Saturday, December 16, 2006


After all, it is Reading Week (the week for students to cram before exams, but also the week for instructors to grade), so what I've been doing is reading TP's big book. But the other thing I've been doing is indulging my list-o-mania, an irresistible tendency to make lists of things -- usually (as at the right) lists of books to read, tasks to do, but also lists of "best of's" and "favorites."

The list I've been concocting is a sequence of topics I'd like to write on some time. It went from an idea that vague to a much more structured list: it exists now as fifty related topics that span my intellectual history from grade school to the present. In other words, to paraphrase Wordsworth, it's "the growth of the critic's (or novelist's) mind." I hesitate as to which word to use to designate 'whose' mind is doing the growing. And that's partly the point of the project: in examining these topics, in writing up a mature perspective on them, I shape not only my appreciation of these things but also reshape or reinvent the mind that these things first appealed to.

What things? An assorted grab-bag, but I had a big breakthrough when I realized that each was an example that fell into one of two big categories: the narrative, and the lyric. Which is to say, we have, in the former, novels, films, and myths, and, in the latter, poetry and songs. That formulation makes it sound as if I'd be dealing only with individual works -- sometimes, but sometimes I would be commenting on several works by an individual writer (whether of novels, poems or songs).

Fifty, and that divides into ten groups of five, and each group of five encapsulates a particular "era" in my growth. So that, for instance, the earliest period (the late '60s), holds 1) my favorite Marvel comics of the era; 2) the Bible stories that I consider most definitive; 3) four albums by The Beatles; 4) the Greek heroes whose stories I read and re-read in grade school; 5) four films of 1966-68 that, in retrospect, help me to establish that era's attitude in popular genres.

The ten groups of five divide neatly at number 25 with my first (and second) start-to-finish encounter with the work that left the most indelible mark on me (because at number 25 we've only reached my 21st year): Ulysses.

So: 25 of the topics cover the first 21 years of life; than another 25 cover the next 26. Not a bad ratio, I guess, given that those first 21 years are the most formative (and that the late '60s/early '70s is my favorite period for music and films). And given the fact that part of the interest of making the list at all is to re-structure those early years and determine what, in fact, was formative. This point might not be of keen interest to the imagined reader (like there would be one besides me!), but I think the topics I write on could be made of interest, even if the principle of selection is entirely idiosyncratic (i.e.: well, it was important to ME!).

Which brings us back to the question of whose growth and why I hesitate: because to some extent I'm choosing as my model the review articles I've written on works of literary criticism, which is to say that there is a critical evaluation taking place, but at the same time what I want to highlight is what can be gained from these works, what it is that they have to say -- and that requires me looking, at least somewhat autobiographically, at what it is they said in the time of my first encounter with them. Perhaps it's best to just say "growth of the writer's mind" -- leaving aside what kind of writing specifically is intended.

But the main thing, friends, is that it's not "growth of the professor's mind" -- the list doesn't offer a syllabus or curriculum, and the vast majority are things I chose to "study" on my own. Better: they're the things that claimed my attention along the way; I'm tantalized by the prospect of giving them critical attention, now, in propria persona, as it were.

List, list, O list! -- the ghost of Hamlet's father

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