Saturday, January 26, 2013

Library book sale

The last thing I need is more books but it's hard to resist the library book sales when they appear.  You never know what will show up and it's all a buck or two.  There were a few things I skipped.  Didn't know Pirandello wrote a novel about the film business (Shoot) but the copy was poor condition.  There was a Freya Stark book also with the cover coming off.  And a nice collection of "great essays" (mainly 18th and 19th century) but it was one of those tiny 60s paperbacks that the type was too small to be easily read.

But I did pick up:

Kogan - Shutterbabe
Ellis - His Excellency George Washington
Tannahill - Food in History
Swafford - Charles Ives
Moaveni - Lipstick Jihad
Elliott - An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan
Zhukov - Marshall Zhukov's Greatest Battles
Henderson - Pushcart Prize 2008
Halpern - Our Private Lives
Auster - The New York Trilogy
Cooper - The German Army 1933-1945

Sunday, January 13, 2013

German Book 1

Nicholas Boyle - German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2008)

It would have been nice if my first post about a German book had been about, well, a German book.  This one is by a British author, from a British press, with British spelling, using British pagination - it's turtles all the way down.  But when starting my project I had forgotten about this book and it seems appropriate.  The library also had another not-very-short introduction (well they're calling it a "companion") to German lit so that will be included too unless it gets too dull.

The Very Short Introduction series sounds awful, like little compressed textbooks mainly useful as cribs, though in fact they're usually quite imaginative and worth reading even for topics you might know.  There are a few that take the quick overview approach but more commonly the books really are introductions (or even essays) that don't attempt to touch on every key point.  The one on classics for instance takes a Greek temple and uses that to bring up various approaches to classics; similarly the one on Russian literature uses Pushkin for its different topics.  

Boyle's book on German literature is more of an overview though a somewhat odd one.  It opens with a chapter that runs quickly through German history though this version is one of large abstract forces and barely mentions dates, people or even political events.  It's a kind of hazy tussle among towns, universities and churches that for all I know may be the best way to approach the literature - for the rest I suppose the quick overview is on Wikipedia.  This chapter does underline that "German" is an even more amorphous designation that I had realized so even though Boyle more or less excludes Austrian and Swiss writers I won't, as long as they wrote in German.

Then the chapters on literature proper, going chronologically for the most part.  As fits the opening these writers are either working out hidden tectonic frictions or pursuing grand themes.  There's not much formal exploration or technical issues in Boyle's approach (then again this is a very short intro).  At times it's not entirely clear what Boyle thinks these writers are trying to resolve but for the most part his approach is direct and readable, at least given what he's trying to do.  One result is that he doesn't give much of the "flavor" of particular writes so they tend to blur together but as far as I can tell he touches on the main names and movements.  Missing of course are any popular writers such as Patrick Suskind or Edgar Wallace who were great successes in the English-speaking world, though not having read either I have no idea if they're even worth inclusion.  He's also not just relaying received wisdom - for instance dismissing Brecht's theoretical writings in an abrupt sneering aside.  In the end, even though I know little about German literature I'm not sure I learned much from the book.  Decades of travelling around the book world means I can locate the mountains, rivers and landmarks - it's actually climbing or swimming that's the point.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013: My Year of German Literature

One of my favorite professors at work was Max Aue who taught German.  I didn’t see him often but it was always interesting when he stopped by, usually for business but we often ended up chatting.  He even invited me to sit in on a class once because, in his phrase, it would be good to have another adult in the room.  Frequently what we talked about was how little Americans knew about German literature.  I told him to not worry too much because most Americans don’t really know anything about American literature either.  But his basic point was true enough and I’m an example.  Even though I've seen a bunch of German films, I’ve read only a few German books and most of those actually by Austrian writers or in one obvious case Czech (or Austrian-Czech or Austro-Hungarian-Czech or whatever is the appropriate pigeonhole).

Last August Max died in a traffic accident.  As a way of paying tribute I decided to read more German books in 2013 and came up with the idea of one a month.  Twelve isn’t very many and I already decided to go with twelve for the entire year because there’s no way I can follow a schedule.  At one point I considered doing one fiction book and one history because after reading Simon Winder’s Germania last Spring I realized I have a very spotty knowledge of German history between the Roman empire (or at least Arminius and Teutoburg Forest) and the 20th century.  But I’m going to be more lax about the history or I’d likely end up just reading war books all year.

I already have a list of about 40 titles but won’t post it because certainly I won’t read most of them.  After all Novalis may sound worth checking out (Borges seems to have liked him) but really how far am I likely to get past an introduction?  I'm not completely trying to fill in cultural blank spots but to find worthwhile books and writers so no survey approach.  And to continue overthinking what is basically a pretty modest project I’m going to mainly focus on Germany proper however confusing or improper or vague that might be but won’t worry much if something is from an Austrian or Swiss writer (if only because I’ve always planned to read Joseph Roth and this is as good a time as any). I'm still looking for travel narratives about Germany (Theroux seems to have skipped it) or from Germans (is there a German Toqueville or Custine?) as well as some less academic (ie narrowly focused) histories or biographies.

With any luck a post about the first book will appear in a few days.