Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What I've Been Reading (and Other Thoughts)

The other day I received a rather thrilling package via snail mail. Included in two heavy parcils were--Joy beyond Joy!--my books, shipped all the way across the ocean. I am fascinated by the fact that these boxes made their physical journey from my little red house in Winston-Salem (where I am Not), to the post office in that same city (in Hanes Mall perchance? Or Miller Street? …these oh so recently lost place-names already posses an almost mystical, invocative power in my rather raw emotions…already becoming foreign, full of magic. The anxiety and sweetness involved in this: I will never go back!).

Anyway, these books, these physical things, Pandora’s boxes of so much joy and stress and interest, made their slow and physical way across the ocean to London (?), Manchester, (?) Edinburgh…real cities all…and across the firth into Fife, through Kircaldy, Leven, and the other smaller villages of the East Neuk. And arrived at the shiny wooden door, painted lacquer black, with a doorknocker like a human face. My house: Dunearn. (Fellow Medievalists…Does this mean something in Old English? Anyone? “dun” “earn”… Dune Eagle, Moor Eagle, Valley Eagle, Highland Eagle? Or “dun” like a color? Sallow Eagle? …Any help?)

Yes. To my house, Dunearn, in Anstruther, came my books, and onto the shelf.

Before their arrival the flat was strangely empty of books, considering that I have chosen to define myself, to a great degree, by books (books which I have read, will read…will write…). Because of weight restrictions and a fairly strong conviction of the necessity of clothing in these Northern climes, I packed exactly 5 books for my initial journey. Three of them were cookbooks. (What does this say about me—as a “scholar” and a poet, I wonder?)

First, one must eat, I say.

The other two books (fiction) were purchased at our favorite Winston-Salem haunt, Edward McKay used bookstore. Purchased, I might add, for under $2.50 thank you very much.

The first is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, who was a friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens, and shares Dickens’ ability to paint extraordinarily (at times uncomfortably) vivid characters. In addition, The Moonstone has been described (by so great a figure as T.S. Eliot) as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.” Now, detective stories are one of my (many) weaknesses. A weakness I justify by citing great minds who shared it—T.S. Eliot being one (he read them), G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers (they wrote them), and W.H. Auden—who read them avidly and wrote a fascinating essay on them in The Well of Narcissus (collected later in The Dyer’s Hand). He says this of “the Whodunit”:

“For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: firstly, the intensity of the craving—if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity—the story must conform to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to read one that is not set in rural England). And, thirdly, its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. […] Such reactions convince me that, in my case at least, detective stories have nothing to do with works of art.”

This confession and description might be enough to put anyone off these pieces of “non-art” and (what he later describes as) “daydream literature,” except that Auden acknowledges (and I acknowledge with him) the need for escapist literature. Besides, the “daydream” of detective stories is such a good dream:

“The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.” (Sounds good, yes?)

The second novel which I brought along in bags was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which, I’m ashamed to admit, I had never read before. I’m sure that all of you read it in Middle School and (knowing my Academe-savvy audience) probably think that “oooh, Dickens is sooo passe! His plots are sooo contrived and sentimental. Besides, who reads novels with plot these days?” (Note: I have heard two such “critiques” of Dickens in the past week…one of by the chap who deemed himself worthy to write the Afterword for my edition of the novel…)

Ah well. If you feel that way, I’m sorry (for you). I thoroughly enjoyed Dickens' wonderfully contrived and artificial plot, and I admit that I cried like a baby throughout the sentimental bit at the end.

This is what I say (listen!): you musn’t dismiss Dickens. He is good for your health. Yes, we need fiction that cuts to the heart of a reality which is “partial,” “fragmented,” and “unresolved.” But those *real* stories (the fairytale, the folktale, the adventure story, and the epic) keep us sane in an insane world. Every grandmother by every fire in every century has known this.

[Note: I will include in a separate post my favorite passage from the novel—probably often quoted, but I will quote it again!]

NOW! Back to my books. After finishing the above-mentioned novels, my house is entirely empty of fiction, which was a delibrate action on my part. Poetry’s the thing for me these days. In future “What I’m Reading" posts expect to see more poets highlighted, as I attempt to navigate the swirling ocean of contemporary verse.

“I’ve always felt that there was some moral integrity in being dead,” one of my St Andrews colleagues admitted to me recently. In general, I share this (completely irrational) prejudice. However, I intend to squash it. Stay tuned next time for some Live Poets.

St Thomas Aquinas (who is dead, but Not) --Ora Pro Nobis!

Pray for our brains, that we might use them!


  1. Actually, Dunearn comes from Scottish Gaelic. Dun is fort, and I think earn is in honour of Loch Earn, which is near Perth. So the fort of Earn, or something to that effect.

    Incidentally, I have US dvds of the Moonstone and the Woman in White, if you ever need some detective movies!


  2. Dun is indeed fort [Dun (from the Brythonic Din (modern Welsh Dinas) and Gaelic Dùn, meaning fort) is now used both as a generic term for a fort (mainly used to describe a sub-group of hill forts) and also for a specific variety of Atlantic roundhouse.] And Earn, as in Loch Earn is alleged a reference to Ireland. I look forward to your comments on contemporary poetry!

  3. Thank you both! I am enlightened--and impressed with your knowledge. I am, however, a bit sad that my house is not named "Dune Eagle" or some such thing.