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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Great Teachers, Great Books, Giant Wigs

November 15, 2013 | by


1778 fashion plate of French court dress with wide panniers and artificially enhanced “big hair.” Plate 43 in Galerie des Modes for 1778.

Some years ago, when I was trying to learn Spanish, I bought Borges’s lectures on English literature. As it turned out, these were largely concerned with Old English, so actual Spanish was required to read them and I had to throw in the towel. Now, New Directions has translated the talks as Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. Recorded in 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, this introductory class oozes charm. Quoting from memory, because he’d already lost his sight, and relying on his own translations, Borges ranges from Caedmon’s Hymn to the Victorians. It’s been a long time since I went back to the poems of Rossetti—and longer since I had any urge to reread Beowulf—but Borges is no ordinary teacher, and his old-fashioned taste, for Germanic heroes and doomed love and G. K. Chesterton, is sincere, untroubled, and contagious. —Lorin Stein

It suddenly feels like winter here in New York: we saw the first snowflakes of the season on Tuesday morning. I don’t have a fireplace, but it’s hard to resist the urge to curl up by the heating pipe with a fat, favorite classic. Enter the new Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Vanity Fair, beautifully rendered in pale blue, and scattered with stylized gems in honor of the ambitious Becky Thatcher. I am generally fairly indifferent to what my books look like, but I love this series, which manages to feel both modern and heirloom. As to the novel, it’s just the best; you don’t need to hear that from me. From the opening lines of Thackeray’s preface, “Before the Curtain,” you know you’re in for a treat, whether reading it for the first time or the twentieth. The author subtitled Vanity Fair “A Novel without a Hero,” but though it’s peopled with some of literature’s most memorable characters, it’s true that the real star is a sweeping story that manages to be both tragic and fun. —Sadie O. Stein

On Saturday afternoon, I took the Southeast line from Grand Central Station to Mount Kisco and read a fitting book: the 116-page Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A mélange of sharp realism and muted surrealism, this novella was first published in the 2002 summer issue of The Paris Review; it was released in book form to great acclaim in 2011. Johnson takes us from the turn of the twentieth century through the late 1960s; Robert Grainer is the stoic loner who guides us through both the Idaho Panhandle and industrialization. “Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Among the many wondrous artifacts left by the late poet John Hollander is Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, a 2001 volume of slim dimension and  great poetic wisdom that has traveled with me for the past few days. I have been thinking about poetry’s relation to music, and early on Hollander writes, “It should be remembered that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted … poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from, or residue of, musical form, from which it became divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance.” The book does not linger in sermon though, hastily moving into witty explorations of wide-ranging forms, schemes, and meters. —Adam Winters

The eighteenth-century French court’s rococo hairstyles—if such a word can even be applied to the elaborate confections—are the stuff of legend. Will Bashor’s Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck in that regard: thirty-pound wigs, mouse-infested coiffures, and the occasional miniature naval battle all make appearances. But it is also a scholarly history not merely of the vagaries and politics of Versailles court fashion, but the rise and fall of Léonard Autié, a man of modest background who rose to become hairdresser to the queen, and whose fortunes were inexplicably tied to that of the doomed monarchy. —S.O.S.




  1. Drew | November 16, 2013 at 2:08 am

    “Jorge Luis Borges y sus Ficciones!” replied Eduardo, a Colombian reporter, when I asked him to recommend a book by a Latin American author.

    ‘ Jorge Luis Borges con la edicion de Ficciones,” he continued ” dio un golpe a la Literatura contemporanea: Por primera vez, hispanoamerica conquisto, a travez de su sabiduria, la palabra”

    he then guided me through a labyrinth of meandering cobble stones streets near the Zocalo, in Mexico city, until we reached a Plaza where the “librerias de ocasion” second hand bookstores were located.

    Eduardo dove into the books like digging for mussels in the mud, until he came up with the prize: Aha! he said “aqui esta” and he handed me a ‘Volumen Especial de Ficciones, de Jorge L. Borges.’

    When I read Ficciones, I was on a plane back to the States, and was mesmerized by the stories, which were ‘weird fantasies: “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tetrius’ Borges included some details in the tale, like the mention of Bernard Quaritch, a name only a bibliophile would recognize, to make the fantasy real.

    I have the book in my hand as I write this. It still bears the yellowing stains of tequila I shared with Eduardo ( I still don’t remember how it was that I got on the plane, the next day.)

  2. Jmc | November 16, 2013 at 10:13 am

    “From the opening lines of Trollope’s preface, “Before the Curtain,”….”

    Thackeray, not Trollope.

  3. CYC | November 17, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Rhyme’s Reason was first published in 1981. It was just as wonderful then as it is now.

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