What I’ve been reading

1. Ulysses and Us: The Art and Everyday Life in Joyce's Masterpiece, by Declan Kiberd.  He argues that Ulysses is a fun book, a popular fiction, and easy to read.  I won't give away my copy to anyone, which you can take as an endorsement.

2. David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries.  The former member of Talking Heads, and compiler of Brazil Classics 1, bicycles through ten cities and reports on them.  Most of the pages have something interesting.

3. Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.  I found this a difficult book to get a grip on.  To my eye, most of the pages were a kind of empty.  Can you explain to me what made this book good?  The first page has a sentence like: "Any sadness I might have felt, any suspicion that happiness or understanding was unattainable, seemed to find ready encouragement in the sodden dark-red brick buildings and low skies tinged orange by the city's streetlights."  That's not, to my ear, an ugly sentence, but what's in it?

4. The Thirty Years' War, by Peter H. Wilson.  I read about one-third of this lengthy and clearly written Belknap Press book.  After a while I realized I was learning what the War wasn't (not the beginning of religious toleration, not the beginning of the modern nation-state, etc.), but not what the War was.  I guess I'll never know.

5. Danube, by Claudio Magris.  Now this is a splendid travel book.

I'm also enjoying A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which has beautiful language and creates its own world; still, I can't find the thread of the plot at p.100.  And the new Pamuk (which I'm still reading, very slowly) remains sublime and it is becoming one of my favorites.


"Ulysses is a fun book, a popular fiction, and easy to read." This is true if you are well read, enjoy reading, have a solid grounding in European literature and history and, let's face it, have a higher than average IQ. Since at a least 98% of people don't meet all 4 of those criteria, walking around saying things like "Ulysses is fun!" is just a guaranteed way to make yourself look like a pompous ass. Joyce clearly had no idea what the Common Man liked if Ulysses was supposed to be for the Common Man. If you're goal is to get a small well-educated literate subset of the population to try the book who might not otherwise, good for you but have more tact. Popular fiction? Popular fiction today means Dan Brown or Left Behind, i.e. an information dump presented in a slapdash and almost illiterate manner with cardboard cutouts in place of character. Ulysses is NOT popular fiction whatever else it may be, and I would be shocked if most undergraduates at an average state college get any enjoyment from reading it.

You won't give away your copy of Ulysses, or of Kiberd?

There is lots of good literature that is fun and easy to read (The Three Musketeers, The Great Gatsby, Emma), but Ulysses is a particularly bad example.

after watching alain in a TED talk and 3 of his bbc documentaries,
i liked him so much i bought 4 of his books:
status anxiety, on love, how proust can change ur life, and consolations of philosophy...
and yes,
most of the pages r kind of empty.
he is a bad writer,
but a great/insightful lecturer.

Perhaps The Thirty Years' War will describe what the war was in the last 2/3rds? If the author does argue a new interpretation of the war, it might make sense to first debunk the traditionally accepted interpretations. At the very least, it creates the case for the need for a new interpretation.

Of course, I haven't seen the book, so I am only speculating, but I think this is a flaw with your system of abandoning books if you're not happy with the beginning. Why do you think the beginning is necessarily representative of the entire book? Because it makes more sense than sampling the middle or end, which would cause you to then read the book out of order?

If you enjoy word-play and stream-of-conscious-
ness, such as some dreams are made of, you can
dip into "Ulysses." But most readers will be
grateful that Joyce used the structure of
Homer's "Odyssey" as the backbone of his book.
One could start with his "Dubliners," move on
to "Portrait of the Artist," and then arrive
at "Ulysses." But one still needs a "scholarly"
guide (Richard Ellmann was one) to negotiate
that difficult sea. Some think Joyce's
later work (and "Finnegan's Wake" goes further
than "Ulysses" in difficulty)a "textbook case
of the declension of talent into absurdity."

How can you like Magris and not like the art of travel? Both are books about moods....

de Botton's writings on architecture are excellent, and his writings on philosophy are fun but without substance. Everything is without substance and not fun.

First of all, I greatly appreciate the book recommendations.
Shouldn't you have a separate page accumulating these? I'd go to it.
I'm often disappointed by typical book review sections, even in good newspapers (eg NyTimes) - they seem to review many books of little interest to me. So keep it up, Tyler.

As to the sentence by de Botton, I thought it captured a certain mood quite well. So, yeah, it did have meaning to me.

Tyler's strategy of skipping the middle of a book is very bad from a Straussian perspective. That's where all the esoteric wisdom is hidden!

de Botton is a very interesting person, but Art of Travel has only two worthwhile sentences -- or maybe three.

de botton is one of my favorite writers. of course i also really enjoy proust, who also writes lots of non-ugly, fluffy sentences. in art of travel i enjoyed de botton's discussion of travel hubs, e.g. airports, and i think of that every time i'm in one, which is especially helpful when i'm annoyed at some unexpected occurrence during my traveling. i also enjoyed the part about traveling around your own room, which, yes, you could get from reading others but i think de botton makes it more accessible, more modern. i think he's good at organizing common thoughts that many people have and making them seem not so out there. he's good at organizing and drawing attention to the beauty the common.

Comments for this post are closed