Seven Books Nobody’s Talking About
From the pillow book of Sei Shōnagon to the aphorisms of Chamfort, from a celebration of cricket to a meditation on laundry, a holiday gift list for hard-to-surprise readers.
It’s the end of the year, time for the annual inundation of roundups of the “books everybody is talking about” to help us plot our Christmas shopping. Books do make splendid gifts, but how much better is it to give books that nobody is talking about, that are chosen especially to fit the quirky dispositions of the readers we love? Here’s a small sampling of seven idiosyncratic nonfiction works that might just serve such singular, meaningful purposes.
The Media Age Through a Gimlet Eye
Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow (1943–2006) is an elegant, astonishing polemic that explores the infectious malaise of the television epoch with fierce insight, savage humor, and ruthless focus; it remains relevant—even revelatory — in the era of the internet. As novelist John Irving put it, Trow’s book “is essential reading for anyone interested in the demise, the terminal silliness, of our culture.”
First published as the centerpiece of a special issue of The New Yorker, then issued in book form in 1981, it was reissued sixteen years later with a substantial new introduction by the author elaborating upon the original essay’s wise and withering assessment of television’s baleful power. Although we have progressed into the realm of another electronic kingdom, the book’s insights may be even more pertinent for the digital age.
Trow’s anatomy of American melancholy is cranky, passionate, poignant, knotty, and brilliant: He dissects our public destiny since the 1940s with unrelenting verve, as if he were the ghostwriter for some postmodern revival of the Old Testament books of prophecy. Arguing that television has reduced the wide world to a single scale and frame of reference, and that celebrity and fashion (“the aesthetic of the hit”) have become the only cultural markers, he ponders the inarguable evidence that history has been replaced by demographics as a lens of understanding, diminishing both erudition and sagacity along the way:
In the New History, nothing was judged — only counted. The power of judging was then subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do.
Invoking an extraordinary range of intuitions and references, this small, singular book leads us through “the decline of adulthood” and “the adolescent orthodoxy,” from the World’s Fair of 1964 to the defining force of People magazine to — not last and not least — the faded fortune of the fedora. Everything that passes before Trow’s gaze is illuminated, as the reader’s intelligence and experience will be, by the author’s rage and rue. One can only imagine what he would have made of Facebook.
Sense and Sensibility in Tenth-Century Japan
While Europe still cowered in the shadows of the so-called Dark Ages, a vibrant literary culture flourished at the court of the Japanese emperor in the capital city of Heian-kyo (the urban ancestor of present-day Kyoto). And although Japan had begun a period of isolation that would last nearly a thousand years, the Heian era (784–1185) produced two works that would earn a place among the masterpieces of world literature. While many readers know Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, a classic of Japanese literature, fewer are familiar with its contemporary, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, a work captivatingly original in form and content.
The daughter of a poet, Sei Shōnagon (ca. 966–ca. 1013) was a lady-in-waiting to the empress Sadako in the last decade of the tenth century. During her service she composed the Pillow Book, which remains an unrivaled source of detailed information on Heian court life, filled with descriptions of ceremonies and manners and with caustic judgments of people and pastimes. Yet the lasting appeal of the Pillow Book reaches beyond its historical importance, and modern readers will be rewarded — “entranced” may be a better word — by the book’s revelation of its author’s personality.
Written in 326 short (sometimes very short) chapters, Shōnagon’s testament is a compendium of impressions and anecdotes, character sketches and observations of nature, ruminations and, most intriguing of all, delightfully surprising lists — “Things That Should Be Short,” “Things That One Is in a Hurry to See or Hear,” “People Who Seem to Suffer,” “Things That Seem Better at Night than in the Daytime,” “Things That Recall the Past but Serve No Useful Function.” The author’s brilliant prose style is matched by her considerable poetic gifts, and both are complemented by her penchant for gossip and acerbic remarks. Across the gulf of more than a millennium, her wit remains seductive, and her eloquence holds the reader rapt.
A One-Volume Library of Culture and Melancholy
Although Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) is generally regarded as Italy’s finest poet after Dante, his prose writing has a genius all its own, especially his Operette Morali (“Moral Essays”). These pieces, often composed in dialogue form, are witty, philosophic, and strangely invigorating elaborations of the theme that happiness is impossible anywhere in the universe. Leopardi’s early life was enriched but largely circumscribed by his father’s ten-thousand-volume library, and his cloistered coming-of-age, combined with persistent illness, contributed to a disillusioned maturity. Yet despite his pervasive melancholy, encounters with Leopardi’s work prove a tonic for restive souls; reading it can be like talking to one’s best self, finding solace in the life lessons only solitude has the savvy to admit.
While editions of his canti (“poems”) or his essays might well earn a place on any reader’s list of necessary books, his Zibaldone (literally, “hodgepodge”) is in a class by itself, for this monumental volume of Leopardi’s notebooks is one of the most singular cultural works not only of the nineteenth century, but of all time. Encompassing an extraordinary range of subjects — antiquity, language, history, metaphysics, science, the evolution of human society and institutions, aesthetics, poetry, the passions, theology, and, most tellingly, human nature as reflected in all of these — Zibaldone is like an intellectual scripture filled with learning, rumination, revelation, stories, invocations, ancient wisdom, emerging scientific discoveries, and imaginative epiphanies. It is also characterized, from time to time, with the longueurs of a scriptural testament as well. It grapples with the substance of living and dying and thinking and feeling with a mental facility, analytic precision, and literary felicity that are startling and overwhelming but never stray too far from this remarkable author’s experience and memory. The more than two thousand closely set pages of the complete English translation are not best tackled from end to end, but open this book anywhere and you’ll encounter wonders.
How to Live Decently
Although steeped in the world of Anthony Trollope, Shirley Robin Letwin’s curious and uncategorizable book, The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, is not a study of the work of that novelist per se. Rather, the vast canvas of Trollope’s novels provides Letwin (1924–1993) with the raw material for what is in actuality a philosophical study, one that blessedly exhibits in abundance a quality absent from most such works: a resonance that rings true with our experience of the world. There is no need to be conversant with Trollope’s fiction to follow Letwin’s thought (although, having followed it, you’re unlikely not to want to sample at least a volume or two). And there is no need to be put off by her subject on grounds of gender: “The most perfect gentleman in Trollope’s novels,” writes Letwin, “is Madame Max Goesler.”
Just as Letwin’s concept of the gentleman includes both women and men, so does it include a wide variety of social and economic stations. Despite the circumscribed subject its title suggests, her book is about the largest themes: how to live decently, how to understand and conduct oneself. Letwin finds embodied in the figure of the gentleman “a radically unfamiliar attitude to our mortal condition and in particular to the nature and significance of individuality.” The morality that results from this attitude, Letwin explains, is “unusually complicated”; it responds flexibly to changing circumstance and is alert to the limits of both knowledge and convention without adopting cynical or relativist beliefs. “For a gentleman, individuality has nothing to do with rejecting all constraints or pursuing ‘self-realization,’” Letwin argues. “In the arts, disciplines, skills, manners, habits, institutions, conventions, traditions, and rules that constitute civilization, men find the limits that can shape their experience. They learn to make distinctions and connexions in what is presented to them and so to make their world meaningful.”
Throughout her book, using examples from Trollope and other novels, Letwin explores themes of character, conduct, integrity, manners, love, virtue, and ambition with a rich concentration of thought and expression (if you take notes, you’ll reach its conclusion with a valuable anthology of epigrams). Side by side with her philosophy, she offers obliquely a brilliant assessment of the genius of the English “society novelists” — Austen, Fielding, Thackeray, Dickens, and Eliot, as well as Trollope — who, as Henry James put it, “know their way about the conscience,” and teach us how to navigate its deepest waters. Her surprising book earns a spot on a shelf just below Montaigne; one might spend a lifetime absorbing its lessons in hopes of inhabiting the “gentleman’s world” that she describes, a world full of nuances “that does not require a choice between rebellion and submission, violence and reason, alienation and unity, struggle and apathy, certainty and nihilism.”
Maxims from Revolutionary France
All of the passions lead to exaggeration. That is why they are passions.
There’s nothing so comforting as a well-turned thought, especially when, like that one, it allows us to view our own foolishness with a cool and sophisticated eye. That’s why aphorisms wear so well: They claim a brief order for the mind that arrives like a moment of physical grace for the clumsy. Reading them, we feel poised for wisdom.
Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort (generally known by just the last of these several names), a French aphorist who was born in 1741 and died in 1794), was a master of the most delicate art of capturing crystalline thoughts in words:
In affairs of importance men show themselves at their best advantage; in small matters they are seen as they are.
Someone said that Providence was the Christian name of chance; a pious soul might say that chance is a familiar name for Providence.
An ultimately rueful revolutionary, Chamfort was a moralist whose irony was finely tuned to the turbulent temper of his times, the foibles of social behavior, and the practical virtues of venerable vices. In Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort, American poet W. S. Merwin has selected, introduced, and artfully translated a feast of Chamfort’s maxims, aphorisms, and anecdotes. His endlessly browsable book provides a fascinating portrait of the age (and of such contemporaries as Voltaire, Laclos, de Sade, and Casanova) as well as a plethora of perfectly pitched bons mots that are a delight to ponder—and, at opportune moments, if you’re quick enough, repeat.
On the Playing Fields of Trinidad
Beyond a Boundary by C. L. R. James (1901–1989) is one of the best and most surprising sports books a reader can discover. Best, because it evokes, with wit and great style, the spell of awe, action, facts, and figures a game can cast over a boyhood, thereby informing a fan’s spirit for a lifetime; surprising because its subject is cricket and its author was a Marxist revolutionary of enormous intellectual sophistication and ardent political convictions, a pioneer of the modern African liberation movement.
C. L. R. James was born in Trinidad and grew up in a house that faced a cricket ground. By standing on a chair and looking out the window, “a small boy . . . could watch practice every afternoon and matches on Saturday.” Which is just what the young James did whenever he wasn’t outside playing cricket and running around himself — or inside reading Vanity Fair (which he did obsessively, beginning at the age of eight, to the point where he knew pages of Thackeray’s famous novel by heart). Although his fascination with cricket lore and his intense extracurricular reading diverted his attention from his studies at the Queen’s Royal College, the government secondary school in which he was enrolled at the age of ten, all three focuses of his formative years — cricket, literature, and Oxbridge-inflected education — infused his mind with the English public school code. Fundamental to this was a sense of sportsmanship and fair play epitomized in the competitive etiquette of the sport he loved. One of the revelations of this book is the way James persuasively suggests that certain elements of the British imperial legacy are the seeds from which his later commitment to social justice grew.
“Cricket is a game of high and difficult technique,” James writes. “If it were not it could not carry the load of social response and implications which it carries.” James deftly traces those implications, engaging serious questions about race, class, and colonialism, and about the political, psychological, and sociological significance of sports in general; yet the book never loses its autobiographical emotion or the transporting charm of the author’s lifelong reverence for the game and the lessons it has to teach. He brilliantly illuminates the dramatic and aesthetic pleasures spectators find upon a playing field, as well as the abilities and inspirations of particular players, from the legendary Victorian W. G. Grace (“the best-known Englishman of his time”) to the members of the triumphant West Indian side, led by Frank Worrell, the first black captain, that bested Australia in the famous Test matches of 1961.
Considering those contests, and Worrell’s teammate, Garfield Sobers, James offers a description an American sportswriter might once have applied to Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio: “Never was such ease and certainty of stroke, such early seeing of the ball and such late, leisured play, such command by a batsman not only of the bowling but of himself. He seemed to be expressing a personal vision.” That’s just what James does in this memorable, singular book, and the force of his vision — alert with political insights and sociological analyses — is all the more powerful because it never precludes a fan’s joy, nor the sharing of it.
The Soul of Laundry
If only our habits were holy, every minute would illuminate our book of hours. And yet, the necessities that nag our days blot the progress of our thoughts and praise; they’re intractable obstacles between the soul and the consolation it always means to seek. But since the spirit, left to its own devices, knows no certainty in its method of sublime pursuit, perhaps we’d serve it better by concentrating on the work at hand, finding in our daily tasks not the definition of our selves but the grace that can reach us through what Kathleen Norris calls “the quotidian mysteries.” I guarantee that her marvelous and surprising book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work,” will be the most life-enhancing essay on household chores you’ll ever read. It’s personal, playful, profound, and provocative.