Been reading lots of new releases lately

Lately I’ve been reading lots of new releases! Mostly books by friends and acquaintances. But not always! Sometimes just the books that’ve been getting a lot of buzz (for instance, Katherine Heiny’s collection Single, Mellow, Carefree and Rachel Cusk’s Outline both came out this year). In one case, I read a story collection that’s gotten no buzz (my review is one of only three on Amazon), just because it was discounted and I felt sorry for the author.

It would be easy to say that I’m reading new releases as a way of keeping up with what’s going on in the world of literature today, but that would be a lie. In reality, it’s mostly sympathetic magic. I have a book coming out, and I want people to read it. But for years I’ve mostly ignored new releases. So in order to convince myself that my book won’t be ignored, I’ve changed my ways and am starting to pay attention to new releases.

In reading new books, you do learn a few things. For instance, I’ve been hearing for years that Modernism was a sterile flower and that no one nowadays (except in the small presses) is writing formally atypical novels, But Rachel Cusk’s Outline (out from FSG) was a deeply strange novel: a book of conversations that the protagonist has with students and acquaintances over the course of a week or so in Athen.

And when you read contemporary books, you’re almost guaranteeing that the gender balance of the books you read is going to be much better. For instance, in the last six years, only 25% of the books I’ve read have been by women, but this year that number is more than 50%. 41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I do miss old books, though. I am fundamentally pretty conservative on issues like the worth of the canon. The canon is heavily weighted towards white and male authors, and that is annoying and fundamentally limiting. But the problem is that the books in the canon are often pretty good. Like, whatever you might say about, say, Ulysses or Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or The Charterhouse of Parma or Cousin Bette or The Sound and the Fury, it would be hard to argue that those books aren’t worth reading today and that it’s a bad thing that we have cultural institutions which have kept them from being forgotten. The most you can say, I think, is that those cultural institutions ought to have kept other books–books by nonwhite and female people–from being forgotten as well.

But where does that leave you as a reader? You can rely on informal institutions–blogs and word of mouth–to teach you about what’s good, but those institutions often have a populist bias. They select for a certain kind of book. People don’t tend to get on Twitter and excitedly talk about The Charterhouse of Parma. They tend to talk about more accessible books: ones that will allow you to stir up conversation and build a community. And it’s a tough thing to do the sifting yourself, because it means that you have to read a lot of bad books.

Luckily, there are academics who are busily promoting books into the canon. Two of my favorites–Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf–would probably be forgotten to day if it wasn’t for academics who were interested in finding queer and female narratives in eras that’d heretofore been given over to male voices.

But now I’m rambling.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Surprisingly Good Books, part two

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – This is the novel about Chicago’s meat-packing industry that put the nation into such an uproar over how their meat was prepared (at one point it implies that when workers fall into the renderer and die, their meat is just be added into the sausage) that the government created the Food and Drug Administration and started regulating food preparers. But the novel is actually a story about how this family of Lithuanian immigrants gets totally crushed by capitalism. I particularly enjoyed Sinclair’s attention to the numbers, the amount of dollars and cents this family needs to keep their head above water. It’s a very emotionally affecting novel, and it would’ve been utterly perfect….if it had ended about 2/3rds of the way in. After the family falls apart, it’s patriarch starts going on these picaresque adventures (at one point there is an extended interlude where he helps a drunken millionaire’s son get home and then has a bartender steal the $100 that the son gives him) and then the man ends up embracing socialism, so it all gets a little silly. Still, even that is a little respectable. Sure, all that stuff ruined the book, but I can see why Sinclair had to put it in. Sinclair wanted his book to change the world, so he needed to put in something about what his riled up readers should go out and do. He allowed his political instincts to overrule his artistic ones, and, maybe, for him, that was the right decision.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – This book is by a hedge fund manager who claims that we’re terrible about predicting the future because none of our projections allow for ‘black swan’ events, which are huge, discontinuous events that change everything (like, 9/11, or the Harry Potter phenomenon). That part is pretty interesting and even somewhat convincing. What’s more fun, though, is the narrative tone of the book. The author comes off sounding like a megalomaniac and an amazing dick. He sounds like such an asshole that he almost feels fictional. It’s as if Taleb was writing a very experimental novel where a fictional persona expounds upon a science-fictional idea. It’s a really engaging book.

Candy Girl by Diablo Cody – This is Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s memoir about her year as a Minneapolis stripper. I was really sick when I read this book, okay, but I still enjoyed it. It goes into all the proper anthropological detail about what being a stripper is like…and I am sucker for that kind of stuff.

Paying For It by Chester Brown – There are a surprising number of graphic novels about the author’s sexual dysfunction, but I think this own stands out even in that crowd. For years (decades?) the author has been patronizing prostitutes exclusively (as in, he has not been pursuing any other kind of sexual relationship) and in the course of this pursuit, the author has developed all these theories about why patronizing prostitutes is a sensible alternative (for people like him) to romance. The book covers his odyssey, beginning with his first visit and ending with him happily ensconced in an exclusive (though still monetary) relationship with one prostitute. It ends with fifty pages of appendixes in which he details his views on prostitution. Oh, and for some weird artistic reason, he never shows the faces of any of the prostitutes he visits! They are always turned away, or their faces are hidden. The book is really bizarre, but it was also really good.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather – This is a series of three linked novellas that doesn’t sound like it ought to cohere at all. The first is about an elderly professor reflecting on his family and on the son-in-law (who died in the war) who was the only person he felt close to. The second is a flashback to the summer that the son-in-law spent excavating a New Mexico plateau that held a Native American city. The third is about the professor’s lonely summer without his wife and daughter (they’re vacationing in Paris). And yet, somehow, it all does come together. It’s about excitement, and the intellectual life, and loss. It has a very wistful tone, which avoids being cloying because it’s broken up with the very exciting, adventurous middle. Also, maybe I just love Willa Cather so much that I can even enjoy her minor novels.

Portrait of the Addict As A Young Man by William Clegg – Literary agent Bill Clegg’s memoir about a two month $70,000 crack cocaine binge. I don’t know why this was so entertaining. I think it’s because the dreamlike tedium of the narrative kind of echoed the tedium of the binge: the endless succession of hits in an endless succession of five-star hotel rooms. Also, I was really sick when I read it.

Local by Brian Wood – If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am a sucker for graphic novels about shiftless twentysomethings. In each of this series of twelve comics, the main character, Megan, ages by one year and moves to a new city (and grows up a little). There’s one about her having a horrible roommate in New York and one about her being a fairly creepy movie theater clerk in Nova Scotia and…well…if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this series: it is wanksty early-20s at their most elemental.

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey – Reading this book made me realize what I dislike about biographies. They’re too long. You know, I’m only going to read maybe (at most) 10,000 books in the whole rest of my life. It seems like a huge waste to devote a whole .01% of that to learning about a single person. What have all these famous dead people ever done for me? Why do they deserve so much of my headspace? This book neatly solves that problem through the novella form autobiography. I’d probably never read a full book about Florence Nightingale, but I will definitely read a novella about her. There’s definitely room for biographies at a length somewhere above a Wikipedia entry and somewhere below a full book.

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

Wrap-Up Season: Predictably Good Books

I don’t know about you, but whenever I get all geared up to read some classic, I’m not sure whether I want to love it or not. If I don’t love it, then I’m all like, “Pshaw, I wasn’t missing anything! Stupid literati with your “canons of literature”! This book is entirely nonessential!”

But on the other hand, that leaves me wading through an often quite long book just because Harold Bloom told me too…and who’s the stupid one in that scenario? However, these books did not pose that delightful conundrum, because they were exactly as great as they were supposed to be. Although “predictably good” is the largest category in my ranking system, there are not so many entries below, since…there’s really just not that much I can say in a paragraph other than “Wow, you know how people always say this book is good? Well it definitely is”.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I already blogged about this one, a long time back.

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow – I have a love/hate relationship with Saul Bellow. What’s not to hate? All his books are about cranky old guys who go off on pages-long pseudophilosophical rants, argue with their emasculating wives, and conduct torrid brofairs with brilliant best buddies who eventually become their enemies. But all the love I have for him is due to this book – the first I read (and the last he published [at the age of 84]) – which contains every single one of the above elements, but makes them work, somehow. I think that in many of the books I’ve read, Bellow strives for the elegiac but takes a detour into self-pity (usually managing to struggle out before the end, though). This book is content to make no judgments and to draw a really masterful portrait of Abe Ravelstein (apparently based on Bellow’s colleague Allan Bloom). It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. However, while reading the book, I did have a tendency to screw up my face, adopt a witch’s scratchy voice, and mutter “RAAAAVELLLLSTEEEEEINN”. I’m pretty sure that’s a major point in its favor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre is totally cracked out. I kind of expected it to be a love story. It kind of wasn’t, which made me really glad, as the parts I most enjoyed were the parts without the insufferable Mr. Rochester. Like, one fourth of the book is taken up with Jane’s boarding school days, and one fourth of the book consists of a crazy interlude with these cousins she finds while she is wandering around homeless in Northern England.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Okay, this book is also definitely not a love story. I don’t know what it is. It is totally bizarre. Even the narrative frame is bizarre. A guy comes to rent a house and gets told the story of Heathcliff, etc, from his housekeeper. Also, half the novel is the continuation of the story into a second generation after most of the original cast of the story gets killed off. Totally awesome.

World War Z by Max Brooks – Okay, this is probably not in Harold Bloom’s Canon, but it definitely is in any canon of best SF books published in the last ten years. And it is one of the best. It’s very gripping.

My Antonia by Willa Cather – I kind of felt like I should mention this in the writeup somehow, because it was so good…but I can’t think of that much to say.

334 by Tom Disch – Thomas Disch is in Harold Bloom’s canon, but for his far less good novel Wings of Song (which is still really good). 334 is a series of interlinked stories about growing up in a near future (well, alternate present, since it’s basically set now [it was written in the early 70s]) with overpopulation, increased social control, etc. But the specifics of the SF scenario are not terribly important. It’s my favorite kind of dystopian-ish scenario: one that focuses on how people would actually live, and not on some crazy overthrowing-the-government or fighting-the-man situation.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’ve been a fan of Fitzgerald ever since my Sophomore year of college, but I resisted reading The Great Gatsby because I was forced to read it in high school (I didn’t remember anything about it except that I finished it). Surprise, it turned out pretty good.

Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy – Hardy was Ramanujan’s mentor. He was also apparently a pretty good mathematician himself. Late in life, he wrote this strange, heart-breaking document defending a life spent in study of pure mathematics. The brilliancy of this work lies in its brutal specificity. He’s not defending some abstract thing, he’s defending the specific worth of mathematics, of pure, useless math with no application or utility, and of his own life and life’s work, as in this quote:

My choice was right, then, if what I wanted was a reasonable comfortable and happy life. But solicitors and stockbrokers and bookmakers often lead comfortable and happy lives, and it is very difficult to see how the world is richer for their existence. Is there any sense in which I can claim that my life has been less futile than theirs? It seems to me again that there is only one possible answer: yes, perhaps, but, if so, for one reason only:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – I kind of thought that Berlin Stories was not a replicable feat, based as it was on the author being present at the right place, during the right epoch, with a unique insight into the subcultures of the Weimar Republic. But…it sort of was. I found the overarching loss-of-a-lover plot to be passable, and not particularly sad,  but the wealth of detail and observation and kindness in this novel surpasses that of the Berlin Stories.

Parallel Lives, Volume II by Plutarch – Okay, so, why is all of our study of the Roman Empire basically confined to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty? I mean, seriously, that might have been the height of their military-, artistic-, and insane sex-crazed dictatorship-related achievements, but I think we should definitely give some more love to the first century BC. This volume (at least in the Project Gutenberg version) goes into long detail about Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, and other such guys (with parallel explications of the lives of famous Greek tyrants like Kimon). Oh, and he talks about Cato and Aristides. A good volume, all in all (although the next one has Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, so…)

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – This was definitely the best book I read this year and is perhaps my most favorite book ever. War and Peace has something like 500 named characters and maybe 30 major ones. Anna Karenina has seven major characters. It’s more than 400,000 words long. By the time it’s over, you know everything about those characters. Also, I received a major epiphany from the ending of this book. It was that good. Read the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation (the Oprah translation!). It is supposedly very good.

Democracy in America – Volume One by Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America is like pornography for the American intellectual. I’m not actually sure how true any of these observations is (or was), but it’s always great to hear a French person confirm all the things that Americans believe about ourselves. This volume is mostly about our system of government. I believe the next volume is mostly about our customs and mores, which sounds like it’s going to be totally awesome.

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.