Interpreter of Maladies (1999)

 

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One of the reasons I read is to break the threat of ego- and ethnocentrism. As Nabokov advises, we should not select our reading material based on what most closely reflects ourselves[1]; or, as Yale professor Amy Hungerford puts it, we should read to find out about who we are not[2]. Upon these twin coils of mature reading, I welcome the works of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, for what better way, as a reader, to gain sympathy for others than to glean from first-hand experience? As Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston do for the Chinese-American experience, so does Lahiri for the Indian-American experience in her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies.

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Holy the Firm (1977)

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“Write as if you were dying.” This is the admonishment Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard gives readers of her 1989 book The Writing Life. The grim truth behind this charge, she points out, is that we are all dying. What Dillard is getting at is that the writer should jettison anything that does not matter in the face of death. It’s great advice, so long as one doesn’t wish for a lucrative writing career. The advice hints at the debate between genre and literary fiction, traditional versus experimental writing. In Holy the Firm, Dillard directly addresses her audience: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” Amusingly, the disclaimer comes a quarter of the way into the text, as if she suddenly remembered to point this out, as if she became aware that the reader, by this point, is wondering what exactly the book is. In one way, what this slim little volume is is the embodiment of her own advice.

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The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound (2017)

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As with studies of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I am willing to follow any brave soul into the thickets of the famously difficult Cantos or the brackish writer behind them. The compounded (excuse the pun) difficulty with Pound, however, versus the perverted German nationalism posthumously ascribed to Hegel, is twofold: “…Pound’s difficulty lies not only in the challenge of how to read his poetry, but also in how to reconcile it with his life’s contradictions.” And his contradictions are many, as Daniel Swift shows. Like Richard Wagner[1], Joseph Conrad[2], and perhaps more closely Knut Hamsun, one encounters a bifurcation of mind upon contact with a deplorable artist’s great work. Yet, like the troubled Hollywood star, there is something that draws us into their lives, something that fascinates us and invites us to form an opinion however well or ill informed.

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Little, Big (1981)

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A curious title with an implied “and everything in between.” Close, far; natural, supernatural; rational, irrational—and everything in between, represented throughout the book by the Germanically-capitalized Somehow, is what one encounters once the title page is turned. John Crowley has appropriated the fantasy novel and made it his own. He has razed the boundaries between literary and genre fiction, chastening my former distaste for fantasy. In Little, Big everything is alive, everything possible, and what is perceived by the adult reader as bad is yet good when viewed through the eyes of a child.

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The History of Western Philosophy (1945)

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Grad school piqued my interest in philosophy, and once I had free time to read what I wanted (i.e. once I graduated), my first foray into the daunting ocean of philosophy was Will Durant’s admirable book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. It was refreshing to gain some context to many hitherto familiar names, to begin going beyond a purely nominal understanding of western philosophy. I thought of working through Copleston’s 11-volume history thereafter but opted for the arguably more ambitious step of absorbing original sources. I read (slowly) through what I considered the major works of Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (Ethics, Politics, Poetics), Spinoza (Ethics, Theologico-Political Treatise), Descartes (Discourse, Method), Bacon (Essays), Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, Prolegomena), Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit), Schopenhauer (The World As Will and Presentation), and Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human). Seven years later, I found myself in need not only of a reinforcement of all that I’d ingested but also some means of putting it all together. As it turns out, Russell’s inimitable book was just what I needed to add some cohesion to the story.

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The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems (2013)

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This book is a triumph, its worth well beyond the $30 listed on Amazon at the time of this writing. It is a treasure of my library very much akin to my Thames & Hudson edition of William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. Dickinson’s envelope poems and Blake’s handmade illuminated poems represent an eternal discourse on the marriage of medium and content. Yet while Blake’s process was an arduous task of writing and illustrating backwards (so that his self-invented press would stamp everything in the proper direction!) to produce copies to distribute himself, Dickinson’s envelope poems represent a mind bursting with thought and a hand desperate to keep up.

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