Book of Hours, 1480-1490, Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo Courtesy of Britain Loves Wikipedia.
Here is the first installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the second installment!
I got hit by a car this year. After surgery, after a month of Netflix and couch, after I had weaned myself off the pain pills, I slowly began to piece myself together again. I picked up an old favorite, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book I’ve returned to again and again throughout my life. The book follows a fin de siècle everyman, Hans Castorp, as he spends seven years of his early adulthood in a TB sanatorium. The book is filled with characters who are allegories standing for this-or-that Big Thing: militarism, liberalism, extremism, nihilism, sex, death, bodily pleasure. The book ends with Castorp disappearing into the mass of young men in the trenches of the First World War. Castorp may or may not have been sick; but Europe certainly was.
I’ve come to appreciate different things about The Magic Mountain with every reading. My first I treated the book like a puzzle, proud of myself for each allegory I managed to identify. Later, I came to appreciate the book as a narration of the First World War. This latest reading, my body still bruised, my bone still knitting back together, still bound to the Barcalounger in my living room, I came to appreciate the Magic Mountain as a novel about sickness. Virginia Woolf wondered in On Being Ill why “illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Illness is uncomfortable. It is boring. Not much happens when you’re ill. So sickness is dealt with in fiction usually invisibly: the bones heal in the spaces between chapters. We get better, slowly. Yet in The Magic Mountain, sickness was ruminated on, lingered over, discussed, understood as its own form of experience. This comforted me. How differently time passed on that Barcalounger! Months which would have otherwise been filled with activity, instead passed by like minutes. And here I read Hans Castorp feeling the same way. Laying on his chair during the rest cure, letting his mind wander, thinking about the peculiar way time passed while he was ill, wondering whether the stuff inside him was healthy or invisibly diseased, wondering about what it all meant to be sick.
Besides research-related adventures and a foolhardy scheme to read the entirety of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, my reading list this summer is drawn from the books that have lain in my house unread for far too long. Here are three of those hitherto-neglected titles:
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995). Described by its author as “a novel of sorts,” The Blue Flower retells the early life of the poet and philosopher Novalis, his puzzling engagement to twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, and the beginnings of what would become German Romanticism. This was the last work of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose subtle wit and profound insight into the peculiarities of human relationships remain criminally under-appreciated.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). My blurb was going to say, “Dueling magicians in the Napoleonic Wars—need I say more?” But then I discovered a fact that will prove an even greater enticement to readers of JHIBlog: footnotes! Clarke has constructed a baroque edifice of fictitious scholarship upon which her story rests—and, truly, what self-respecting library could be without John Segundus’s A Complete Description of Dr. Pale’s fairy-servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for Him (Thomas Burnham: Northampton, 1799)?
Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819). Sir Walter Scott’s iconic historical romance, to which we owe the familiar tale of the doughty Richard the Lionheart, the dastardly King John, and the honest thief, Robin Hood. On a personal note, the “Dedicatory Epistle” to Ivanhoe is addressed to a (spiritual) ancestor of mine, the Reverend Dr. Jonas Dryasdust, FAS.
Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room — this is the book to tuck into your carry-on bag. You’ll speed through it so you can get to the ending, but once you get there, you’ll want to read the whole book all over again. You won’t even notice that your flight is delayed, or your luggage still hasn’t arrived on the carousel. I’m not going to tell you what the book is about (you can cheat and read the reviews if you want). When you get to the end, and find yourself meditating on questions of fate and agency, not sure if you’re looking into darkness or light, remember to thank me for this recommendation.
Lucie Brock-Broido, A Hunter, The Master Letters, Trouble in Mind, Stay Illusion — I am re-reading Brock-Broido’s oeuvre this summer. Brock-Broido passed away this past March. She was only 61. Her language followed the diction and syntax of another time–but what was that time? Was it the deep past, or some future yet to come? Brock-Broido’s poetry was always beautiful, in a way that flirted with the decorative. Her best work veered away from mere beauty, aching towards something like the sublime.
Kelly Jones, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s — Jones tells a “hidden history of blackness” of 20th-century California. African Americans, as well as members of the Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities, have traditionally been excluded from the story of modernism in California. Jones tells the history of the African American art community “south of Pico” in Los Angeles, embedding well-known artists such as Bettye Saar and Noah Purifoy within the complicated historical contexts of both Los Angeles and California in the second half of the 20th century. This book changed how I think of modern and contemporary American art. It will change how you think, too.