So this is the book on which I end my year.
It's a good one. Greenblatt gives a far-ranging account of the ways in which the Adam and Eve story developed in (Western, Christian) thought--from its initial status as premodern speculation on origins, though Augustine's neurotic attempt to escape whatever sexual hangup he developed as a child, through Milton (of course!) and finally to the rise of evolutionary theory and the subsequent "fall" of the first parents. It's a lot of book, and I'm probably lucky to have approached it as an audiobook rather than in print (or Kindle) edition.
Greenblatt makes a lot of the status of Adam and Eve as primal parents--that is, of their position as a just-so story to explain evil and death--but the really interesting stuff comes up when he discusses the ways in which sexuality interacts with the pair. Sex is, of course, the under-acknowledged core of the Eden myth; the command to "be fruitful and multiply" demands copulation, after all, whatever Augustine initially wanted to say. And Greenblatt shows the different ways in which various thinkers and writers used Adam and Eve to understand sex--Augustine, again, and Milton--the latter of whom makes the Adam-Eve couple more interesting as a couple than as avatars of sin and death. The discussion of visual art is, of course, where the sexuality/sensuality stuff really pops. Greenblatt's discussion of Albrecht Dürer's engraving (above) gives a lot of attention to the amount of attention Dürer gives to his Adam and the revolution that attention created in the art world.
I could wish (as Tim Whitmarsh seems to) that Greenblatt had said more about Jewish and Muslim reflections on the myth. I certainly wish that he had said more about twentieth century approaches; ardent fundamentalism is only one way the myth continues to exert itself. Ross Lockridge, Jr. positions the myth at the core of Raintree County, for instance. But that's a minor sort of quibble. This is a fascinating, and occasionally thrilling, study.
As a chaser, I recommend R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam.
Here we are at the end of the year and I have been dreadful about keeping this website updated. Partly this has to do with my duties at work; though I’ve got a pretty nice workload, it still occupies a lot of my attention (as does, y’know, the whole process of getting settled down in a new city and a new country). Moreover, my book project—an expanded version of my dissertation, about which more early next year some time—has so thoroughly colonized my brain that with one exception (a piece for Rise Up Daily, which you can read here) I’ve simply not had the time or emotional energy to attempt anything on the side.
That changes next year. The book is nearly ready to send to the publisher for review, after which I’ll be casting around for new projects while I wait for the comments to come back. So it’ll be a lot of reading and (finally!) catching up on Riverdale, the first season of which I loved more than is probably healthy.
Meanwhile, here’s an end-of-the-year book list. This isn’t a list of the “year’s best”—it’s more like the sort of thing biblioklept does: books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. They are in no particular order.
In terms of fiction, I started the year out with Call Me By Your Name--an agonizingly beautiful novel about summer romance. The novel came to my attention about the time the movie did—when it was announced that Sufjan Stevens was providing songs for the film. Beautifully written—like, achingly written, the kind of prose that’s hard to read in public because it’s so sensuous and silky. And full of lines like this: “What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting we want it.” The book captures the confusion and agony of a boy in the throes of love for possibly the first time—Elio is, let’s be clear, kind of pretentious and stubborn. But he’s a teenage boy, so there’s some allowance to be made. The ending is perhaps a bit too saccharine, one area in which I think the movie actually improves on the source material.
Call Me By Your Name also pairs nicely with another book I read for the first time this year, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The two books have more in common than their Italian setting—both are lushly written narratives of a kind of fall from Edenic innocence to experience. Hawthorne being Hawthorne, The Marble Faun is also intensely weird in the best possible way.
Pretty much all the rest of the fiction I’ve consumed this year has been for the book, so if you want my thoughts on Grace Metalious’s The Tight White Collar (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll just have to wait. It will be worth it, I promise.
Nonfiction, too, was largely connected to the book—but I’ve fired up an Audible account, and a lot of my nonfiction pleasure reading has started to come via that medium. Thus, Nabokov in America and The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship were listened to as audiobooks. Nabokov is one of those outsized personalities—like Gore Vidal—who fascinate me as much for their lives as for their books (I did start re-reading Lolita last month, but like so much of my other pleasure-reading it stalled before the need to read stuff like Return to Peyton Place). I can’t let this section pass without recommending Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb—actually the first book I completed this year. Green writes in defense of criticism, which he distinguishes from scholarship in that criticism attempts to describe and elucidate the effects of a text, while scholarship looks at context etc etc etc. The book is divided into three sections: the first outlines Green’s perspective while the second and third—on failures and successes, respectively—apply that perspective to reviewing actual critics (among the failures is James Wood; among the successes, Harold Bloom).
This book is a bracing defense of the concept of focusing on a text as a text rather than as an object to be viewed through a particular “critical lens.” As such, I found it very attractive at the end of my sprint toward the Ph.D.
On my to-read pile (besides Lolita):
Pai Hsien-Yung, Crystal Boys. Ignore the cover on Amazon, which makes the novel look like a softcore gay porn. I’m halfway through it (stalled out at around the beginning of the year) and it’s a closely-observed story of life among street hustlers in Taiwan. The tv series—which I watched before buying the book—is quite good. There’s also a movie, which I’ve not seen.
Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Picked this up in a bookstore in Wuhan. Formerly known as The Price of Salt. I liked the movie a lot, and I’ve heard great things about the book, so….
Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City.
--in addition to around a dozen books for the next project (whatever it winds up being—I have three options, so there’s a lot to look at). Meanwhile, I've finally got a little free time to maintain this site, so I'll post occasional pieces here.
Oh, and Merry Christmas.