Saturday, January 7, 2023

Yeah, I read books

 As a child, a nearsighted teacher's pet allergic to sports, I was, of course, a bookworm, and reading has sustained me these past sixty-plus years. Last year, in retirement, was no exception, and since there appears to be a thing about parading one's reading online, I might as well make a few remarks. 

People do not talk enough about the pleasure of re-reading books, but last year I returned to Master of the Senate, my favorite of Robert A Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (And I wait impatiently for Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, to publish the fifth and final volume.) Trollope's Barchester Towers, one of the most satisfying Victorian novels, satisfied once more. 

Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander briefly tempted me to repeat the twenty-novel Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve, but I resisted. Forty years later, I still enjoyed Austen's Mansfield Park. People complain that it doesn't flare as brightly as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but Austen was bold to explore the life of a heroine who is quiet, shy, and apprehensive of her place as a poor relation among a great landed family. The carelessness of Sir Thomas, the lassitude of Lady Bertram, and the delicious dissection of Aunt Norris always give pleasure. 

But there was new stuff too. I enjoyed Daniel Okrent's Public Editor #1, about his service with The New York Times, and I tried to enjoy Margaret Sullivan's Newsroom Confidential, about her service as a public editor, but as engaging as her autobiographical account of her infatuation with newspapers was, she might at the end have gone beyond what she had already said in her columns to talk about the strange new landscape of journalism and where things may be heading. 

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt filled in the details of an online phenomenon, Mel Brooks's All About Me! was unfailingly amusing, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry's The Bright Ages gave a fresh perspective on the Middle Ages, and Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile offered details of Churchill and London during the Blitz. 

I had seen criticism that Nicole Hannah-Jones et al. had overstated their thesis in The 1619 Project, but however much you may admire the Founders as children of the Enlightenment who enunciated values that they did not live up to, The 1619 Project is unrelenting in displaying the ugly facts that the public school curriculum always glosses over. (It did in my day, and I am confident it still does: We had some problems, but America is going great guns. Yeah.) A very useful companion is Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, in which a clear-sighted writer tries to come to terms with the white supremacy in which he grew up and still lives. Jess McHugh's Americanon focuses on key books that have shaped--and misshaped--U.S. culture. Also in history, Stacy Schiff's elegantly written The Revolutionary: Samual Adams shines a bright light on the events leading up to the Revolution. 

In my line of work, Lane Greene's Talk on the Wild Side, a refreshingly non-pedantic book on English as she is spoken and written, was a welcome addition to the discussion, and Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause, recounting her discussions with the public when she set up her Grammar Table around the country, was unfailingly genial. 

Donna Leon's Transient Desires momentarily slaked my appetite for murder mysteries. (As I have said before, after a full day of working with professional journalists, noting gives more pleasure than to sit down in a comfortable chair, with a good light behind you, a strong drink at your elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.) 

 In a relapse to my long-abandoned career in graduate school thinking about eighteenth-century literature, I picked up Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Johnson. The account of Boswell's writing the Life, along with description of his fugitive encounters with Johnson, becomes as much an account of his life as of his book, because the two cannot be readily separated. The foolishness of Boswell's public behavior cannot diminish his accomplishments as a great writer of biography.  

And by the way, if you haven't read the Life of Johnson, what the hell is keeping you?