Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Book Meme (the buck stops here)

Kitabkhana had tagged me last week to do this book meme thing. Someone else did too, recently, though I can't quite figure out who.

I'm going to do it, but -- bad luck! -- I'm going to break the chain, and refrain from tagging anyone else. (If you would like to do a meme inspired by this one, send me an email or drop me a comment, and I will retro-actively tag you.)

1. Total Number of books you own

No idea. I got married two years ago, which means in addition to my office full of books, my study at home full of books, and a living room with a fair number of books, my wife's books are there -- most of them on a large bookshelf in the bedroom. So in addition to predictable titles like Gauri Viswanathan's Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief, John Hawley's Sati: The Blessing and the Curse, and Michael Walzer's On Toleration, for all practical purposes I now also posses a rather intimidating shelf of books called things like Data Structures Using C and C++, Local Area High Speed Networks, and ATM & MPLS Theory & Application. Top that, eclectic readers!

2. Last Book I Bought

I'm not sure which I bought more recently -- Andrea Levy's Small Island or a massive anthology called Theory's Empire (to be discussed shortly on The Valve).

When I bought the Levy, I also picked up a small pile of books from the "extras" bin ($5) at the Barnes & Noble near where I live: Jasper Fiorde's The Eyre Affair (heard it was funny), Anthony Arthur's Literary Feuds (I love me some literary feuds), Peter Gay's Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks, and a biography of Flaubert by Geoffrey Wall.

Like Hurree of Kitabkhana, I evidently buy books by the bushel.

3. Last Book I Read

On Sunday and Monday I re-read Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, as part of preparing for what turned out to be a very brief role in a radio conversation with Ghosh Monday evening. The book stands up to a second reading, though this time I noticed that I was much more interested in Ghosh's use of science and religion -- the dolphins and Bon Bibi -- than I was in the lives and loves of the main characters. No complaints on that, though: I am in very good shape if I find myself at a cocktail party talking to a Cetologist anytime soon.

Last week, with great difficulty, I worked my way through William E. Connelly's Why I Am Not A Secularist, a book I should have read two years ago. (I tried earlier, but I couldn't follow the argument.) He makes some really good points, even if I ultimately disagree with him (and Talal Asad). I may do a blog post on this at some point to spell out what I mean a bit more.

4. Five Books That Mean A Lot To Me

I'm going to limit this to "five books that were important to me when I was in college." Otherwise, readers are likely to be treated to a long list of obscure works of literary criticism. (I'll save that list for "Book Meme: Pedantry Edition," which will undoubtedly be going around next month)

A. Midnight's Children was the inspiration for my undergraduate thesis (on Salman Rushdie). Though it wasn't assigned to me it was the experience of developing a comprehensive argument about this book that gave me the confidence to try for graduate school in literature. Else, I would have ended up in grad school in biology, or law school, or writing computer software... Daaamn youuuuu Ruuuuuuuuuushdiiiiiie!!! [in my best Charlton Heston voice]

B. Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse I got my first "A+" at Cornell for a paper I wrote on this novel. I subsequently lost the paper, but Woolf made so much sense to me that I had this novel more or less in ready memory for many years. It was still pretty much fresh when I read it again to teach during my first semester as a professor. When I first read it, the book opened up a world. The second time was quite different: it was my feeling of loyalty to Woolf's philosophical framework that inspired me to get my act together as a teacher during an otherwise very difficult semester. (9/11 was in the air; I was paranoid and depressed.)

C. Deleuze-Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. It seems strange given that I never talk about Deleuze-Guattari, but the explosive freedom of their theoretical method lit a fire in my brain when I was 19. I think I might summarize it like this: Deleuze and Guattari argue that all established methods for understanding the human role in the material world -- from Descartes to Freud -- are wrong, expressions of a kind of philosophical totalitarianism. What you need is a completely different, rigorously anti-authoritarian basis for knowledge, based on a non-object they call the "body without organs." Deleuze/Guattari are responsible for a slew of theoretical buzzwords that people still play with, such as the "rhizome," the "nomad," "deterritorialization," the "smooth and the striated," and "molar/molecular" [as a political metaphor]. It all sounds cool, until you try and explain any of the terms to someone who is not a "theorist." I now find the "body without organs" to incoherent (or at least, useless), and I believe all of the other Deleuzian terms are expressible in simpler terms.

D. Plato's The Republic. This was an inspiration, but in rather the opposite manner from Anti-Oedipus. I took a course in the Comp. Lit. department on something to do with philosophy and literature. The Professor, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, was an elderly woman of a rather conservative bent, who was often a little frustrated by the small band of political radicals (myself included) that landed up in her class. We wanted to talk about communism, feminism, and Lacanian interpretations of the Allegory of the Cave. She wanted us to interpret the book. Through her demand that we be rigorous, I really learned a fair bit about how to read Plato.

E. Octavia Butler's Bloodchild. It's still my favorite work of science fiction. Icky, yes. But brilliant.

Tag Five People And Have Them Do This On Their Blogs.

No, I refuse. But again, if you would like to do one of these, let me know (send me the link), and I will retro-actively tag you.


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