Home > I. Books > What’s on my Reading Table right now

What’s on my Reading Table right now

Maybe it’s because I’m a night-owl, maybe it’s because its hard to beat a good book for chasing away the blues, but my bedside table is perennially overburdened with books. Here is a list of books that have kept popping up recently in the wee hours. 

1) Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. Miranda Seymour. Robert Graves did a ton of living (not to mention writing) and explored some of the most radical perspectives of the 20th Century. In a world moving rapidly away from Victorian certainties and restrictions, Graves steered a course dictated by his relationships with, and perspectives on, women. But, then, Graves was a soldier-poet (nearly losing his life near the Somme in 1916), and the lingering horror of the fighting adds a further dimension to his writing. But what makes this biography stand out is the picture of Graves that emerges–brilliant, haunted, tenacious–and the close attention it pays to the poet’s development and the way his environment affected his poetry. Buy it, savor it–what a moment in history to have been a poet!

2) The Other Bible. Willis Barnstone, editor. Other visions, other voices. Thick enough to challenge the bible, this compendium of resources on religious alternatives (most from the period surrounding the life of Jesus) provides a welcome look at texts that were left forgotten on the back shelves of libraries, buried with monks in Egypt, or offered up in mainstream texts as examples of how not to think. The collection is particularly strong on gnostic texts, and helps readers understand some of the finer (but still important distinction) between such sects as the Cainaites and the Carpocratians.

3) Listening to Prozac. Peter D. Kramer. What is the goal of psychotropic medication? What do you say about a person who’s live is not only healed by the pills they take, but is even transformed–the wall-flower who becomes a successful politician, the agoraphobic housewife who go goes back to school and gets a professional job, the workaholic who suddenly discovers that there are things called vacations. Above all, who are we when we transform ourselves? Kramer, a psychiatrist, summarizes the development of modern psychotropic medications and reflects on his experiences with clients to give us his interpretation of what is and is not possible with the revolution in his field’s pharmacopeia.

4) Genesis, A New Translation of the Bible Stories. Stephen Mitchell. Stephen Mitchell, widely read freelance translator and poet, gives us a lively, accessible version of the stories that form the heart of Genesis. His work, deeply informed by the Documentary Hypothesis, ranges farther afield and takes advantage of scholarship that you may not have heard of.

5) The Five Books of Moses. Robert Alter. A careful translation that pays close attention to the diction and rhythms of the Ancient Hebrew, this book helped open my eyes to the pleasures of the Hebrew Bible as a received text. The introduction and notes are excellent, and Alter has a fine ear for the subtleties of English. Recommended for readers seeking a translation that does not focus on the Documentary Hypothesis.

6) Aspects of the Novel. E.M. Forster. A classic, pure and simple. Each chapter, originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford University in the 1920s, examines an essential characteristic of the novel such as story, fantasy, and prophecy. Forster’s lively wit and powerful intelligence guide us from the heartbeat origins of storytelling up through the more transcendent qualities of a the best novels. The chapters offer a sadly unfashionable perspective on a genre that has survived competing demands on readers’ time –hopefully to emerge revitalized in world culture.

7) The Gift, Poems by Hafiz. Daniel Landinsky, Translator. When I read Coleman Bark’s selection and translation of Rumi’s verse, Open Secret, I was so swept away that for some time I ignored other masters of Sufi/Medieval Islamic poetry. The Gift is correcting this oversight. Hafiz, who lived in Shiraz in the 13th century, devoted his life to the craft/art and for many years wrote a poem a day. Somewhere between 500 and 700 of his poems survive, written in Farsi, a demanding language for English speakers–but Landinsky does an admirable job of bringing out the joy and zaniness of the poet’s experience of God. Superb poetry, superb translation.


Photo: Alt Buecher; WikiCmns; User, Gnosos; Public Domain.

  1. aubrey
    September 27, 2011 at 7:42 am

    The writers and poets who wrote during World War I came out of that conflict transformed, destroyed and magnificent. I’ve read many WWI memoirs and anthologies and you can’t read any one without being changed in some way.

    • October 4, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      aubrey: i think that in the brutal fighting of WWI, the soldiers contemplated a world transformed into hell…ever since, we have been struggling to prevent this from happening across the globe. The most pressing task of poetry today may be rediscovering romance and beauty among the madness. RT

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