Nonfiction

I have been reading a lot of nonfiction this summer. It’s been fun, but I am also a little starved for fiction, and I have a massive backlist of books to investigate when I get home.

Juliet Gardiner: The Thirties and Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here

When I read Gardiner’s Wartime, I wished it had said more about the experience of being an American GI in England during World War II. Turns out the reason it didn’t is that Juliet Gardiner wrote a whole book about being an American GI in England during World War II. Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here (the book in question), a short book with lots of pictures and excerpts from diaries, letters, and journals, held me over until The Thirties got in at the library.

At which point I’m afraid I was woefully disappointed. I gave up on The Thirties about a third of the way through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or just aimed in the wrong direction. Gardiner writes a lot about labor and the dole and other bleak, depressing economic things, and I got bored. I persevered ages longer than I wanted to, because I had whined so much about the library not having the book when I wanted it.

William Harris: Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Harris examines classical texts from Homer on forward to get a grip on what kind of dreams the Greeks and Romans had and what their dreams meant to them. He devotes a whole chapter to discussing what he calls “epiphany dreams,” dreams in which an authority figure shows up, gives a message to the dreamer, then leaves again. These appear to have been very common up until around the eleventh or twelfth century, at which point they declined precipitously. All very interesting.

A. D. Nuttall: The Stoic in Love (essays) and Dead from the Waist Down

I’m going to be getting Nuttall’s last book, Shakespeare the Thinker, in the mail pretty soon. I got it because I want to be friends with Shakespeare again. I hate that we’re in a fight. But once it was already ordered, I started to worry that I wouldn’t care for Nuttall, so I went to the library and got a few of his other books. Y’all, as I was reading these books, I kept thinking that if A.D. Nuttall hadn’t died tragically prematurely of a heart attack in 2007, I would have move to whatever university he taught at and become his disciple.

Nuttall read Mods (roughly, that means classics) and English Literature at Oxford, and The Stoic in Love warmed the classics and English literature ventricles of my geeky little heart. There is an essay on Virgil’s use of the causal-but-simultaneous dum (generally translated as “while”) in the Aeneid, which, Nuttall argues, reveals a lot about Virgil’s perception of life-after-death. I also particularly liked the essay on Hamlet and the sources of its uncertainties in previous Hamlet stories as well as in Latin and Greek sources.

Dead from the Waist Down was weird but entrancing. Nuttall writes about sexuality and scholarship in literature and life, taking as his subjects two real scholars (one, Isaac Casaubon, an early modern, and one, Mark Pattison, a contemporary of George Eliot) and the fictional Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch. Fortunately the half of Middlemarch that I read was sufficient to carry me through this with a reasonable measure of comprehension, and Nuttall doesn’t assume the reader’s familiarity with the other two dudes. He also discusses three things I did not get enough of during college: Robert Browning, Tom Stoppard, and image clusters. In particular I appreciated his compliments to the (wonderful) Stoppard play Invention of Love: “It is a work of breathtaking brilliance….knockabout comedy laced with intense pathos,” etc.

The word [scholarly], I think, connotes a quality of completeness: at the lowest level, complete literacy (never a colon where a comma should be); complete, though not redundant documentation; complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument, and, together with all this, a sense that the writer’s knowledge of material at the fringe of the thesis is as sound as his or her knowledge of the core material.

Exactly what I like in Nuttall, although he could just be giving the impression of being sound without really being, and I do not know enough to be sure. Though just as I was contemplating flinging myself in the river so that Nuttall could teach me classics in heaven, he said:

It will be said that I am describing the literary canon, which has been shown to be an instrument of oppression. I would have had none of that then and I will have none of it now.

Come on, dude. At least give some respect to the arguments of the people who are completely unrepresented in and disempowered by the literary canon. You are part of a privileged group, and the literary canon hasn’t been an instrument of oppressing you. Hrmph. But apart from this, I think A.D. Nuttall is very, very brilliant and interesting. He talked briefly about a Greek writer called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote gossipy, bitchy lives of philosophers and bad poets, so y’all should expect to be hearing from me pretty soon about that.

43 thoughts on “Nonfiction

    • You’re welcome! It is fascinating, although not always very conclusive. Harris is meticulous about noting the weaknesses of the arguments he presents, so you never feel like he’s drawing unwarranted conclusions. I hope your library has it!

    • It is indeed wonderful! Having said that I went to the library last night and filled up my big canvas library bag with all the fictioniest fiction I could find. :p

  1. It seems to be a problem with guys like Nuttall – what they present has value, and yet they can be such jerks about it. Plus, of course, there’s all the stuff they leave out and are proud to do so. But I agree with you – one benefits from putting them into a context and appreciating what is good therein.

    • He’s almost never a jerk, to be fair. That was the only thing he said in the two books of his I’ve read so far that irritated me in the slightest. He writes about what he knows, and he has rather staggering breadth and recall. I don’t mind people writing about the works in the canon (at all!), but it’s not nice to be dismissive of other people’s scholarly work, just because it’s not your own.

  2. Though the first was disappointing, I am glad that you had such success with the other two. And I have mention that I think the Nutall book sounds really good. I hope that you are soon finding yourself lost in a good fictional work or two!

    • I am already! It is so wonderful! I got all my library books home last night and stacked them in piles and then organized them into different piles–I wanted to give them a hug. I have missed fiction!

  3. And, if you don’t already know but I feel I must explain myself, is that – ahem – I will forever expect and associate the name ‘Tom Stoppard’ with Jenny’s Books. I think you are a wonderful ambassador for your favorites.

    and I don’t really get any antagonistic attitude from the ‘literary canon = instrument of oppression’ quote. What am I missing? It reads to me that he doesn’t buy the argument that the canon is oppressive? is it? I know nothin’.

    • If you do forever associate him with me, I will feel awesome about myself.

      Well, it’s not that those books, by themselves, are necessarily instruments of oppression. But the “canon” as we conceive of it has such a high concentration of white, male, Anglo authors. Women and, particularly, people of other ethnicities aren’t represented in it very well at all. It’s ugly because it paints a picture of the world in which white men are the sort of default thing, and any people not in that mold are subsidiary and probably suspect. The problem arises when we treat them as these sort of sacred texts, and when we don’t interrogate them to tease out their prejudices, and when we don’t also teach texts that give voices to the people who have traditionally not been present in the “canon”. It’s not the books, it’s the power we give the books.

      Or anyway that’s how I think of it. I’m sure other people would explain it completely differently, and probably better. :p

      • ok! that makes much more sense. As someone who has only heard of this canon thing refered to and never explained or if I did know what it was I was in HS and thus wasn’t paying attn many yrs ago, I have always been abit intimidated to ask.
        Thanks!

  4. Oh no! Is The Thirties really not very good? That makes me very disappointed!

    Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity sounds absolutely fascinating – a subject that I’ve never thought of before but it’s intrigued me!

    • No, no, it’s not that it’s not good! She still writes the same way she wrote in her other books, but the subjects she chooses for The Thirties don’t interest me as much as the subjects she chose for Wartime. I suppose it feels less like a social history, about people and their lives, and more focused on the economic side of things.

      I have been thinking a little bit about the subject of dreams in Homer & Virgil, but I never imagined there would be a whole book more or less about exactly that (except broader). (yay)

    • Yeah, definitely likeable. I’m excited to read the rest of his books–Shakespeare the Thinker arrived a few days ago and I can’t wait to read it!

  5. Diogenes Laertius is cool because he writes about Diogenes of Sinope, who is probably my favorite ancient Greek. I dunno about D.L.’s other stuff though, because I read about D. o S. and then turned the book right back into the library, so D.L. might be otherwise bitchy. It was a targeted reading.

    Also, hello.

    • Gus! Hi, Gus! Is Diogenes of Sinope the one who met Alexander the Great, and Alexander said he’d want to be Diogenes if he weren’t himself? (Because of course he preferred having nice meals and conquering the world to sitting comfortably in the sun.)

      I think Diogenes Laertius was bitchy to bad poets. That was the sense I got from Nuttall, though it may be completely wrong.

      • He is indeed that Diogenes. He is like a proto-Thoreau, so I dig him without being able/willing to emulate him(w/r/t simplicity, I dunno about Thoreau’s Ultimate Politics). I think it’d be fun to trash-talk Plato in person. I’d bet that Plato didn’t handle it well. Take that, progenitor of The West.

        Anyway, Nuttall sounds like an interesting read, though maybe he’s a wank for jabbing at criticism for the “canon” without describing/enunciating his defense/definition for and of the canon. I feel like if you know that it’s a topic worth thinking about then you’d better chime in with your thoughts about it.

  6. Juliet Gardiner, check. But A D Nuttall? I’d never heard of him before, and will have to look him up in the university library. I confess I know shamefully little about the ancient classics, and even about the classics, come to that, as I spent my formative years reading French and German novels. But I’m very willing to learn!

    • It is not clear to me how well-known Nuttall is as a scholar, to be honest. I meant to ask my old English professor but I haven’t run into her yet. He writes about ancient and modern classics, often both together. It’s fascinating.

  7. That’s so sad that The Thirties is more economic than social :( I was hoping for the opposite.

    That Nuttall comment is very humpf-worthy indeed, but the book does sound fascinating regardless.

    • Maybe it gets less economic in the second two-thirds. I kind of ran out of time to read it, and I had all these other books vying for my attention.

      The book is so fascinating. I expect Shakespeare the Thinker to be even more so, but I want to read it slowly, in bits. He goes chronologically, and that would fit very nicely with my reading Shakespeare’s plays chronologically myself. I will read a play, check out what Nuttall has to say, read another play. :)

  8. Whenever someone gives a definition like that about scholars or scholarliness, I always think of the bit in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy is giving his opinion on what an accomplished woman should be and do and have, and Lizzie says, “I am no longer astonished at your knowing only six accomplished women, Mr. Darcy. I am rather astonished at your knowing any.”

    • I just read Taming of the Shrew. It’s more awful even than I remembered! Shakespeare and I can’t be friends again until he’s explained himself, or Nuttall has explained him to me.

  9. Maybe going to see it in a theater would help. It’s got a lot of potential for slapstick. I have a soft spot for it because my sister played Katherine in college–a petite, formerly shy blonde, if you can believe it. She said she just channeled our mother.

    • Maybe. I think it’s got a lot of potential for many things, including playing Kate sarcastic at the end, but the play as it’s written doesn’t necessarily suggest that she is. :/

  10. Take away a “t”, change the “a” for an “e”, add an “a” at the end, and you’ve got nutella. That must be why he sounds so good.

  11. I might have to check out Overpaid… my grandfather was an American GI in the UK during ww2 but he never spoke of his experiences. I want to learn more. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

    • My grandfather flew missions in North Africa, but he died when I was quite small, so I never heard his stories about it either. Though he was quite intimidating so I don’t know that I’d have asked about it if he had lived longer. Overpaid‘s quite good if you can find it, a quick engaging read.

  12. I have never heard of A D Nuttall but I will have to look him up. It pleases me when mad academics come out with accessible and interesting books (unnecessary defence of the canon notwithstanding). And I will confess to knowing shamefully little about the ancient classics – a bit of the Ilyad and the Odyssey and some Metamorphosis really is about it. Juliet Gardiner I have heard good things about.

    Do you know, I would love to read some social history about America but I can never find any. There must be lots of wonderful books out there, surely?

    • Er. I am not really the person to ask about American history books. When I was small I was a big Anglophile, so the way it tended to work out was that the history stuff I read for fun was British history, and the history stuff I was forced to read was American. So these days I don’t really read American history recreationally. The standard thing people recommend is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but I don’t know that I’d call it social history. Now if you’re looking for oral history, you can’t do better than Studs Terkel. He compiled loads of books of oral history, on topics like race, careers, theater, the Great Depression, all sorts of things, in 20th-century America.

      I hope you like A. D. Nuttall! I’m so looking forward to reading his book on Shakespeare. It looks both accessible and interesting–more so, actually, than Dead from the Waist Down, of which I saw several reviews complaining that Nuttall was assuming reader familiarity with too many things. (Though I don’t think he was.)

  13. I really need to read more nonfiction. I always intend to, but I keep putting it off because I’m a comparitively slow reader to begin with (if the rest of the blogosphere is anything to go by), and my reading speed slooooowwwwwssss riiiigggghhhttt dooowwwnnn when I try to read nonfiction. Sigh. I think DREAMS AND EXPERIENCE IN CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY sounds fascinating, though, so I’m going to keep an eye out for that one.

    Also, at the start of the segment on Nuttall, my brain totally acquired temporary dyslexia and I read “I’m going to be in Nuttall’s next book.” I was uber excited for you.

    • Dude, if I were going to be in Nuttall’s next book, I would have made that its own post. :p But he is dead. It is sad for me to have just discovered him and then to find out he has already died, only a few years ago.

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