I am not very good at reading what other people have chosen for me and so this kind of book club suits me well. I have bought a nice clean notebook and been scribbling away my favourite quotes and thoughts as I have gone along. In fact I can barely read my scribbles. What has happened to my handwriting? I digress.
This week I have been reading Clive James' 'The Meaning of Recognition; New Essays 2001-2005'. I picked it up in the library because I thoroughly enjoy James' radio essays on the BBC's A Point of View but he has finished his season and I suppose it is back to the dry, Google-savvy, Lisa Jardine next week.
The essays are taken from pubications such as the Spectator, the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books and include subjects such as Shakespeare, Primo Levi, Isaiah Berlin, Yeats, but also include Formula One racing (yawn), The Sopranos and The West Wing.
I suppose I got more out of the essays that I had background enough to critique but part of the main pleasure of this book was to be inspired to read some great writers and also to write better essays myself.
In Aldous Huxley Then and Now, this caught the eye of the auto-didact in me:
'From the arts angle, to read all the essays in sequence is like being enrolled at the college of your dreams. They have all recently been published in sic scholarly volumes edited by Robert S Baker and James Sexton'
James' book itself is like a series of tutorials, made all the richer by the inclusion of a postscript after nearly every one. In 'The Battle for Isaiah Berlin' James answers criticisms of his original article made by 'professional philosophers'. He goes through their criticisms piece by piece, and is unable to resist this last word on the subject of formal philosophy itself. Here he considers why Isaiah Berlin said so little about the Holocaust when he was one of the foremost historians and thinkers on the 20th Century:
'After all, he was free to speak untrammelled by the kind of analytical concentration on language that leaves it with no subject but itself.'
A consistent thread of the book concerns his decision to step out of the limelight. He was a familiar face on the television here in the UK until perhaps ten years ago (I'm not sure, not having actually had a tv for those years. In fact I didn't know he had left until I read this book). His screen persona could be described as an intellectual, voluble, Aussie wit combined with well-placed raising of eyebrows. He touches on the artificiality of fame, stalkers, but most of the undeserved fame so typical of western pop culture today. The desire for fame almost seems like a mental illness to him:
'You can very rapidly get used to the idea that the swish restaurant will always find a table for you. You can get so used to it that you think the restaurant needs a new manager on the night when the table strangely can't be found. What's needed, of course, is not a new manager for the restaurant but a new injection of fame for yourself. Now there's a distortion. That way madness lies'
'The Meaning of Recognition' is a search for those thinkers and cultural landmarks which deserve their fame and are therefore deserving of our time and attention. I am inspired to read some Aldous Huxley, more Primo Levi, perhaps even Philip Larkin but Isaiah Berlin is lower down on my 'to read' list than he was before I read this book:
[Isaiah Berlin] was once famous for understanding everything about the age he lived in. There is still reason to believe he understood a lot. But if today he is starting to look a bit less penetrating about it all, it could be becuase things have moved on.'
And, okay so I skipped the essay on Formula One (perhaps I would have enjoyed it), and the essay on the West Wing (since I have never seen the show) but I am certainly glad I spent my first week of 2009 reading the rest of these essays.
For next week, or perhaps the week after, I am going to read 'David Copperfield' by Charles Dickens. Already my New Year's halo is slipping.
Lorna regularly blogs at Socks and Books