I’ve been reading a book, Carol Berkin’s First Generations: Women In Colonial America.

The title gives away the subject matter pretty well. It’s a synthesis of different approaches in research to the study of women in the American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The subject matter is endlessly fascinating to me. There are chapters that address the regional differences that had an effect on women’s lives as well as chapters about race and class. It is really striking to me just how important property and inheritance laws are in determining how a culture thinks of women.

Two chapters in particular have been phenomenal; I especially enjoyed reading the chapter about English immigrants to the Chesapeake Bay in the 17th century and the chapter that focused on the experiences of Native American women throughout the Colonial period.

As I’ve been reading the book, however, I’ve noticed my critical thinking skills kicking in, and I’ve found myself analyzing the structure of the author’s writing. It’s so transparently Academic Writing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but on numerous occasions I have found myself questioning the author’s argument because I recognize the way it is constructed. I have written arguments like that myself, usually late at night, just hours before a paper is due. I have also noticed what seem to be holes in the research that the author has attempted, for whatever reason, to neatly patch over. I have done that too. Maybe I didn’t have enough time to do the research, or there weren’t enough sources to make a solid conclusion, but I wanted to keep the content. Some chapters read like stand-alone academic papers. I know that many books get their start as a great doctoral dissertation or Master’s thesis, when the writer is encouraged to flesh out the topic. If that were the case with this book, I think I might have identified which chapter was its genesis.

I’ve also been wondering if my analytic activity while reading the book interferes with my enjoyment of it. Just because I know what the author’s doing, does that make it a bad book? I’m relieved to decide that no, it doesn’t, not for me. She’s good at it, this style of writing. And maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve read a book like this, I forgot that I actually think about them when I’m reading. It’s part of engaging with the book, right? Maybe it also means that I know how to write things like this, that’s why I recognize it.

In a different telling of my life I would have gotten a PhD and been a real fancypants academic, but I didn’t figure out in time what topics I needed to explore, nor did I have the confidence to believe that my PhD would be worth something. Oh well. The real telling of my life is going its own way, and that’s just fine.

a weekend of reading

July 24, 2006

I have been feverishly consuming text all weekend.

First it began with Yannick Murphy’s Here They Come, which I selected from the new books shelf at Chapel Hill Public Library because the cover was pretty and it was a McSweeney’s book. I enjoyed reading it but it is the kind of book that, when you only have twenty pages remaining you realize that indeed, nothing is going to happen. I prefer my novels with neat and clever plots.

Then I spent all day Sunday devouring Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, taking breaks for assorted weekened activities, like attempting to track down some curing salt for Sean’s new I-want-to-cure-my-own-bacon project, coloring with Matilda, and brushing Tallulah’s doll’s hair. This book has been recommended to me by a number of people, and I’m so glad I took those recommendations to heart, because it was such a joy to read a book like this. I completed reading everything in the book but the Johnny Truant narrative, which I will read later this week. All afternoon I flipped through the pages quickly, wide-eyed, being truly taken in to the story. I was so chuffed by the way the book was designed, that the very act of reading was so important to the story. I first realized how cool this was (I’d thought it might be kind of gimmicky so was pleasantly surprised by how it wasn’t) when I couldn’t find a footnote – the number was there next to a passage, and I looked on the bottom of the page, in other footnotes, on other pages, in other bits of text all over the place and I couldn’t find it. I was lost, just as the characters in the book realized the truly horrifying labyrinthine nature of the house. It was incredible. I keep having to restrain myself this morning from Googling commentary on the book; I need to wait to finish the Johnny Truant narrative first. But I am so curious! What is Redwood? What’s with the Ash Tree Lane/Yggdrasil thing? Why is Chad such a creepy little kid? etc.

Finally, I slipped a book that Roman sent me for my birthday, Joan Didion’s collection of essays, The White Album, into my bag this morning and read the first ten pages on the bus. Her writing is perfectly exactly clear yet clever, I was reading it and thinking, “OH yes! This is exactly what I want from a writer!” I had to force myself to put the book away when I got off the bus, as walking through campus with my nose in a book can be dangerous. But this! This is what I mean: By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.

It makes me happy to know that I have wonderful things to read waiting for me – Johnny Truant at home, Joan Didion in my bag.

this year’s books

July 12, 2006

Five years ago my aunt brought back from Venice a wee blank book for me, and ever since then I have been using the book to list all of the books that I complete. And so these are the books I have finished reading in the last twelve months:

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
3. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
4. Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison
5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
6. The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
7. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
8. A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce
9. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
10. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
11. Lessons In Taxidermy by Bee Lavender
12. Ice Haven by Dan Clowes (yeah, I count graphic novels)
13. Julie and Julia : 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen : How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job and Her Sanity To Master the Art Of Living by Julie Powell
14. Feet On the Street : Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount, Jr.
15. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
16. Speaking With the Angel edited by Nick Hornby
17. A Year In the Merde by Stephen Clarke
18. Time’s Magpie : A Walk In Prague by Myla Goldberg
19. Unruly Women : The Politics Of Social and Sexual Control In the Old South by Victoria E. Bynum
20. The Woman With the Alabastar Jar : Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird
21. Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway
22. Pretty Birds by Scott Simon
23. I’m Not the New Me by Wendy McClure
24. Belle and Sebastian : Just A Modern Rock Story by Paul Whitelaw
25. 1491 : New Revelations Of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
26. Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
27. The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
28. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by Bryan Lee O’Malley
29. Baudolino by Umberto Eco
30. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
31. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan