Get Your Shakespeare On

Every once in a while a book comes along that passes what Seamus Heaney called the “Jealousy Test,” making you a little crabby that you didn’t do this one yourself. Scott Newstok, professor of English and founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, has given us such a book in How to Think Like Shakespeare (Princeton University Press, 2020). Taking as his theme the advantages of a Renaissance education, whose aim was to teach ways of thinking and of communicating thought rather than the mere accumulation of knowledge.

In short chapters archaically (this is a book about the past, after all) entitled “Of Thinking,” “Of Place,” “Of Conversation,” “Of Freedom,” and so on, Newstok centers our attention–and yes, there is one called, “Of Attention”–on narrow themes, the better to drill down into the shortcomings of modern educational pursuits and schemas as compared with the broader humanistic educational model of the late Renaissance. And don’t think you will only hear from the Bard of Avon here; on any given page, he will toss you passages from Erasmus (a favorite), T. S. Eliot (ditto), Ralph Waldo Emerson (double ditto), and the Bard of Hibbing, Bob Dylan. The result can be dizzying at times, but if readers fear getting lost, the good professor is there to pull us from the intellectual maelstrom.

The argument he makes, that we have given up something valuable in the pursuit of educational specialization, betrays no expectation that we will return to the sort of intellectual training that scholars received in the late sixteenth century. Professor Newstok knows that that Elizabethan ship has long since sailed. The case he pleads is a reconsideration of the current notion of education as nothing more than a training certificate for a specific entry-level job. And indeed, if the twenty-first century has shown us anything so far, it would be the personal and societal consequences of educational narrowness, of an economy that trades only in dollars or Euros or yen and not in ideals, values, and aesthetics. This timely and fascinating book may or may not teach you to think like Shakespeare, but it will cause you to think deeply about what matters. And that certainly matters.

Nonfiction Table of Contents

Certain parties have expressed an interest in what will be inside the covers of How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor. Herewith, I include the Table of Contents as currently construed. It may vary slightly from the final version, but not enough to matter.

Nonfiction Table of Contents 4-19-20

Schoolyard During Quarantine

The rubber swings glide almost in unison
A volleyball on wood chips losing one panel
Waits patiently for a recess that will not come
Again this year.

A white cotton glove weathering brown
Longs for partner and owner, desiring only home;
Minus flags, the unused snaps meet the pole
In a tuneless clank.

Breezes scatter leaves across front sidewalks
Winter aconite giving way to hyacinths;
Days crawl in funereal succession
In a dry spring.

Will they return, children and teachers, aides and principals
After the plague, after the summer, after the stories
Of deaths and survivals? Will autumn carry with it
A budding hope?

What Booksellers Do

Support your local bookseller! It’s a dark time for small businesses, nowhere darker than for indie bookstores. Even so, they strive to provide positive experiences for their customers. I got a message from Bryan Uecker of The Book Nook and Java Shop in Montague, MI (just north of Muskegon on the shores of Lake Michigan). He was having a BYON (Bring Your Own Novel) book club at which the participants would apply some ideas from How to Read Novels Like a Professor to their chosen books. This would be a Zoom-y group in keeping with social distancing. If I would like to drop in as a special surprise for the members, that would be great.
Last night, I did just that, and while I can’t say how special it was for them, it was a lot of fun for me. We had a really good hour together. Bryan wasn’t making a penny from these gatherings, and this at a time when he has to be wondering if he can keep the Nook together. He is a great representative of his profession, one that we have to do what we can to help get beyond the current disaster. We’ll need them for the next one.
Book Nook mural

First Review for NONFICTION

Publishers Weekly is running a very positive review for How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor in the March 30 edition. Unless you are in the book biz, chances are you’ve never heard of it, but it is hugely important in the industry. Best of all, the review contains the words “zippy” and “pragmatic” separated only by a comma. Never got that before. Imagine–zippy!

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

<https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-300847-2>

Foster, a University of Michigan–Flint emeritus professor of English, proposes ways for readers to read “past the surface” of nonfiction texts in this approachable guide. It expands Foster’s “how to read” series (How to Read Poetry Like a Professor, etc.), with Foster observing early on that “nonfiction has just as many, and very likely more, genres than does fiction.” Adopting a conversational tone, he succinctly tackles everything from textbooks, history books, and biographies to journalism, op-eds, and “web-specific forms” such as blogs and social media posts. From parsing the unique rules that “govern how information is offered to readers” to uncovering “where we think our bias lies,” the book grounds its approach in relevant examples, including the proliferation of “fake news” in general, and, in particular, the Russian misinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps most importantly, Foster writes, readers must learn “to ask questions of the article or book and its author.” His zippy, pragmatic book will appeal to readers in search of guidance on separating fact from fiction in an age of information overload. Agent: Faith Hamlin, Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc. (May)

Nonfiction cover

DAYS OF JANUS

For New Year’s Eve 2019, a pensée, which is just a thought-flower that knows French:

Days of Janus

The turning of the year has us looking fore-and-aft
          mixing hope and regret, plans
and failure, a chance to learn, were we capable       

Two-faced god with a month named for him
            deity of portals and doorways
abiding spirit of anxiety and indecision

Laughter from tears, weeping from smiles
            emperor of the theater
the globe where all the world’s a stage

A month will not suffice in this life where
            every day begins and ends
a month, a year, a century, an eternity

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Year in Film?

The-Wizard-of-Oz-1939-Movie-PosterAs we move through the last months of 2019, I have been thinking about the cinematic year exactly eighty years ago. The story has long been that 1939 was the greatest year in Hollywood history. The late William Goldman, screenwriter for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and All the President’s Men, has a great riff in Adventures in the Screen Trade about how Beau Geste and Stagecoach and Dark Victory and Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Gunga Din and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and several other worthies didn’t win the best picture Oscar because that was the year of The Wizard of Oz. Which didn’t win because that was the year of Gone with the Wind. Lately, a trope has sprung up among film writers questioning that common wisdom, and there is plenty of room for challengers. The debate, if that what it is, bores me, if only because the issue is ultimately undecidable. Perhaps we might instead celebrate every year that produces great movies, which would be quite a lot. That way, everybody can win the argument.

But just in case you weren’t around and watching movies in 1939 (which would be nearly all of us), here are a few more remarkable films from what is undoubtedly a great year:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton

Wuthering Heights, with a young Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon

The Women, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and a young Rosalind Russell

Jesse James, the second biggest grossing pic, after GWTW

Young Mr. Lincoln, with a youngster named Henry Fonda

Ninotchka, whose tagline was, “Garbo Laughs”–and she does

Drums along the Mohawk, directed by John Ford, again with Fonda (who also has second billing in Jesse James

The Hound of the Baskervilles, yes, Basil Rathbone

The Three Musketeers, starring that suave devil, Don Ameche

The Man in the Iron Mask, Louis Hayward and Joan Bennett

Jamaica Inn, an early Hitchcock classic with Charles Laughton as the heavy

Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich singing

and Ice Follies of 1939 (James Stewart and Joan Crawford in a film “Sparkling with Stars, Gayety, and Music. Even in a banner year, some silliness obtains.)

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, as you will have heard, died this week. The many news outlets will have covered her more fully and better than I can here. So rather than offer a retrospective, I want to share some thoughts that I haven’t heard expressed. I only hope they do her justice.

Among the avalanche of Morrisonia the week brought was one that claimed that she was America’s greatest writer. My immediate response was, not sure I could or would refute it, but how does one judge? I cannot. What I can say is that, for me, she is one of three indispensable contemporary novelists, along with Gabriel García Marquéz and John Fowles. They were of the same generation, Fowles having arrived on the scene a year before García Marquéz and five before Morrison. Their oeuvres were light on titles but dense. And they showed us new possibilities for the novel–new forms, new subjects, new treatments, new and stunning uses of language. Morrison’s language was poetic, soaring and earthy, sometimes all at the same time. I once had a student, a journalist lately returned to school, who simply could not get with Song of Solomon because it was too purple. Of course, his rigorous training in the limiting language of newspapers and his fondness for Hemingway made her style harder to accept. Yet her language was, like that of the other two writers, perfectly suited to the task at hand. And magnificent. 

All three brought something else readers desperately needed: magic. Fowles offered a special kind of magic, born out of the novel’s form and the possibilities contained in it, possibilities no one had ever quite explored before. The tired term “magical realism” (I may have helped tire it out) was inevitably applied to GGM’s work, but that was all right, since he and his fellow Latin American writers of the Boom were first responsible for it. But when applied to Morrison’s, it made her sound derivative, and that is something she never was. Morrison’s magic was unique to her, owing only to the her own experience in her own place and time, where one child could be nicknamed Milkman and his best friend Guitar, where there were flying Africans and ghostly daughters. 

In 1981, John Barth, no slouch among inventive novelists, published an essay called “The Literature of Replenishment,” in which he offered a mea culpa for having declared a mere four years earlier that the novel had exhausted its possibilities. Suddenly, he had discovered, maybe some new approaches had indeed turned up on the doorstep. As evidence, he gave us the examples of Gabo, whom we’ve been discussing, and the Italian arch-postmodernist Italo Calvino. He wasn’t wrong, but maybe the initial diagnosis had been. In an eleven-year period ending in 1977, the year of that premature postmortem, three novels appeared that blew up our understanding of what the novel could do: Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Song of Solomon. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for the many gifts.

Toni Morrison

Slovak Editions

Tatran Publishing has brought out Literature and Novels with the magnifying glasses. I miss those guys. Both books had already come out in the Czech Republic, so I feel like a one-man international incident.

Slovak Editions

Emerson and American Poetry

May 25 is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birthday (1803). He is one of the great essayists America has produced. And as a poet, he’s a great essayist. This piece by Dan Chiasson, another poet, gets at Emerson’s importance for American poetry.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/07/ecstasy-of-influence?utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_052519&utm_medium=email&bxid=5bd6717c2ddf9c619439130e&cndid=24383955&esrc=&utm_term=TNY_Daily