U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Three Little Books

When trying to figure out what to pack for vacation (short answer:  as little as possible!), I’m always stumped by the problem of what book or books to bring along. Will I read this? Will I enjoy reading this?  Will I enjoy reading this enough to lug it around?  Does it take up too much space in my beach bag?  (That last question might seem weird.  Beach bags are roomy enough…unless you’re hitting the sand with Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy, one of my beach reads last year.  A truly wonderful book, but a bit unwieldy in a lounge chair.)

I usually end up bringing more books – or, in the case of Kloppenberg, more book – than I will find time to read in entirety while on vacation.  But this time around, I managed to finish all three of the books I brought with me:  Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life — The Public Years, by Charles Capper; Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.

Why those three?

I had read the first volume of Capper’s biography of Fuller the week before my trip – couldn’t put it down, in fact – so bringing the second volume along was an easy choice.  In retrospect, it was probably an ill-advised selection for an ocean voyage.  But of course I already knew how Fuller’s story was going to end – the mystery was in the telling, and Capper told her life, including its wrenching ending, so wonderfully well.  If you’re looking for a model of how to do intellectual history via biography, read Capper on Fuller.  You will go on a deep dive into the lived experience of someone who was both extraordinary and emblematic – and of course that’s the key for biography as intellectual history in general, and perhaps the key for understanding Margaret Fuller in particular.  It’s the interplay between the utterly unique individual consciousness and the mindset(s) of a broader milieu:  a life in bold relief against the currents of her time, channeling and shaping those currents even as she was shaped by them – a rock in the river, strong enough to stand out, sturdy enough to stand upon and from that slippery vantage point survey the whole.

Before this summer, I hadn’t necessarily planned to read the Kipnis book, nor had I planned to not read it.  There has been plenty of buzz about it, and plenty of controversy, so it was certainly on my radar screen and in my social media feeds, but that wasn’t enough to move it into my Amazon shopping cart.  However, when the news broke that one of the subjects in the book was bringing a defamation lawsuit against Kipnis and her publisher for (among other things) portraying said litigant as excessively litigious, I decided to buy the book and see for myself what Kipnis had done wrong or right.  I just starting volume 1 of Capper’s biography when the Kipnis book arrived, so I set it on the top of my “to read” pile and it was ready to hand when I started packing.

Earlier this year, after reading Stoner – good God in heaven, what a fate — I asked for some crowdsourcing help to come up with a list of more academic novels I ought to peruse.  In particular, I am looking at gender in portrayals of “the professor” as a fictional character, so I asked people to offer suggestions along those lines.  Several folks mentioned Lucky Jim; I ordered it a while back and stashed it for later reading. Vacation time seemed like as good a time as any.

I figured that these three books were all different enough from one another that I would enjoy the variety, and that was certainly true. Each called forth and rewarded a different kind of engagement or stance from me as a reader. But because I read them in succession (in the order listed above), and because I (and not some other person, or several other persons) read them — so that their ideas and themes and language and plots were all bouncing around at the same time in my own little acre of brainspace – I was able to see (or construe) some slight connections between them that might not otherwise have occurred to me.

In the next few blog posts, I’ll talk a little bit more about each of these books and try to retrace the links I found or fashioned between them.

But for now, I’d be glad to learn what the rest of you are reading, by chance or by choice or even as a chore, over the long hot summer.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I think I’m kind of weird in that my summer reading is really just whatever 3-4 books I’m reading at the time. Right now, for instance, that would be the Tucker *Marx-Engels Reader* (now on selections from *Capital*), Zimmerman-Robertson’s *The Case for Contention*, and whatever is next up on my anti-intellectualism project. I generally like to hit at least one new novel in the summer, and I’ve had *The Lecturer’s Tale* on my nightstand for about two years. I should tackle it. I want to read the Kipnis book, I think. This might sound strange, but I want to read it clinically, if possible. I don’t want to have any emotional reactions to it. – TL

  2. Thanks, LD. It’s always interesting to hear what people are reading. I haven’t worked things out completely yet. I’ll be in a summer institute in Seattle for three weeks, and *Emerald City* by Matthew Klingle, a environmental history of the city, begins the syllabus. Just finished Colson Whitehead’s *The Underground* and started George Saunders’ *Lincoln at the Bardo.* I’m two chapters into an out of print book published by Columbia UP in 1995, *Metapatterns* by Tyler Volk. Very interesting.

  3. Tim, I think I know what you mean about reading “clinically,” though that’s not exactly my approach to books like these. What I try to do, though, is read the reading (or the reading situation) as well, to see if I can find some fruitful perspective on inescapable perspectivalism. We’ll see. What I’ll probably end up doing, for all three of these books, is write about them here for one audience, and at my own blog for another (much smaller!) audience. I need to make better use of that venue, and sometimes it’s good for compartmentalizing things I will synthesize later. (For now, all I have on offer over there is a pic of me with some capuchin monkeys. Fun while it lasted!)

    Anthony, thanks for the reading updates/recs. I know I should read Lincoln in the Bardo *and* Underground, and I’m sure I would love them both — I will get to them eventually. I am now reading *Native America: A History* by Michael Leroy Oberg. I’m hoping to obtain a copy of R. David Edmunds’s *The People.* I always ask my students what they wish we had covered differently/better in the survey. None of them mentioned Native American history, but it’s on my own list of aspects of the survey to strengthen/enrich, so I thought I’d see how others have surveyed it. Any reading recs on that would also be most welcome.

  4. In terms of novels this summer, I might get to Lord Jim; have a Penguin 20th-Cent. Classics pb edition lying around. So far I’ve only read the first chapter, but already there are the unmistakable Conrad sentences (e.g., “The gale had ministered to a heroism as spurious as its own pretence of terror.”).

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