Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two short comedies on knowing oneself and being known by others (Books - The Uncommon Reader & The Laying on of Hands by Alan Bennett)

When Virginia Woolf collected her essays on the uses of reading (the Elizabethans, Montaigne, Austen, etc) in a volume she called The Common Reader in 1925, she commenced
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.  "...I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours."  It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man's approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole - a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing...

Woolf's unassuming introduction to her essays is something of a pretense. Woolf as a woman of her time and of certain means, was meant to occupy herself with her appearance and her household.  She did not attend Cambridge like her brother, but her father's library permitted her to educate herself liberally, and her tongue is fully planted in her cheek in calling her opinions common while, at the same time publishing them. Remember that even in the hallucinations produced by Woolf's mental illness, the birds spoke in Greek.  Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader (Picador, 2007) continues the joke by imagining it's way into the experience of another reader possessed of no ordinary library, whose standing might be described as anything but humble, and whose life is among the least private of any person's on earth.  Yet for all that, she has acquired a habit, perhaps out of professional obligation, of not be too interested in any one thing more than another.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bringing order out of chaos in Wisconsin by way of the Soviet gulag (Books - The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer)

Stuart Rojstaczer is a funny guy.  A joke-telling, Jewish, geophysicist/applied mathematician from Milwaukee, Wisoconsin who has written a debut novel about a Jewish meteorologist of hurricanes from Madison, Wisconsin. Sasha Karnakovitch is mourning his mother, Rachela, a brilliant Russian-Polish mathematician who may have solved one of the great, problems in mathematics, the Navier-Stokes problem, whose solution is worth $1 million. Wait, I'm not done.  The very top mathematicians in the world descend upon the home in Madison to which Rachela emigrated after fleeing  the Soviets, for her shiva, not to mourn and remember her as is usual in the seven-day ritual, but to get into the house so that they may find out if she solved the problem and, if not, perhaps find enough in her notes, to solve it themselves. The Mathematician's Shiva (Penguin, 2014) takes on mathematical concepts, narratives in multiple time periods, death, Jewish culture, broken marriages, and the Soviet gulag and, despite being a first novel, manages levity, charm, and a humanly engaging story. I'm grateful to Penguin for my copy.