Alexander Crompton

📚 23 - March

Meta-reflection: writing this blog has demonstrated to me how subjective my engagement with books is. In academic seminars you're reminded to "stick to the text;" that is, don't launch into a tenuously-related line of thought while discussing a passage. But this sort of tenuously-related line of thought seems to constitute much of what I write here. Rigor is elsewhere. Sometimes I "miss the point," misrepresent what I've read, or treat a text unfairly. In this sense it's indeed more a reading blog than a book blog.

That's fine. But something is missing. I'd like to pay better attention.

Coetzee, J.M. (1990). Age of Iron.

Love Coetzee, loved this novel. Age of Iron is similar to Foe and Disgrace in certain ways. Interesting to see Coetzee circle the same themes, plot elements, and moral concerns, the largest of which being the violence of and resulting from racism and apartheid in South Africa.

I love Coetzee's prose; on that level he might be my favorite writer. But what makes his prose great is that its brilliance accretes well beyond the sentence-level. Have more to say, but need to wrap up now.

Stevenson, Robert Lewis (1886). Kidnapped.

I've been reading children's books here and there lately. This one is the most childish and least literary yet. A straight-forward adventure book that... isn't very heavy on the adventure. Excellent descriptions of human privation—poor David goes through the wringer his entire journey with hunger, heat, cold, wet, sickness, exhaustion. I just wanted more plot! More thrills!

It might be that I've been spoiled rotten by a lifetime of engaging adventure texts (film, novels, images) which directly or indirectly owe a debt to books like this one. Maybe chasing the same old high is hard when so many of the genre's elements—the twists and turns that make it thrilling—have been mulched up and reprocessed endlessly, cheaply, in the past couple hundred years. Reading (certain texts) almost seems an exercise in symbol-manipulation, like that of BookTok influencers who speak about novels in terms of their "tropes." Texts—experience—picked dry like a drumstick. Maybe we can use AI to generate a supreme adventure novel, using all the purest scenarios, which renders all subsequent adventure novels unreadable.

Though maybe, beyond that, I might have not given the book the attention and engagement it would have received historically (or from its intended audience, a child. The world gets older, but I'm getting older... too...).

Related anecdote: I read Robinson Crusoe while traveling alone (no phone) in the Balkans. I found the book enthralling and moving; it was a deeply enjoyable reading experience. I had nothing else going on in my life. A year or so later, back on campus, I was assigned the book for a lit class, and I found it unbearably boring. I couldn't even finish a reread because I kept falling asleep. So what changed? Not the text itself.

One chapter in Kidnapped stood out: the quarrel between David and Alan. David's aggrieved silent treatment and passive-aggression, Alan's swinging between contrition and irritated antagonism. I've had quarrels just like that, and know them inside and out—and yet I feel like I got something new from this description.

Also, the one most thrilling part for me: David is sent by his nasty uncle Ebenezer to climb the spiral staircase of a tower. While he ascends in the darkness, a lightning flash reveals that the steps are in ruins and he's one misstep from falling to his doom!! Thrilling! I guess that nerve isn't dead quite yet!

Weil, Simone (1942). Pensées sans ordre concernant l'amour de Dieu et autres textes. [Thoughts without order concerning the love of God and other texts]

I've resolved lately to read more books that might be called "mystical" or "spiritual," because I feel that something is "missing" in my "life." (Friends ask, "What sort of something?" but——oh!——words fail——!)

I had trouble following the book. My French (once more or less fluent) is rusty. Though I understood every word and every sentence, something halting/blocky in the reading experience made synthesizing the text difficult. I also read it on a, finally, exhausting train ride, by the end with the attitude "I'm finishing this book today if it kills me."

I didn't find in (my reduced experience of reading) the text much of anything I was looking for. Weil fascinates me, and I feel there is a great deal of wisdom she had, but this text was very focused on dissatisfaction, suffering, malheur—something beyond suffering, so awful that it diminishes your humanity. This style of ascetic spirituality me laisse de glace. I feel, vaguely, that what I'm searching for has more to do somehow with perception and time. I honestly don't think that enduring malheur (or suffering of any kind beyond the workaday body-having/mind-having variety) will bring me closer to that. Who knows though! It seems people turn to this type of spirituality as they approach death.

The big lesson from this book for me is that I need to pay better attention. I didn't at all give this book the attention it deserves. (Which is ironic, because Weil herself writes of attention as a form of loving God.) I sense that this failure of attention is part of what's keeping me from that "something," in addition to limiting other aspects of my life.