  assholes, the way that everybody says? Well, if the novel’s epic popularity is  any proof, they seem to love to win them over, anyway. “Tolerable, but not  handsome enough to tempt me”—Darcy’s famous insult, the first time he  and Lizzy meet. That’s the real story, underneath the one about Wickham and  Bingley and Jane, the misperceptions and coincidences. Darcy wounds Elizabeth’s  sexual pride, and her victory comes—and with it, ours—when he’s made to recant  and repent. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get much wishier than that. Austen tells us  that our feelings aren’t necessarily right, but boy does she ever make the  lesson feel good.

May Pride and Prejudice be read for another two hundred years.  (And if you haven’t read the book, but just seen one of the movies, please read it – you don’t know what you are missing.)  Time to start my annual reading!

Title page from the first edition of the first...

Title page from the first edition of the first volume of Pride and Prejudice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading Dickens and other stuff

I haven’t written about books for a long time but I am always reading more than one book at a time.  So here is what I’ve been reading the last week or so.

We all know that at Christmas time there are endless versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on television, but when, if ever, was the last time you actually read the book?  I was probably in my early teens when I read it last.  This year we decided to purchase a copy which I just finished reading last week.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It is nicely illustrated by Greg Hildebrant who used as models various friends and relations.

Dickens wrote in his 1843 introduction

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.

I think we should all read it and/or watch our favorite movie version at least once a year.  (Here is one persons opinion of the 10 best television and film versions.)  It can teach us something about tolerance and old fashioned Charity.

One of my retirement projects is trying to figure out what books we actually own.  I had the idea of creating my own database and then stumbled upon LibraryThing.  It is a nifty online way to not only keep track of your books, but also to share with others.  You can post reviews, read what others think, and there are a lot of queries and statistics to play with.  Turns out to be a lot of fun in addition to being useful and easy to use.  You can also request free books in exchange for a review.  The book I reviewed for December was “Crime of Privilege” by Walter Walker.  It is a mystery which will be released soon.  Do not spend your money on this thinly disguised Kennedy family mash-up.  So far there is one other review posted and it is not good either.

Crime of Privilege: A Novel by Walter Walker

I am about half way through John Barry’s book about Roger Williams and separation of church and state.  It is fascinating history beginning in England and James’ efforts to make the Church of England more orthodox and more Catholic.

Roger Williams and the Creation of the…

Highly recommended.

And in between Barry, I am re-reading some Georgette Heyer.  Did you know there is a third book to what is called the Alastair trilogy? (“These Old Shades”, “Devil’s Cub” and “The Infamous Army”)  I’ve just ordered volume 3.  Heyer is still readable and fun.  Her stories remind me of  film comedies where people get into impossible situations but somehow all turns out right.  I have fun imagining them as movies.

It is getting cold out so pick up a book and curl up and read.

P.D. James and Jane Austen

I need to explain that I re-read Pride and Prejudice at least once a year.  I loved the early PBS version of the book, but that has been replaced now by the Colin Frith version which I own on DVD.  I’ve also dipped into some of the sequels and expansions (most are horrible) to feed by habit.  

P.D. James is one of my favorite writers.  I have read all of her mysteries. One of my favorites is An Unsuitable Job for a Woman which introduced the young Cordelia Gray.  Adam Dalgleish her primary detective is not only a police inspector, but also a published poet.  Her books are literate and the mysteries complex and interesting.  So when I saw that James had written a kind of sequel to Pride and Prejudice I ordered a copy immediately.  And I was not disappointed.

Death Comes to Pemberley

With her usual elegance, James tells brings us to the Darcy estate six years after Elizabeth Bennet married her Mr. Darcy.  They now have 2 children and Elizabeth has clearly taken hold as mistress of Pemberley.  All the other characters make their appearance including George Wickham who is still a wild neer do well and his wife, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is still tends to hysteria.  They are at the heart of the mystery.

Liesal Schillinger in her review last week in the New York Times book review writes

James clearly understands that many readers feel as close an attachment to Austen’s characters as they do to their own relatives and friends. So she cannily begins by furnishing answers to the natural question: “Where are they now?”

How right it feels to learn, as James informs us, that Bingley and Jane moved away from Netherfield soon after their marriage, wanting to put distance between them and the ever-querulous Mrs. Bennet at Longbourn. What a delight to read that tone-deaf, humorless Mary Bennet has married a “thin, melancholy” rector, “given to preaching sermons of inordinate length and complicated theology.” How apt that the evil seducer George Wickham, after marrying Lizzy’s frivolous sister Lydia, worked as a secretary for the foppish baronet Sir Walter Elliot (a character from Austen’s novel “Persuasion”) until Lydia’s “open flirtation” with the baronet and Wickham’s simpering attempts to ingratiate himself with his employer’s daughter met “finally with disgust.” And what a treat to see Bingley’s snobbish sisters, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, get their comeuppance — and Harriet Smith (of “Emma”) her reward.

Above all, James will delight Austen’s devoted fans by showing Darcy and Lizzy to be (if anything) more in love and better matched than anyone might have hoped, six years into their marriage.

If you love Austen and you love James or you love one or the other, I think you will love this book.

(Illustration by Skip Sterling)

Summer Reading

I was away for a few days last week and did what I always do in Vermont: hike a little and read and relax a lot.  There are several books in my sister’s library I re-read once a year:  Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright.

Understood Betsy

This is the story of a little orphan girl around 1900 who has to leave the home of her aunt in an unspecified mid-western city and move to near Putney, Vermont.  She learns self-sufficiency, kindness and, most of all, what it takes to be happy.  My sister’s hardback is so old, it was published when Dorothy Canfield has not yet added the Fisher.  It was published in 1917.  The book is like the Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the way in which they talk about how to do things like churn butter and make applesauce.  And of course, it is about Vermont.

Gone-Away Lake is also a children’s book.  First published in 1957, it tells the story of young, almost teens who discover an abandoned resort on a lake that became a swamp after a dam was built.  They discover a brother and sister fallen on hard times who moved back to where they had once spent summers.  They have adventures and keep the discovery a secret as long as they can from their parents.  It is a book about accepting differences couched in a summer vacation story.  There is a sequal, Return to Gone-Away in which one of the abandoned houses is purchased and restored by one of the families. 

Elizabeth Enright

Elizabeth Enright won a Newberry Honor award for Gone-Away Lake.

My other favorite thing to do is to poke around a wonderful used bookstore in Brattleboro, Brattleboro Books.  (They, like all bookstores, need a little press.) This year the treasure I unearthed by Dorothy Gilman’s The Tightrope Walker.  I had not thought about it or read it in many years, but the minute I spotted the book, it all came back to me.  It is the story of a young woman who solves a mystery and discovers herself. (Is there a theme to these books?)

The heroine finds a note in a hurdy-gurdy and follows a trail to uncover a the secret of the note writer’s murder.  It is an old-fashioned follow the clues where ever they lead mystery with some romance thrown in.   Gilman wrote the tightrope walker in 1979 in between writing her better known Mrs. Pollifax spy stories.

So now you know what I read on my summer vacation. 



Josephine Tey and Dick Francis

I had just finished re-reading Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes when I learned of the death of Dick Francis.  While they could not be more different, both are favorites of mine.  Josephine Tey specialized in elegant stories with very little violence and no blood while Dick Francis always had a “tough guy” hero who at some point gets beaten up (or injured somehow) and has to be nursed back to health, usually by the love interest.  Tey wrote only eight mysteries between 1929 (The Man in the Queue) and 1952 (The Singing Sands ).  Francis, on the other hand wrote more than 40 beginning in 1962 with Dead Cert.

Dick Francis was the Queen’s Jockey and famous in British racing circles before he turned to write mysterties.  According to his obituary in the New York Times

…Mr. Francis was already a celebrity in British sporting circles. Named champion jockey of the 1953-54 racing season by the British National Hunt after winning more than 350 races, he was retained as jockey to the queen mother for four seasons and raced eight times in the Grand National Steeplechase.When Devon Loch, the horse he was racing for the queen mother in the 1956 Grand National, collapsed in a spectacular mishap just before he would have won, Mr. Francis feared, as he put it in his autobiography, that he would be remembered as “the man who didn’t win the National.” This setback, along with the accumulated miseries of injuries, forced him into early retirement at the age of 36.

The New York Times published this well known picture of Francis on Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse.

Drawing on his experiences as a jockey and his intimate knowledge of the racetrack crowd — from aristocratic owners to Cockney stable boys — the novel contained all the elements that readers would come to relish from a Dick Francis thriller. There was the pounding excitement of a race, the aura of the gentry at play, the sweaty smells from the stables out back, an appreciation for the regal beauty and unique personality of a thoroughbred — and enough sadistic violence to man and beast to satisfy the bloodthirsty.

Mr. Francis was a formulaic writer, even if the formula was foolproof. He drew the reader into the intimate and remarkably sensual experience of the world of racing. His writing never seemed better than when his jockey-heroes climbed on their mounts and gave themselves up to what he called “the old song in the blood.”

This self-contained world was, of course, a reflection of a broader universe in which themes of winning and losing and courage and integrity have more sweeping meaning. As the critic John Leonard wrote, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God.”

Tey also created worlds.  Each of her eight mysterties is set in a different world.  Although little is know about Tey (Elizabeth Macintosh), she was born in Inverness and attended a physical training college in Birmingham.  Miss Pym Disposes is set at a similar sort of college where the students (all young women) study to teach phys ed and practice what we would now call physical therapy.

The writer, Natasha Cooper, wrote in a short essay on Tey

Until I started to think about this piece I had always assumed that my devotion to Josephine Tey’s novels had most to do with the age at which I first read them. As an impressionable twelve- or thirteen-year-old I revelled in the gentle, unusually rational decency of her good characters and found the domesticity of her settings appealing. The elegant simplicity of her style makes her work easy to enjoy at any age and some of the novels, particularly Brat Farrar with its predominantly young cast, might well have been written specifically for teenagers.

But once I started to reread some of the novels the other day, I realised that there was more to my delight in her work. Her obsession with the masks people wear and the truths they hide is one that I share. All crime writers must be concerned with the ways in which criminals disguise themselves and are found out by their investigators, but Tey’s interest went beyond that.

…In Miss Pym Disposes she plays with the idea of misread identity in several different ways in the characters of the heroine, an easily mockable spinster who happens to have written a brilliantly successful psychology textbook, and the three physical training students who provide the murderer, victim and chief suspect.Like most of Tey’s villains, Pamela Nash in Miss Pym Disposes is beautiful, successful, adored – and so full of vanity that she cannot conceive of anything (even someone else’s life) being more important than her own wishes…

I also first read Tey as a teenager by discovering Miss Pym and Brat Farrar. 

As the Grumpy Old Bookman said in his 2005 entry

Josephine Tey, the English crime writer, died in 1952; but if you go to and type in her name, you get 172 results; and on you get 109. In other words, the lady is still in print, is still published in a wide variety of formats, still selling, and still being read. That being the case, it is worth having a look at her life and methods in order to see what might be learnt.

So celebrate Dick Francis by picking up one of his books (I particularly like the early ones) and rediscover (or discover) Josephine Tey both are well worth the time.