October Book Log

November 3, 2015

I read 12 books in October. A lot of it great, great poetry. I’m at 82 books for the years and still hoping to reach 100.

  1. Selected Poems by W.B. Yeats (5/5) – I’ve made a bad habit of not delving deeply enough into canonical poets. That’s fine for the ones I don’t really care for, but for writers like Yeats, it’s just a shame. I’m trying to amend the problem now. This was a great collection and I loved pretty much every bit of it.
  2. Clasp by Doireann Ni Ghriofa (5/5) – Cate has been discovering and introducing me to a lot of new poetry lately. This is, I think, my favorite of the things she’s shown me. Ghriofa is an Irish poet and it shows through in a wonderful way.
  3. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire (5/5) – This is another collection of poetry. Sad and powerfully feminist.
  4. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (5/5) – Taught this book and thus read it for (I think) the fourth time. It’s such a beautiful and brilliantly constructed book. It also hits home for me as much as any book I’ve read lately.
  5. Crush by Richard Siken (4.5/5) – These poems are almost terrifyingly dark. I don’t mean that they are gruesome of anything of that type. I mean only that they deal honestly with all of our darkest and saddest places.
  6. Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest (5/5) – As Cate says: Kate Tempest is a genius. Really, really a genius. I don’t know how I can possibly talk about these poems in a way that makes sense. They are wonderful.
  7. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (4/5) – This was a strange little book. It’s historical fiction about the early life of a moderately famous writer. I didn’t love it as I was reading it, but I keep thinking about it. And the ending was so convincing. I’ll probably have to reread it someday to really figure out what I think. Some books are like that.
  8. The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Gluck (5/5) – More poems from Cate. More great poems. I read so much great poetry in October. It’s ridiculous.
  9. Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann (5/5) – This is a novella and three stories and, well, Colum McCann continues to be my favorite living writer. He understands the world and other perspectives so well.
  10. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Taught this to AP lit. It’s one of my favorite by Bill. Shakespeare, yada, yada. All that.
  11. Artemis by Cate Linden (5/5) – So, my wife wrote a book of poetry and she has sent it out. It isn’t published yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real and that I didn’t read it half a dozen times and help with the editing and all that. Anyway, if these see the light of day (and they should), you will get to read them and know that they are brilliant and sad. Cate and I are famously brutal when assessing each other’s writing, so trust me when I say that these stand up against any other poetry being written.
  12. Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta (4/5) – The second-to-last book on Cate’s list for me this year. In general, I liked it very well just one or two stories fell a bit flat. Still, a good read from an unusual perspective.

As everyone in the world is aware, the last Harry Potter movie came out a week ago. I came to Harry Potter late. I was a senior in high school when the first book came out and for a very long time was not interested in “kids’ books.” Cate is just the right age and followed Harry through her youth. It took her a while, but eventually, she convinced me to give the books a shot. I don’t think that the early books in the series even approach great writing, but it is a hell of a story (good storytelling should be considered at least as vital as perfect sentences. Sadly, it often isn’t) and the last several books are quite strong on all fronts.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who is a bit of a hipster and highly aggravated about all the Harry Potter stuff. His initial argument was that these were silly kids’ books and he didn’t understand why an adult would bother with them. There are, I think, lots of reasons why this is a problematic idea, but mostly I will say I have come to believe one of the best ways to get a sense of what a society (or part of a society) thinks of the world and wants for its children is to read its best children’s literature (and Harry Potter is excellent children’s literature. It’s part of the canon now, whether you like it or not).

In any case, he abandoned that argument fairly quickly and admitted that: 1. He is skeptical of anything that gets a lot of hype and 2. He doesn’t like fantasy. His second point is what it is. I think it’s dangerous to ever totally dismiss an entire genre as not worth the attention of anyone serious, but I’m not going to dwell on it. What I am going to dwell on is the first point which, I think, goes to the root of the problem with the hipster aesthetic.

Hipsters do not make quality judgments. They make quantity judgments. If too many people like something, they can’t. Period. How ridiculous. My friend’s refusal to have anything to do with the Harry Potter series is mostly grounded in his distaste for things that are popular. It is a classic argument from ignorance. He has no idea what Harry Potter is like. He has gone out of his way to have no knowledge of that world, yet he still feels qualified to pass judgment because it is too popular.

I am pretentious as hell. Everyone who knows me will tell you this. I am also wary of things that are very popular, but I try, at least, to have some knowledge of the source before I condemn it. Have I read a Twilight book? God no. But I have read enough passages to know that Ms. Meyer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her in the ass.

My generation is the hipster generation, and it bugs the hell out of me. The incorrect use of irony, the posing, the pretending not to care. Most people abandon that when they grow up, but here we are, carrying it into our thirties. I think it’s a bit pathetic that so many grown ups have to think about their reputations before deciding if they like something.

One thing I firmly believe, and have told my students once or twice, is that nearly all truly accomplished people are nerds. It can be Steve Jobs or your favorite musician. In order to get really good at something – the kind of good that makes people sit up and take notice – you have to have a nerd level obsession. You have to get up early every day to shoot free throws or stay home on the weekends to play the guitar. No matter how much natural talent you have, it takes an enormous amount of work to be truly special. It also takes an enormous amount of unselfconscious love. Hipster culture is the antithesis of that.

On Tuesday, Cate and I went to see the last Harry Potter movie. I will tell you now that I don’t love Harry Potter like she does. For me, it was The Lord of the Rings (yes, I could read Elvish once). Still, when I was a certain age, I wanted nothing more than for there to be real magic in the world, and I will always be sad when the story of a world as magical and beautiful and flawed and interesting as the one J.K. Rowling created comes to an end, and it does not matter to me how many other people are sad.