Every week I shop the new-book shelf at the library, almost always finding half a dozen books that interest me. Occasionally, I make myself branch out from my preferred mystery-as-escape selections. I start at the biography section and I check to see if there is new poetry. This week I found a biography of Sylvia Plath, American Isis, which a friend had recommended, so that went into the bag, along with a memoir by Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds, his insider account of the luxury hotel business. Add a memoir by a Kenyan writer, a book about water shortage and misuse, a Sidney Sheldon novel that proved to be too gory for my taste, and a delicious history of cooking utensils by Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork. Just for to avoid an ugly withdrawal, a mystery, Marjorie Eccles’ After Clare.
My random selections most often run about 60/40 worth reading to DNF (did not finish). I like the surprise of discovering a new read. But, ah–you knew there was a but, eh–after reading about Plath’s very purposeful reading habits, I feet a little guilty. Sure, she went to Smith and I didn’t. She did her graduate work at Cambridge and I didn’t. (Of course, she also committed suicide and I . . . well, obviously.) I have known about the books mentioned in that bio, and I now regret my promiscuous reading habits. Then I skimmed materials I’m gathering for teaching a fall semester course on the techniques of contemporary poetry. There, like a jury of my peers, I faced the accusation of having been dissolute in my reading. It’s a long list of poets to master. If I start at the beginning with Caedmon (c. 1000) and read through the English language poets I’ll be brain dead before I finish. Then there are those to read in translation, Akhmatova to Tsvetaeva. Too much, too much, I have to go lie down. With a good book. Or ten.
2 responses to “Reading at Random”
You mention “Plath’s very purposeful reading habits.” Could you possibly expand on what this means in terms of organized intellectual inquiry? I know there are schools (St. John’s College) that have a reading list for each of the four years. In the senior year, the student reads “poems by: Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Valery, Rimbaud.” I can’t find Plath in the very long list. How, in your opinion, does organized reading develop one’s worldview, if, in fact, organized reading has any discernible impact on the reader’s worldview at all?
Each grad school has its own approach to required reading. For me, each semester my prof made a list tailored to what I needed to learn. Plath is probably not going to appear on the major lists, although I think some might wish she were included. Organized reading exposes us to writers we might have not known about or resisted because they were outside our world view or our view of what constitutes “good” writing.
We know we “stand on the shoulders of giants” but it’s vital to know who the giants are. Poets might try reading something by each of the US poets laureate, or (gulp) turn to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. The newer Norton texts are useful. But a caveat: reading one or two poems by anyone is risky. It’s better, says Diane Wakoski, to read at least one small collection before forming an opinion. I don’t think this fully answers your question, but it’s a start.