Category Archives: books

Top Ten

So there is this thing going around (and I am totally late to the party), where my friends are making lists of the top ten books that have influenced their lives. I am not even sure if this post is relevant anymore since this kind of happened two weeks ago. If anyone is still interested, here is my top ten list. And to make up for my tardiness, I have included reasons for why these books are important to me (in no particular order).

1. The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer. If it was not for the General Prologue I may not be where I am now. I obviously cannot say this with any certainty, since I could have still become an English major and on a similar trajectory because I always had a propensity for reading, but this work was the deciding factor, back at the age of fourteen, when I, without a doubt, decided I would pursue English literature in college.

2. Brave New World – Huxley. In my high school AP Lit class we read this book, I loved it, and I wrote my final paper on it. It was my first 20-25 page paper. I was 17, so I am not saying this was great literary work on my part, but at the time it was a longest paper I had ever written, I was proud of my results, and my professor said she was actually thoroughly impressed despite having had taught AP courses for a number of years. So I have kind of loved this book since.

3. Talking It Over – Barnes. This book has gotten me through some interesting times. It is my “I need to cheer up” book.

4. Lyrical Ballads – Wordsworth and Coleridge. This book has caused me an onslaught of personal problems (I never said all of these books were important for positive reasons), numerous heated fights, subdued arguments, and tears. And yet, many years later, here I am teaching portions of it.

5. Riverside Shakespeare. This book has gotten me through six courses and seminars, and an undergraduate thesis. I think it has served its purpose well. Unfortunately poor thing is falling apart and probably won’t make it much further. However before it begins to disintegrate I am going to stop using it and box it up to save the ridiculous amounts of marginalia (some of which is absolutely hilarious… and no longer makes any sense).

6. Joy Luck Club – Tan. The first time I read this I was only about 12, and didn’t fully understand. I came back to it later, and even though my mother and I are not Chinese immigrants, the narratives held several parallels with my own life and relationship with my mother. In fact, too many.

7. An Orgy of George – Carlin. I bought this book about 15 years ago, and it was my introduction to the wonderful world of stand up comedy. Except in book form. I absolutely loved it!

8. Portrait of an Unknown Woman – Bennett. This was the first period piece I ever read, and totally got me into the history novel genre. A large part of the genre is nothing more than anachronistic beach novels, but there are a few in the field who are renown historians, and who deliver a magnificent interplay of history and fiction. I have ferreted them out (and read some terrible ones along the way), but after having collected then for years, I believe I can tell you more about the British and French royal families circa the 14th and 15th centuries than I could tell you about my own. In fact there was a several year gap in between my being in school, and being in school, through which I think I had read two to three dozens of these per year.

9. Virgin Earth – Gregory. It took me some time to find her, but Gregory is by far one of the best historical novel writers I have read. Her novels seem the best researched and well put together. My favorite thing about her is her aptitude in writing about things other than just court life or high profile historic characters. She has painted quite a few well written portraits of common slices of life throughout the centuries. Virgin Earth was my first book by her about a 17th century gardener. I know it doesn’t *sound* fascinating, but it can be. Especially if you are into that sort of thing.

10. Crime and Punishment – Dostoevsky. I absolutely love this book, but I read it sparingly as it makes me dissolve in tears each time. I saw the movie when I was little (about six or so), and wanted to read it. Of course I couldn’t at the time, and didn’t get around to it until I was about ten, at which point I still didn’t understand a lot of things. I read it again every few years.


Object Fetish

I am writing my statement of purpose for a second school, realizing that it must be altered each time more than I had originally thought. What is my purpose? Depends where I am applying. They want to know who I want to work with at their institution and what I want to work on. So I look through the faculty pages, find what everyone specializes in, and research the ones closest to my own interests. At the school I am writing my current statement for there is only one professor even moderately close to what I am considering.

My interests in medieval manuscripts may have been relevant sixty years ago. Such studies were huge in the 40’s and 50’s, with entire five, eight and ten volume sets being written and poured over in all corners of academia. The professor who had originally gotten me into this had himself written his dissertation on the topic in the late 50’s at the height of manuscript frenzy. I was at an institution that was still at the residual end of these studies. It still is, but less so. When applying to them again I didn’t have to alter much. My interests are the same now as they were then, simply with more finesse and better honed, and this school still has the faculty and resources to properly help me develop it further.
The other schools however require a little more finagling on my part. So at School B, after having read some of this professor’s works and skimming others I realize that the closest I will get to a medieval manuscript while working with him is by looking at the object itself.
My fascination with manuscripts is odd in that it relies on a very narrow take of manuscript studies. I am more concerned with the building aspect, the logistics of manuscript creation, than anything else. So why not extrapolate it further? This professor works with literature as a commodity fetish. The physical book, as a personal possession for private use becomes an object of interest in and of itself, independent of the actual text it contains. Isn’t that what my whole obsession with manuscripts is? A niche fetish concerned with the object itself? Sort of.
I had always thought it was a rather bizarre fascination, especially since so few others share it, and looking at it this way made the most sense. I had never thought of manuscripts or books as commodities, but if you consider their origin and the purposes for which they were written, and later pressed, and sold and disseminated, it goes far beyond the sharing of ideas via text. The work’s relevance becomes interwoven and oscillates between the actual text contained and the fetishism of the physical object with enjoyment derived from its personal possession and use.

About eight months ago I wrote this post. I didn’t know it then, but I essentially outlined this very theory in my own relationship with literature.

Maybe I am more tactile than others, but when I love a book, I don’t just love what it says, but the way it feels, and smells, how it becomes worn, my marginalia sometimes faded and reapplied, the way I highlight sections, and the cover. For me reading is a physical experience. Even after I got my Kindle I rarely if ever use it, and when I do it has more to do with not wanting to carry a book around, but I probably still have a copy of it at home. So if I have this kind of experience with mass produced paperbacks, how can it not be argued that a similar fetishism didn’t exist with medieval manuscripts that were far more elaborate and meticulously crafted? The process of creating the manuscripts as taken on by different scribes (most manuscripts were created by a series of scribes, each with their own specialty, such as letter writing, head letter writing, illuminating, coloring, etc.) was a process in which each one took pride, and the ownership of such works harbored a similar pride. However, despite the length it took to create these pieces, manuscripts then were not treated as they are now. For us they are rare and must be kept in certain conditions, but then they were simply a part of the household, written in, played with, and (some might argue) defaced in a similar fashion as what I do to my own books when scrawling notes across pages or otherwise altering them. I don’t do these things because I don’t believe my books have value, but simply because that is how I enjoy them most. Just like others six and seven hundred years ago interacted with their manuscripts, writing across gold-leaf illuminations, and scribbling on the edges of nearly perfectly penned text. In fact you can trace ownership of some manuscripts simply by tracing who had written in them over the years (e.g. Lansdowne MS of the Canterbury Tales).
And since I apparently really like working my way into a corner, I will narrow the argument down even further to solely look at the ways in which this fetishism moved from manuscript to novel. Not that other texts weren’t being similarly commodified, but I think the relationship between owner and manuscript is most closely paralleled between owner and novel (taking into account that most manuscripts were not in fact stories, or thought to be fictitious in the least). This latter part relies on the amount of enjoyment derived from the work in consuming it, and also possessing it. The novel is a form of entertainment, and sometimes, depending on the point in time you are looking into, it was a secret pleasure to be delighted in behind closed doors. The mere possession of a book, much less a novel, contains a rich history, and as private libraries became public, acquired by historians and museums, the commodification of books becomes of central importance.So I guess I am not really altering my interests as much as repositioning them to be looked at from a different angle. Interesting.



I went book shopping… without taking two very important things into consideration. How was I going to carry all of these back to the car? I managed…. but then, more importantly…. how am I going to get these on the plane tomorrow? I will see…
Some of the highlights…
Julian Barnes outdoes himself….
Interesting bicycle art on the street…
A church…
There were many amazing little stores… The English Dept… I was hoping for cute clothes, but they sell custom wedding gowns.
I liked the way this building looked.
And this one… (although this is a terrible picture).
Had late late lunch/dinner…
And the most decadent dessert… so rich it took me almost 45 minutes to finish…
And tomorrow back home….