2015: Reading, Anxiety, and Being Present

The new year is already one month old. As I discussed in my last post, there’s been a lot of change in my life recently and I’ve been quite slow in my adjustments. The new year is no exception. Hence the fact that it’s already February 2nd and I am only just now sitting down to think about the year ahead, or the next 11 months rather.

I haven’t given much thought to personal reading or writing goals. I’ve not even thought much about what I’m planning for this blog (very professional, I know). There is a reason for this, though. When your job is reading, analysis, and writing, three things you love most dearly, there is always the risk that your work anxiety will spill over into your personal enjoyment of books and (non-academic) writing. In academia, you’re not only likely to suffer from writer’s block, there’s also the chance of falling into a reader’s block. The blank space on the page as well as the pages already filled up with text can become quite terrifying. I am gradually learning to manage my anxiety, and although it has been a long process, one thing I’ve learned is that I can’t hide from it.

This blog, a commitment to reading and writing that is separate from my academic life, will hopefully give me an outlet to find focus and peace in reading and writing. I know it seems quite contradictory, to give myself extra ‘work’ in order to alleviate anxiety. But I am hoping that this space will help provide support and structure to my reading and writing life. Too often I use reading as an escape, which has its usefulness but which can at the same time be a detriment to the management of anxiety. I am also guilty of burning out and shunning all written words, allowing myself to wallow in the wilds of Netflix for much too long. It’s difficult to find a balance, but one of the most helpful methods I have for dealing with my anxiety is practising being present.

Being present also means being kind to myself, acknowledging how I’m feeling and not letting it consume me. When I’ve had a bad day ‘at work’, instead of grabbing my sweets and taking to bed with Netflix, I want to be able to say to myself, ‘That’s ok, bad work days happen, but let’s just try a bit of reading to get the brain working again’. And the great thing about reading for pleasure is that I don’t have to worry about how it will fit into my thesis or my career. I can let my mind use the book for whatever it wants, just be present with the words on the page—and more often than not I still find myself with plenty of interesting thoughts worth talking about on this blog. I love talking about books, writing about them and even analysing them. Sometimes my anxiety can get in the way, blocking out that wonderful feeling of joy, the very thing that lead me straight into academia where I can read and write about books for a job.

I will certainly be working on my anxiety as it relates to my work, figuring out how to avoid falling prey to its overwhelming power in the first place. Meditating, creating healthy work routines, and practising self-love are all important parts of the process. But I’m also hoping that committing myself to reading for pleasure and writing about books just for the love of it will help to slow the spread of my anxiety, remind me how much fun reading can be and give me a space to do what I love that is safely removed from the professional pressures I feel in academia.

And so this year my only hope is to keep reading and keep writing. I have no reading goals—I don’t care if I read ten books or one hundred. I just want to keep doing what I love.

2014: A Year of Reading

January, the month of new beginnings is coming to a close, but before we advance further into the new year I want to take a moment to look back. The Millions hosts their annual Year in Reading features in December and so I am quite late to the party, but as this blog has lain languishing in the backwaters of the Internet for so long I wanted to revive it while also providing some context for my absence.

In 2014 I read a total of 60 (non-academic) books [for a full list see my Goodreads 2014 bookshelf], but when I think back on the year I can barely see past the heft of my beginning research bibliography. I began my PhD this past October and in the last three months of the year, my reading took on a whole new life. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying, but mainly it’s just been an adjustment. My reading habits have changed drastically and I still have yet to find a comfortable balance between my two reading lives.

There was a day many months ago now that I can remember so clearly, reading in the sun on my parents’ farm in Maryland. Reading memories so often jumble together, but something about that afternoon has stuck in my mind. I was reading Artful by Ali Smith. It was a library book so I don’t have it with me to reference, but I can still remember noting down a particular passage on time (in a notebook undoubtedly misplaced in my trans-Atlantic move several months later). My memory is spotty, and so all I can excavate now is a few vague phrases: ‘Time means…Time will undo us’. This partially remembered passage, that it is embedded in such a poignant memory, seems almost a foreshadowing.

When I was reading Artful, back home on the farm, I was waiting—my life was peaceful and my days were filled with fiction. I was waiting to move back to England, to start my PhD and a whole new phase of life. I didn’t know just how much was about to change, but then again we never do. I read so many books during that waiting period:

  • Bark by Lorrie Moore* made me smile wryly even when reading about existential despair [1];
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson livened up a long road trip [2];
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson reminded that sometimes it’s nice to meander through a story [3];
  • Night Film by Marisha Pessl gave me a spooky mystery to relish [4];
  • the Across the Universe trilogy by Beth Revis entertained me while simultaneously annoying me [5];
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt filled up several snow days [6];
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart had me flipping pages in a whirlwind [7]; and
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton held me tightly in its interwoven narratives [8].

Just to name a few. It was a reading golden age, a book-lover’s dream. Waiting, for a reader, is never unendurable as long as there are books to be read.

And yet it’s strange to me to look back on the year, knowing now that when I was wishing for time to hurry up, antsy for change, I really should have been cherishing the waiting. But we never know the ‘before’ is just that until suddenly we’re in the ‘after’. Time makes meaning. It will undo us—unravel an old life—and it will remake us into something new.

I didn’t mean for this post to become so pensive. For all of this nostalgia for the enigmatic ‘before’, I feel the need to clarify: I am very happy in my life at the moment. 2014 was a strange year, with plenty of turmoil as well as a lot of happiness. For the first time in three years I was able to spend an extended amount of time with my family back in Maryland and it was so wonderful – living abroad is hard, especially when your family is going through stress and pain, and so I will always cherish those six months I had at home (and it will always be home). Despite how hard it was to leave again, and it gets harder with every leaving, I love my life in England. I can’t believe that I get to spend the next two and a half years reading and writing about a nerdy obsession. I love reading about early modern Catholicism and women’s devotional writing. But I will always look back fondly on the reading memories I have from that waiting period.

One Line Reviews:

  1. Enjoyable but underwhelming compared to her other works.
  2. I always appreciate LHA’s writing, but I thought the romance and the ending could have had more depth.
  3. A winding, imaginative story told well but floundered at the end (although I could be misremembering).
  4. Flawed in the execution but still an intriguing read.
  5. Such potential but messy in the world-building; that said it was entertaining.
  6. A great story, filled with wonderful characters, but has some slow parts in the middle.
  7. A good twist, but the writing fell flat and at times it felt as though Lockhart was trying a bit too hard.
  8. Just wonderful – masterfully plotted, hefty but still fully immersive.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

[Note: this review was written in November 2013 but I forgot to post it until now…such are my skills as a blogger.]

Finally a book review. Reading long, doorstop books means that I’ve been spending weeks reading without actually finishing a single book. Then in one weekend I decided to put a pause on my hefty reading and clear off my bedside table a bit. If you ask my boyfriend he will undoubtedly tell you that I am a compulsive tidier, as in ‘one who tidies’. Having half a dozen books cluttering up my bedside table, most of which were massive tomes over 500 pages, was beginning to drive me crazy. It was time for a cull, not just of my bedside table but also of my whole hoard of books. I decided to choose a few books to send away to new homes, books that had been bought on a whim and I could part with easily. First, however I wanted to finish reading a couple of the books.

And so last weekend while first visiting Hugh’s family in Shamley Green, I ended my habit of basking in the comforting effect of long, seemingly unfinishable books. I bit the bullet and finished reading a couple of books I had started and abandoned – one, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka J. K. Rowling, I won’t be reviewing although I enjoyed it more than expected; the other I am reviewing today (if I ever stop my rambling). Both, however, are being sent off to new homes along with several other books. Although I have a massive personal library split between two continents, I do believe in periodically rooting out unnecessary titles and sending them off to new homes where they will be better loved.

Ok, enough preamble. Onto the review.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Released June 18, 2013 by Headline Publishing Group (an imprint of Hatchette UK)

Disclaimer: The fact that I am sending away my copy of this book does not mean that I did not enjoy it. I merely decided that I did not need to keep the hardback edition and will likely pick up the paperback later on.

I encountered this book at a very uncertain time in my life and found several potent and pertinent resonances to my current situation. Gaiman’s mystical tale is one that is steeped in nostalgia. The story opens with the familiar trope of an adult narrator’s return to the childhood home. Gaiman’s doesn’t linger in the present to allow his narrator to indulge in the bittersweet musings of which so many literary novelists are overly enamored. Instead he deftly maneuvers the text into memory, pausing briefly to appreciate the surprising tenacity of such foggy remembrances:

Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.’ 6-7

The memories that are uncovered are quite extraordinary – not the sort of things you would expect a person to forget. As a child the narrator befriends a rather remarkable young girl named Lettie who lives down the road with her even more remarkable mother and grandmother. These women are ageless and mysterious and they poss magical powers. On their small farm there is a pond that is really an ocean and as the narrator becomes a part of their world, the dark side of their world begins seeping into his normal life. The story is perfectly endearing, but also perfectly strange. And it is this strangeness that lends Gaiman’s storytelling its power, lifting it from fairytale to something more.

The narrator is never named, which gives the story of his memories an unboundedness – these could be anyone’s memories or fantasies. For the magical and eerie events the narrator had forgotten for so many years are really, at their emotional core, the same experiences of every childhood as it begins to end. Gaiman’s little novel is so quaint and enchanting, imbued with a nostalgia that gives the story a dream-like quality; but it also contains vastness, presenting the reader with a narrative that tackles the very nature of memory and growing up. The narrator encounters monsters and magic, but he is really learning about the real world. And he is not just scared of the monsters in the story, but of growing up and living in a world with ugly people. Lettie, who possesses wisdom beyond her age, exposes the heart of the matter:

Oh, monsters are scared, ‘ said Lettie. ‘And as for grownups…’ She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, ‘I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.’ 152

Gaiman leaves his readers in a haze of bittersweet emotion as our own childhood imaginings (or memories?) suddenly feel closer than ever. It’s a beautiful feeling and I am in awe of Gaiman’s curious, little creation for evoking such long forgotten emotions. In the end, the narrator’s musings expose the core of this small novel:

I looked back at the farmhouse in my rear-view mirror, and a trick of the light made it seem as if two moons hung in the sky above it, like a pair of eyes watching me from above: one moon perfectly full and round, the other, its win on the other side of the sky, a half-moon. […] I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an after-image, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.’ 243

(Image via Amazon)

Bookish Thoughts: BuzzFeed Books & the Internet vs. ‘literary criticism’

We’ve all heard the news – books are dying. Well, that’s what ‘new media’ junkies would have us believe. Ok maybe just the wackos who have lost touch with reality because we all know the whole ‘books are dying’ idea is a bunch of hog wash. Oh I’m sorry…I just used a colloquialism in a space devoted to the discussion of those sacred objects lay people call ‘books’. Here, take my reading glasses and black turtleneck jumper. I must now revoke my membership to the ‘literary critic’ club. Although, I suppose, many people would never have regarded me a member in the first place because I dare to write about books on the Internet, the same place where Grumpy Cat exists.

All facetiousness aside, I find this feud between traditional book critics and the new only book community to be very interesting. Despite my jokes, I do not find myself able to claim a firm side in this rivalry. I may write about books somewhat informally online, but I also have a Masters in English Literature and believe in rigorous, formal criticism. In my very first post for this little blog I state my devotion to ‘serious’ readings of literature. As much as I enjoy the book community online, my aims are quite different and I do recognise that many book reviews on blogs lack the depth found in more traditional reviewing publications. Of course this informality is one of the community’s greatest strengths.

Traditional ‘literary critics’ are specifically decrying the establishment of BuzzFeed Books as the beginning of the end for ‘proper’ literary/book criticism. This is of course closely related to the GIF controversy to recently rock the online book community. Flavorwire has a great review of this situation in this particular article, which I recommend reading. For a view on the GIF issues, see this article on Salon. As I stated above, my feelings on the current debates in popular literary criticism, i.e. non-academic, are complicated. Really it all boils down to a conflict between old and new. In such debates, it is usually wisest to side with the new because we all know you cannot stop the ongoing forward march of time. But I find this particular situation to be a bit stickier. I can’t just commit myself to the ‘new’ ways.

The new editor of Buzzfeed Books, Isaac Fitzgerald’s statement regarding his views on the online book community are particularly interesting:

‘BuzzFeed will do book reviews, Fitzgerald said, but he hasn’t figured out yet what form they’ll take. It won’t do negative reviews: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.’

Perhaps this is the difference between the online community of book bloggers and reviewers and the traditional culture of book reviewing – one of the Internet’s most unique features is that it has increasingly become a place for the unembarrassed celebration of people’s interests, hence  ‘fandoms’, people coming together to share their love of a common phenomenon (TV shows, movie, book, etc.). For the online book community, this celebratory nature of the Internet is obviously present as is evidenced by Fitzgerald’s commitment to positivity. This celebration of books is of course something I believe in wholeheartedly – I love reading book blogs and watching videos by booktubers  that offer quite basic reader-response reviews because it perfectly replicates the wonderful experience of a nice chat with a friend about what they’ve been reading recently. Who among us doesn’t love sitting down with a good friend and just chatting away about good books, or even not-so-good books? Such a conversation doesn’t typically involve  much serious literary analysis, more important is the simple experience of reading – would you recommend devoting a week or two to this story?, was it a positive experience?, what did the book make you feel?, did you like the characters?, etc. The book blogging and booktubing community is driven by young people, which adds to the charm because the excitement about reading is so palpable (and which also explains the focus on Young Adult literature). Anything that gets young people excited about reading is great in my book, but I wouldn’t classify the community in the same realm of book reviewing as The London Review of Books or The Paris Review. Using GIFs and incorporating pop culture references (a la Slaughterhouse 90210) is a fun way to get talking about books and valid opinions can certainly be presented in such an untraditional manner, but the level of discourse is aimed at a different audience and for a different purpose than traditional literary criticism. Different, but not necessarily better or worse.

Here’s the thing: literary criticism, the kind that sometimes involves ‘the scathing takedown’, the work of literary critics writing for such respected publications as the LRB, is important. Setting aside any discussion of the usefulness of the academic study of literature (see this post for my views; in general just don’t get me started on the vendetta against the humanities – I will probably go on a long, emotional rant and will end up in tears as I usually do when arguing…side note: you can probably guess why I was never on the debate team), the usefulness of serious, critical discussion of contemporary literature cannot be denied. I believe art and literature are the most important reflections of human experience in a particular society and as I’ve stated before (post is linked above) the study of these reflections is imperative to a healthy society. Of particular importance are the public contemplations of such art and literature so that everyone can be granted access to the discussion and learn to reflect complexly on the issues present.

It’s unfair to write off non-academic literary critics as stodgy old ‘book snobs’ educating the masses on what is intellectual enough to read. Even if some of them are ‘book snobs’, isn’t  such sophisticated taste understandable? You don’t expect a sommelier to spend his days drinking  £4 Sainsbury’s brand Pinot Grigio. It’s a literary critics job to recognise great literature and to have an opinion of books. A scathing takedown may seem unnecessary and harsh, but it’s necessary to comment on the failings of literature as much as the successes. The Internet is filled with negative reviews of books, visit the Amazon page for even the most beloved classics of literature and you’ll find a few one star reviews. The only difference between an Amazon of Goodreads one star review and a scathing takedown by an old-school literary critic is that the latter often offers more thought-out criticisms yet is stigmatised as a snob for doing so. If all literary critics, in the online community and the traditional book review publications, limited themselves to positivity, the forum for debate would be quite boring. A scathing book review will incite a discussion on how a book could better deal with a given subject, which is instructive and helps build a community of readers more aware of the intricacies of the art form.

My thoughts here are just the ramblings of an aspiring writer and an amateur literary critic. One of these days I will get around to writing another book review here – I’m working on a combined review of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, but as you can imagine such an endeavour is quite daunting. My review will hopefully serve several purposes, including thoughtful reflection on the books’ contribution to contemporary literature as well as a general overview of the reading experience. Just because it will be published on a blog doesn’t mean it is a ‘fluff piece’, but even if I did want to include GIFs and pop culture references, it would still have a place in the discussion of literature.

Bookish Thoughts: Reading ‘Vast Books’

I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of myself, but I know that accepting my own faults and failures is an important step in bettering myself. So here goes:

Since completing my MA dissertation, I have stopped writing. I have not felt even the slightest desire to write these past two months. I’ve just had a complete lack of interest.

Obviously this lack of motivation for writing has meant letting this little blog lay fallow. Hopefully this time of neglect will prove not unlike the agricultural practice and restore the blog’s fertility. [My wealth of agricultural metaphors sure does come in handy for making excuses.] And so as NaNoWriMo approacheth, I have decided that the best course of action is to just jump right in. Yes, the water will be cold and it will be shockingly uncomfortable at first, but it’s the only way. Otherwise I would probably change my mind after feeling how cold the water is and settle for just sitting on the side of the pool, only dangling my feet in the water and watching everyone else have fun.

I’ve decided that this November I will not only be attempting to write a novel, I will also be devoting the month to all kinds of writing, including this blog (also my research proposals and personal statements for PhD applications). There has been no lack of reading these past two months, so I know that I have plenty to write about for this blog. I just have to sit down and actually write. So here I am.

I think I needed this time off from writing, because even if my creative impulses have become stiff and rusty, I’ve fallen back in love with fully hedonistic reading. For the past four years I’ve turned my love of reading into studying. I am a nerd at heart and so I love studying and combining two of my favourite things has given my life a path and been wonderfully fulfilling. Yet these past two months have made me realise that maybe I did give something up. Or maybe it’s just that now that on this gap year without academia to fill my life I’ve been floundering about with no sense of purpose and had to escape. For whatever reason, I’ve found myself completely rediscovering the joy of big, thick, doorstop novels.

Recently Read, Currently Reading
The Secret History by Donna Tartt, 629 pages
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, 484 pages
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, 695 pages
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, 555 pages
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 923 pages
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, 672 pages

Next up
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (it’s a whole thing, as my boyfriend would say), 771 pages
The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simons, 656 pages
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 635 pages
The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, 566 pages
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 832 pages

As you can tell from the two lists, of late I have been drawn to novels of at least 450 pages. (Bring Up the Bodies is the only book on those lists that is under 500. Although I personally think it feels like an even longer book when you’re reading it because of the depth of detail and Mantel’s very tight prose.) I have relished losing myself in long, elaborate stories and richly drawn storyworlds. But just one big book is not enough, I have been reading multiple novels at once. I like to dip into each one every few days and draw all of the different stories around me like a cocoon. Sometimes it feels like I am insulated from the rest of the world by these books.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories recently and why I feel so safe when I’m fully ensconced in one (or many). It’s not just the escapism, losing oneself in a good story and letting life’s worries fall away. It’s a bit more complex than that because anyone can escape into a story be it long or short. A story needn’t be long to be engrossing. But recently I’ve been basking in the cosy warmth of great, big books. It’s almost as if I’m hoping to just languish among these stories until there’s nothing left of me, decaying as I devour. That’s the strangeness of my new obsession. The stories are not just filling me up, but also using me up.

Jorge Luis Borges, best known for his short stories, famously remarked that it is ‘a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books’. Laborious is certainly one word to describe the experience of reading such books as well. And for me it is a welcome labour. There’s been a void in my life with nothing to study, no degree to obtain. This laborious experience of read ‘vast books’ has replaced the studious labours I have always loved so well. Borges’ quote is peculiarly perceptive here for this reading is not the same kind of experience as, for example, writing a postgraduate thesis. Writing my dissertation was laborious, but also fruitful. Reading these ‘vast books’, however, has indeed been ‘impoverishing’. But I do not view this impoverishment as a negative experience (as I think Borges might have done).

Earlier I stated that I feel as though my devotion to the academic study of literature has meant giving up something. It is this impoverishment in reading that is absent in academia. One of the pure joys of reading is, of course, to lose oneself. But this common experience is often not as simple as it sounds. The reading that I have been experiencing of late is not productive. I am not adding new gems to the treasure trove of literary truths I, like all academic readers, hoard near to my heart. Not while I am reading. Instead I am giving up myself and what I know. It is an act of subsumption.

‘The thing about reading is that in reading, we become ghosts.’ – Simon Critchley, in a brilliant interview I highly recommend reading over at Full Stop.

In reading these ‘vast books’, I haven’t lost myself so much as I’ve given up my self. I’ve become a ghost, intangible and timeless, but also unmoored to a life or an identity. The act if reading has become a loss, an impoverishment. I give up everything I know as the story unfolds. When I read the final sentence and put the book aside, I feel less than I was when I began reading, as though the book has taken something from me. It’s a welcome feeling, though, to give yourself in reading. Then after I have left the book behind, hours or days later, then the story gives me something in return – a feeling of satisfaction to be sure, but also that new, slightly altered worldview that comes with every great book, the literary truth that send academics to their desks to write up analyses. But the rewards can only come after the laborious and impoverishing madness of reading.

Bookish Thoughts: Studying English, or what it is to be human

I didn’t mean to abandon this young blog so early after its inception, but as anyone who has undertaken postgrad study will know, the final weeks of writing a dissertation/thesis are quite intense (I also moved house in the past few weeks bc the timing just seemed so perfect). I’ve had this little blog in the back of my mind all month, looking forward to a time in the near future when I will be able to devote my readerly efforts to The Wreck. But alas, that time is still a little ways off. Every ounce of my intellectual capacity is focused on my dissertation at the moment with barely enough brain space left for normal human functioning. Yet while taking a break from living and breathing my Masters thesis, I found this article. Obviously the author is a person of my own heart and so I thought it merited a short break from cognitive literary theory and early modern chastity.

I often say that the study literature is really an act of learning what it means to be a human being (and by ‘often’ I mean I have maybe said that once, but it sounds pretty good so I think it to myself fairly frequently). To be a reader of literature means to undertake the endeavour of understanding some aspect of the human experience as yet unknown to us. Or in some instances a certain aspect of the human experience may be known to us very intimately and so we readers return to the subject to interact with the subtleties and intricacies of emotion often overlooked in the immediacy of our daily lives. To read great literature – well, it’s nothing short of enriching the soul. But there’s something more here. It’s not just reading passively to receive transcendence through a great writer’s power. For a good student of literature, reading is active – it’s achieving transcendence through interacting with a text. In fact, once you reach the postgraduate level you will find yourself reading and appreciating ‘theory’, that menace you most likely denounced in your sophomore year survey course required for the undergraduate major (the one that made you read The Great Gatsby half a dozen times from the perspectives all of the important modes of literary theory from the last century). Because to be an active reader means to love language for its power to creat many varied and nuanced meanings. Appreciating theory is really to take that next step from loving literature as a reader to engaging with a text in order to explore how it makes meaning that resonates with its readers.

Recently the value of a humanities degree has been debated in the news and I never meant to engage in that discussion directly, mainly because I find it completely idiotic that anyone would even consider denying the usefulness of the humanities. But as a student of English literature poised to devote my life to academia in my beloved subject, the usefulness of English specifically is of particular interest to me. Of course I’ve experienced the confused relatives, the pained looks on their faces when you tell them you are going into academia. Defences for the humanities, including this article, are often sentimental. But for me studying literature isn’t just sentimental. It’s not because I’m a sensitive soul that craves spiritual fulfilment through emotional experiences with works of art. Of course I love literature and there is that emotional side to my reading. But I find the study of literature to be useful for two reasons: 1, it explores how the human mind can interact with a culture, harness language, invoke imagination, and make meaning that has a powerful effect on readers; and 2, the various meanings produced by great literature can reveal truths just as profound as those of philosophers and scientists.

I’m writing a 40 page dissertation on The Duchess of Malfi and The Tragedy of Mariam, but really all that means is that I’m endeavouring to explore how and what these two specific dramatic works can tell us about human beings and life in this strange world. Specifically I am looking at how people understand each other and value each other, as well as how one makes sense of one’s own self. These are valuable questions, ones which every person grapples with, and so I’m often quite bemused when people write off my research as useless, too niche, etc.

Is this work as useful to society as that of bankers, businessmen, doctors, engineers, etc.? Of course. We aren’t building roads or keeping the capitalist market functioning, but it’s still useful work. On a grand scale, a society that does not strive to understand the truths of human experience could not function effectively and would not move forward successfully. That’s why we have philosophers and psychologists and theoretical physicists. That’s why we have writers and artists creating, experimenting in expressions of human consciousness. And it’s also why a study of that human art is useful work.

Arcadia

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I remember reading Lauren Groff’s first novel The Monsters of Templeton several years ago and being quite impressed by it, not particularly amazed but I liked the book enough to be intrigued when I saw her second book on the shelves last year. Although I knew the book had received critical praise, I began reading without very high expectations (a book about growing up on a commune didn’t sound initially appealing, perhaps a little close to home as my brother had recently taken up residence in an ‘eco-village’ that resembled a commune a bit too closely and our family was not very happy about his lifestyle). I quickly realised, however, that this book was definitely going to be one to bypass all expectation and succeed in amazing me.

The story follows Bit as he grows up on what we would call a “hippie commune” – free love, drugs, veganism, etc. This premise is unique enough to stand out, but what is really special about the novel is Lauren Groff’s beautiful writing. It was the very first book I read on my Kindle and so I was only just getting used to the new method for taking notes and making highlights, but I still found plenty of passages to mark up. In fact I am planning on buying a physical copy when I return to America (not a fan of the UK cover) so that I can reread it and fully mark it up as I do to my most beloved books. Groff’s descriptions of childhood are very real – she captures the tenderness and vulnerability of a child’s formative years. Mixed into the opening passages of Bit’s childhood are some intelligent musings on language and the power of words (the strange physicality and materiality of them), told through the perspective of a young boy just discovering both. Bit is in awe of words, scared by their power, and so he stops speaking. His silence is a powerful lens through which to view this strange world, where (as we will eventually learn along with Bit) the idealistic words of the Arcadians are often hollow. Groff describes Bit’s silence as a physical struggle against an internal foe:

He concentrates. He pushes back the words that were already sickly until they die on the bitter part of his tongue. They send bad tendrils into his chest. They heap, a toad, in the cave of his throat. When he walks and eats and plays, he can imagine the slimy thing there, waiting angrily for a word to slip past, for a chance to curse them all.

The great achievement of the first part of the novel is, in my opinion, Groff’s ability to evoke Bit’s simple childhood revelations – realising the power of words and realising his own interiority as separate from an external world. These revelations become so embedded in our being that they cease to be revelatory. Groff returns us to the early wonder and does so beautifully:

For a few breaths he forgets himself in the swim of nature around him. its rhythm is so different from bit’s human own, both more nervous and more patient. he sees a bug that is smaller than a period on a page. he sees the sky, bigger than all that’s in his head. An overwhelm from two directions, vast and tiny, together.


The middle part of the novel loses some of the magic and wonder. This perhaps is a signal of Bit’s growing up – he is less amazed by the world around him, an adolescent with a much more stark view of the world. The strength of the middle part is instead Bit’s relationships to the other characters and the relationships that complicate the idealistic world of Arcadia. I won’t go into detail about the fate of Arcadia, but as with most communes formed during the idealistic 1960s and 1970s, the ugliness of humans’ natures begin to unravel the idealism.  Bit is never an impartial observer, he is confused and conflicted and Groff allows us to see how he resists the truth and the changes. The middle section of the book takes on a more traditional bildungsroman theme, but I found it to be less pleasurable than the evocative childhood revelations. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the final part of the book – I won’t give anything away, but I liked the way Groff addressed the idea of utopia – the flaws in an idealistic society and later the longing for a (lost? nostalgically imagined?) utopia in a faltering society. In the end, the novel doesn’t quite regain the intuition, effortlessness, and finesse of the opening passages, but that serves it in some ways – Bit grows up, leaves his bubble (even though it was never a true sanctuary, Bit’s naiveté was his bubble) and becomes world-weary  with the same human cares and worries as everyone else. I still gave Arcadia five stars, despite its lag in the middle, because all throughout Groff’s writing is simply wonderful. As a whole picture showing the progression of Bit’s life, the novel works very well. Even more than just the story of one man’s journey from childhood to adulthood, however, Groff also gives us an opportunity to grapple with complex truths, to search for the goodness mingled with the basenss of human nature – “The invisible tissue of civilization: so thin, so easily rendable,” she observes, “It’s a miracle that it exists at all.”