From My Bookshelf: Current Reads

I am loving my proximity to my branch of the New York Public Library. I can order books online and have them delivered (relatively quickly) right to that branch, where I can easily pick them up after work.

Right now I have two books checked out. The one I’m currently reading, The Stories of Mary Gordon, is as wonderful as I expected. (And yes, I requested the book before author Gordon won this year’s plum $20,000 Story Prize at the end of February.)

In one review of this collection, Linda Busby Parker noted: “If there are Southern writers, Western writers, even Midwestern writers, there are also writers of the Northeast–big-city writers–and Gordon’s fiction fits comfortably there. Her settings are most often New England, or various places in New York, but her characters are equally comfortable in European cities. These rich locations lend a cosmopolitan, heady air to Gordon’s work.” I read those lines and I thought, “Yes! That’s one of the reasons I’ve so connected with Gordon’s work!” (Let’s just say that once upon a time I felt very much in the minority as a “Northeastern” fiction writer [with a particular love for Europe] among my fellow MFA students, who were mostly Southerners.)

For Parker’s full review, click here.

And click here for a more recent New York Times profile of Gordon, “Where Piety Meets Creativity, in Longhand.” (Free registration required.)

An Opinion on Opinions

I love this new piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Web site, which reads, in part:

Apparently, nowadays an opinion will trump a fact, a reasoned argument, an empirically verified observation — even a treatise by an eminent scholar. An opinion is the great equalizer, and everyone has one. It silences all arguments, squelches all dialogue: That’s your opinion. End of discussion.

According to Gary A. Olson, the author of “That’s ‘Your’ Opinion,” the prevalence of opinion (particularly ill- or not-at-all-grounded opinion) masquerading as valid argument is something to deplore. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s anti-intellectual.

We seem to be witnessing the apotheosis of opinion, a trend that has grave consequences for all of us in higher education. A generation of students and others are training themselves not to become critical thinkers, not to search for evidence or support of an assertion, and not to hold themselves or others accountable for the assertions they make.

A major challenge for higher education in the years to come will be to ensure that logic, critical thinking, close reading, the scientific method, and the spirit of inquiry in general don’t become lost arts — lost to the imperative of opinion.

It’s a major challenge for writing workshops, too, especially MFA workshops, which are (theoretically, at least), conducted on an advanced, graduate level. Theoretically, “logic, critical thinking, close reading,” and so forth, actually matter in graduate-level discourse. Theoretically, you’re on the right side if that’s what you’re emphasizing.

Unfortunately, even MFA workshops fall prey to the primacy of “opinion.” I certainly saw that happen in my own experience as an MFA student.

I’ll spare you the details. But too often (and, to be frank, not only in those MFA workshops) I’ve had to endure being told that I should value certain other people’s ideas simply because they were their ideas. Never mind their accompanying lack of expertise, evidence, or simple logic/facts.

Lawrence Summers may have (had) his enemies, but I continue to endorse the view Harvard’s former President expressed awhile back in The New York Times Magazine: “The idea that we should be open to all ideas […] is very different from the supposition that all ideas are equally valid.”

I’m guessing that Olson would agree, too.

(A real paradox I’ve observed is that those most confident in their opinions so often seem to be those least worthy of such self-assurance. I know a few quite well-read and knowledgeable people who hesitate to share their “opinions” because they still consider others far better-informed. [A memory returns as I write this: Fifteen years ago one professor faulted me for waiting until the very end of my senior honors thesis before “choosing to express an opinion.” But what did my little opinion matter set against the words of the historians and journalists I was quoting throughout the text?] And yet, I’ve encountered probably just as many people who, while seeming to possess very limited knowledge about a particular subject, display no hesitation to push their views on others. Interesting, isn’t it?)

From My Bookshelf: Residency Reading

I know you’re all waiting breathlessly to hear about the residency. (For those of you new to the blog, I’ve just spent a month at the Robert M. MacNamara Foundation on Westport Island, Maine; the photograph shows “MacBarn,” the Foundation’s main building, where the very talented visual artists had their studio space [and four of them were housed].)

I did a lot of writing, and a lot of reading. And plenty of sleeping, I admit. That’s what happens when there’s no TV and I can’t feed my cable news addiction at night.

I can’t tell you how great it was to have so much time to read, especially. What did I read, you ask? Here’s the list:

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
, edited by Nathalie Babel
The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, by Amos Elon (I couldn’t resist Shira Nayman’s recommendation, which you can read in this Q&A on
The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories, by Hanna Krall (translated by Madeline G. Levine)
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn
A Changed Man, by Francine Prose
Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg
The Counterlife, by Philip Roth

I reread some Chekhov stories and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, too.

It wasn’t totally divorced from my “other,” bill-paying writing work while I was at the residency. Several editors and I persevered through Internet challenges so I could review galleys of work published during my absence (like this review of Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland, and Vichy France, which appeared in the October 10 Christian Science Monitor), and work that will be appearing soon elsewhere.

Maine was beautiful, and I’m so grateful for the gift of time to work in such a supportive environment. It’s great to be back, but I feel pretty safe betting it will be quite awhile before I can once again provide such a (relatively) long list of books-read-for-myself.

From My Bookshelf: Recent (and Current) Reads

Sometimes it seems I spend so much of my reading time “working”–reading books in order to review them–that I’m not reading much for “fun” (which isn’t to say that writing reviews isn’t fun!). Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of reading two excellent “non-assigned” novels within the past couple of weeks: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (I wanted to read it before going to hear Messud read last night at the Harvard Book Store–a terrific event), and Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar To This Country.

Right now I’m in the middle of two other books: Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, which I should have read a long time ago (I’m quite serious about that–in my family we often inscribe the books we give one another and judging from what’s written inside this one it seems that my sister and brother-in-law gave it to me way back in December 2002), and Adam Harmon’s Lonely Soldier, a memoir of an American-born man’s experience serving in the Israeli army. (The title alludes to the Hebrew term, chayal boded [“lone soldier”], referring to someone without family in Israel. I just learned that reading two nights ago.)

What are other practicing writers reading these days?

From My Bookshelf: Recent Reads

The last five books I’ve read for pure pleasure (meaning, I don’t have review assignments for them):

The Brooklyn Follies
(Paul Auster)

Taking Care of Cleo (Bill Broder)

Pearl (Mary Gordon)

The Discontinuity of Small Things (Kevin Haworth)

Terrorist (John Updike)

What have you been reading?

P.S. There’s been some discussion about this within the litblog world lately, so let me just tell you that I am not an Amazon “affiliate” and I won’t receive a penny should you click through any of the above links to buy these books.