Thrushes, worms, and bibliomemoir

What can amateur accounts of literature do better than conventional literary criticism? That’s the question I brought to two recent bibliomemoirs: Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (from Princeton and Oxford’s Writers on Writers series, 2013) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014). The main answers seem to be: 1. sell books (well, better than criticism generally sells, anyway) and 2. testify ardently that reading matters and, perhaps, that the books that strike us powerfully in our teens and twenties may matter most of all. Which makes me think: teaching matters.

smithI enjoyed both books in a mild, non-urgent way. I’m a binge-reader of print or e-books but a slower listener, and because I downloaded My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, I consumed it in nibbles. I started Mead’s encomium in September and finished it two months later, listening mainly on extended car trips—and I don’t have a lot of those, since I commute on foot. Yet “no car time” isn’t really the headline here: when I listen to Robert Galbraith or Tina Fey, I somehow find more listening occasions. There just isn’t much suspense in a bibliomemoir. (Spoiler alert: she loved the book!) I read Smith more rapidly, in just a couple of evenings last week, but his is actually the less compelling of the two books. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You just happens to be shorter by more than half and, ahem, I had a deadline. I post this bibliomemoiristic episode from the Modernist Studies Association meeting where I am about to moderate one of the conference’s “What Are You Reading?” sessions, in which I’ll informally present Smith’s prettily-printed meditation.

My feelings are mixed. Smith is an acclaimed mystery writer—I dipped into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series a couple of times—so he has an easy, appealing, unpedantic style. Twelve short chapters present different aspects of Auden’s life and work, including some basic biography, attention to the major works, and a tactfully-written meditation on how secular people can appreciate a poet’s turn to religion. Smith’s subject is a writer I care about, but not one whose works or life I know thoroughly. I teach Auden and adore many of his lyrics. I don’t know much Auden scholarship. However, even I can tell Smith’s book offers no serious, original appraisal of the Anglo-American poet’s work. In fact, there’s plenty here to irritate even a disaffected member of the contemporary Critical Congregation. Smith pontificates, oh lord, on themes of choice, responsibility, and the journey; and while Smith is totally forthright about Auden’s homosexuality, I found the bit about how “Lullaby” “transcends gender” and “can be appreciated by anybody”—well, not quite untrue, but defensive. And reductive of one of the century’s most beautiful poems. A more accomplished critic could deepen “Lullaby”‘s magic even while explaining its tricks, I think.

Yet there are parts of Smith’s book I found memorably charming. While this is not a very personal bibliomemoir—I closed it knowing the author’s disposition, but not much about his life—I recognized myself in his descriptions of poetic earworms. “The line returns again and again until it becomes part of the way I look at things…It is rather like having the poet by one’s  side—ready to point something out, ready to put into words a feeling or impression that would otherwise be fleeting.” Because Smith happened to read Auden at an impressionable age, and because Auden’s lines delighted and mystified and haunted him, he proceeds to perceive events of his own life more richly and vividly. I loved a passage starting on page 93 and triggered by Auden’s phrase “with thrushes popular”: Smith is inspired by it to find hidden life teeming in all kinds of scenes: rivers become with salmon popular, etc. Auden’s strange locution populates Smith’s life with weird, excessive liveliness. Words affect perception: “the way in which we stock our minds will surely determine the quality of our experiences, conscious and subconscious.”

Overall, Smith’s approach to the poetry seems dated and shallow compared to Mead’s. However, there are several circumstances that dispose me to prefer the latter. I’m less invested in Eliot’s work than Auden’s, which may make me less critical. Mead, a journalist, is in her forties like me and Smith, twenty years senior, sounds rather more like my own stuffiest high school English teachers. Mead’s basic premise cuts close to the bone: she’s a middleaged person beginning to see the shape of her own life the way a novelist might, and also contemplating the ultimate meaning of love and work. Well, yeah. Me too.My Life in Middlemarch is in any case more complex study, rooted in extensive research, archival work, and site visits, as well as a detailed interweaving of both authors’ lives. Mead’s book is not so different from a critical biography; it just foregrounds the researching writer more.

I’m interested in bibliomemoir because my current critical project, Taking Poetry Personally, shares affinities with this emergent genre. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling suddenly more thoughtful about my own children’s reading and the books I assign to undergraduates. It might be that life is full of crises, of which youth is only one, and what we read at any crux can hook us deeply. Yet when I think back through the books that have shaped how I think about myself, that have encouraged and chastened and obsessed me, I realize that I encountered almost all of them before my twenty-fifth birthday.

Twilight, Call of Duty, stupid cat videos: contemporary twenty-year-olds’ brains are with zombies popular. I’m not anti-screen, or even anti-zombie.( I don’t think there’s a better show on the air right now than The Walking Dead, but that’s a swordfight for another day). Yet I do feel inspired by these bibliomemoirs to keep stocking student trees with literary singers. You never know which bird will become the worm.

If you’re swimming with the scholars like me, by the way–or just in or near Pittsburgh–come check out a free reading at the Omni William Penn tonight, Friday 11/7, 9 pm, in the ballroom on the 17th floor. The conference program is here. There will be a LOT of thrushes warbling, including Cynthia Hogue, Meta Jones, Dan Tobin, Julia Lisella, Tyrone Williams, Jan Beatty, Elizabeth Savage, Beth Frost, Aldon Nielson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving.

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