Sunday, April 12, 2009

Leonard Barkan's Labyrinth list of books that count

My dear friend and mentor Leonard Barkan is not on FaceBook, and if he were I doubt he would spend time filling out any of the ubiquitous FaceBook quizzes or lists, and I tend not to read those lists when even my dearest friends do fill them out, but anything Leonard has to say about a book is worth reading and repeating.

Leonard teaches comparative literature at Princeton University, directs its Society of Fellows (making him honcho of the smartest of the smart) and is among the most distinguished and accomplished scholars of his generation in any field. He is also very fun to read.

He wrote to me yesterday,

I just had a delightful invitation from Labyrinth Bookstore (a glorious addition to Princeton's very limited urban scene) that I select a few volumes that are particularly important to me, which they will group as a display, along with a couple of my own books and with some brief notes by me about why these books count so much.

My choices were focussed on how much diversity I could display and how many different interests of mine would get touched upon.
So, here's the list, with Leonard's brief notes to me:

* Andre Aciman, Out of Egypt (exemplary memoir; work of a good friend)

* Nicholson Baker, U and I (quirkiest book about literary influence that could possibly be written)

* Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (classic of philology, foundational to my notion of what it means to do literature, philology, and culture)

* Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (the book that made me interdisciplinary)

* Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (needs no explanation)

* Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (because it was my students who turned me on to it: it's a subtle account of word and image, and it's actually in the form of a comic book).

I clearly have some catching up to do.

I own and have cooked from Marcella's book (it must have been a gift from Leonard), and own and have his friend Andre's book (which found a little precious, but it's possible to disagree with your mentors, even about the things they taught you).

Curtius and Wind have appeared on syllabi in courses I took and completed and probably even received good grades in, though I'll admit that is no guarantee that I actually read them. I find in my forties that I am finally settled and mature enough to be the scholar they tried to make me when I was a self-destructive twenty-something. Now, I am ready.

The other two just sound like quirky, silly fun. I probably would have been more ready for them when I was a self-destructive twenty-something. They go on my list, but toward the bottom.

Anyone who edits their own reading list from tips on blogs should Google Barkan and start with one of his books that look good before getting to any of these. I see online bargain copies of one of his books that I edited, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture, which taught me so much about so many things and gave me such pleasure.

Can't go wrong there.


Steve Pick said...

The Scott McCloud isn't silly, actually. It's a fascinating beginning to an aesthetics of comic books and strips. You'll learn a heck of a lot about how comics work differently from any other art form. There's been a lot of great work done by people building on this book, but there hasn't been any that starts from a different foundation, as near as I can tell.

Confluence City said...

Just goes to show, don't judge a book by a blurb in an email!

Bill Yarrow said...

Hi, Leonard!

U and I is a quirky book by Nicholson Baker. Despite it's ostensible subject (Updike and baker), it's really a gloss on Boswell's Life of Johnson. That's the true subtext.

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a wonderful book. I use it in my creative writing and my intro to film classes. An even better book by McCloud is his recent Making Comics.



Bill Yarrow