What We’re Reading

watercolor painting of a shell

John Burke

Since I have been in the process of developing ideas about the representation of the East in western literature, I determined it was time for me to take a close look at Edward Saïd’s Orientalism (1979; rpt. 2004).  It’s a very famous book, I know, but (blush) I never succeeded in finding the time to give it a careful look.  I’m very glad that I finally did.

As I suspected, Saïd’s argument is an incisive deconstruction of western ideas about the East.  But I have reservations about Saïd’s title.  It turns out that his idea of the Orient is almost exclusively about what we would call the Near East.  There are, to be sure, a couple of what might be called perfunctory bows toward India, but virtually total silence when it comes to the very important civilizations in the East or Far East—the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan.  Such cannot be a satisfactory view of the “Orient.”

Saïd’s scope is surprisingly limited in time as well as in space.  His concern, he tells us, is with what he calls “Modern Orientalism;” that is, with how Orientalism developed in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, the key event being Napoleon Bonaparte’s stunning but failed invasion of Egypt in 1798.  Napoleon’s attempt at Egyptian conquest in turn leads to Saïd placing a strong emphasis on French thinking about the Orient (i. e., the Near East) during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It will come as little surprise that on this aspect of Orientalism Saïd is very, very good, and is especially informative for those of us who (intellectually at least)  inhabit the Anglo-American  world.

One unexpected benefit of my reading is that Saïd’s book helped me to understand the significance of a key moment in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in a new and important way.  Those who are familiar with the novel may remember that Mary Shelley’s Creature first comes to learn language (i.e., French) when he overhears Félix de Lacey reading Comte de Volney’s Les Ruines ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires (1791) to his would-be fiancée Safie.  Count Volney’s book, I learned from Saïd, was and is a landmark book in the field of 18th-centurry European Orientalism.  Since western political institutions are supposedly designed to provide justice to all, yet clearly fail to do so, Volney’s book’s thesis is bound to stir up exasperations and ultimately red-hot anger against those political institutions. Count Volney’s book, it turns out, is the source of Victor Frankenstein’s Creature’s rage against the West.

Eric Parker

I am not a jazz aficionado or a fanatic. I only own one or two dozen jazz CDs, but I’m always willing to expand my small collection and limited knowledge. I usually let other people lead me to the jazz and blues artists they love: James Baldwin led to Bessie Smith; Frank O’Hara led to Billie Holiday; Grace Slick led to Miles Davis; Mike Watt led to John Coltrane; and Ken Burns led to the rest. So it’s been a pleasure reading Aaron Gilbreath’s new essay collection, This Is: Essays on Jazz. While the ten essays appeared individually in revered places such as The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and AGNI, the collection itself is self-published and only available on Amazon in eBook form. (I may be able to get you a bootleg PDF.) The reason for the scarcity of this volume is because, as Gilbreath says, “no big commercial publisher would want to put out a short, eclectic assortment of essays about a niche form of music.” In some ways, Gilbreath’s statement fits perfectly into the attraction of the obscure jazz recordings Gilbreath discusses in the opening essay, “Jimmy Smith and the Allure of the Vault,” about Michael Cuscana’s scouring of Blue Note Record’s vault in L.A. Similarly, in the essay, “Koya Abe: Selling Vintage Records in Tokyo,” Gilbreath explores how worldwide jazz collectors descend on Japan to find recordings not available anywhere else and how Japanese collectors used to make week-long trips to the U.S. west coast to find valuable records. While Cuscana’s dive into the Blue Note vault brought to light some great stuff, it also revealed some unremarkable pieces that belong behind the vault doors. Gilbreath’s collection, in contrast, only presents ten classic essays that teach the reader more about jazz musicians, the greats and the forgotten (such as the essay on German pianist Jutta Hipp); about Gilbreath’s search for novelist Haruki Murakami’s defunct jazz club in Tokyo; about the relationship between drugs and creativity; and even how Miles Davis’s music can improve your own writing. Although the eBook is inexpensive ($5.99), it sends the reader to the Internet or record store to discover and purchase more recordings for their own collection.

Wyatt McMurray

I recently picked up a copy of George Oppen’s New Collected Poems (2008), and I’ve found within its pages a poet of microscopic attention—not only to the image but also to the often overlooked connective ligature that orients the image within the syntax of the sentence: words like “the,” “of,” “from,” “which,” “at,” “and.” When I was younger, I remember teachers telling me that this vocabulary is dead language, and should be avoided at all costs. And though Oppen’s consistent use of heavy, Germanic-rooted nouns and verbs—that good old English bread and butter—rarely fails to dazzle, it’s often this other side of the language, the one my high school teachers warned me about, that shines with a strange luminosity in Oppen’s poetry. “What ends / Is that. / Even companionship / Ending,” Oppen writes in “Image of the Engine” from The Materials (1962). That “that” ends suggests an end to clear reference to the object—no ability to say, “look, that!”—but also an end to syntactical “companionship.” As such, the word “That” is no longer able to lead to an action and another linguistic object, eg. “the cat that bites the dog.” And so companionship with things finds its mirror in syntactical companionship. The connective tissue within the sentence mirrors a kind of connective tissue with the world. Oppen’s pretty great. Check him out if you’ve got the time.