Words to Live By

But perhaps the moral value of the disciplines we call the humanities actually lies in the care and self-consciousness with which the desire to understand is regulated, in finding ways to cajole it away from egoism and self-inflation so that idealism and learning, thinking and knowing, can co-operate.

It isn’t easy. When I write a commentary on a text I’m aware that I know things that have the potential to generate a toxic cloud of dullness which could obscure the poem I am supposed to be explicating. I know stuff about the practice of sonnet writing in 1609, stuff about the history of words, stuff about the history of gender and sexuality. When I set that down in the form of a commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets I also know that explication can be the most excruciating form of bardicide. Holding back on philological learning in order not to drown out the little voice inside which keeps on saying ‘the reason you are doing this is because this poem is fascinating beyond anything you could begin to create,’ and letting readers see why it might be worth knowing more in order to understand better is what I think I am doing. … [A]cademics manifest in unusually public ways the general tendency of desire to turn into something else in the course of its realisation. The caricature philologist could be regarded as a person in whom the desire to understand has suffered its final metamorphosis: the means used to pursue the end have entirely obliterated the end itself. We take the risk of becoming that person whenever we interpret more than casually. We owe it to ourselves to back off from time to time, and remind ourselves of our own ends.

—Colin Burrow, “Are You a Spenserian?”

Happy Birthday, EMJ!

WordPress tells me that a year ago yesterday I started this blog. I wish Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau nothing but the best in the coming year, including, just maybe, a more frequent posting schedule.

Keeping this blog has meant a lot to me and given me some sorely needed confidence about my writing. It’s helped me be freer and looser in my writing, and allowed me to contribute, albeit in a small way, to a larger ongoing conversation online about books that I value a lot and am pleased to be part of. And it’s made me think more carefully and clearly about the things I’m reading. What I tell my students is really true—you can’t know what you think about something until you write about it.

I’ve a couple of blogging goals this year: to write more posts and to keep them shorter, and to try different kinds of writing, more in the vein of the personal essay. I’ve been striving here to write pieces that combine criticism with personal reflection, pieces that bring my own reading experience or history into the discussion of the books I write about. So I think the writing has already been personal. But I want to try to write essays that are inspired by, even grounded in, things I’ve read, but that aren’t so much reviews per se.

It matters a lot to me that others are reading these posts. I know from my stats that there aren’t that many of those others, but numbers aren’t everything, and the encouraging feedback I’ve received has meant so much to me.

To my readers, then, thank you for your interest & support.

I take requests, too. Maybe not about which books to write about—I always want recommendations, but I usually follow my own reading inclinations and it can take a long time before I get to them, which is why you should never lend me a book—but about the kinds of pieces you’d like to see here. Do let me know, if you’ve a mind.

That’s all for now. More mountains to climb. The bedside pile is particularly north face-ish just now.