My Great Weakness

Once in a while, I give in: I buy books. When I do, I limit myself with the following parameters: the book must be either 1) extremely unusual; 2) so long that if I got it from the library I wouldn’t be able to finish it quickly enough; or 3) so meaningful to be that I must own a copy. These are the only reasons I can buy a book. When a book is one or more of these, I usually sell out and buy it from Amazon for $3.99, because I am a broke college graduate. But sometimes, like today, I throw everything to the winds and go to a bookstore. It’s the Harvard Book Store, which very much deserves support, especially now that Barnes & Noble owns the famed Harvard Coop. Anyway, I bought three books, and great was my joy. Firstly, a lovely clean paperback copy of

ImageI plan to read this book for the second time in the near future. I read it first when I was 16 or 17, and I know I’ll get so much more out of it now, especially as a writer. I am looking to learn in particular from Salinger’s creation of character and use of voice. The latter should be especially helpful–I find it challenging to write in a strong first-person voice, maybe because I don’t have a confident writing voice that I can call uniquely my own. Anyway, it feels terrific to possess my very own copy of this swell piece of literature. I am actually about to begin salivating.

Here’s my second find:

ImageI cannot really express to you how excited I am to read this book. I am a pretty intense aficionado of the James family. I adore Henry James’s novels; I am fascinated by William James (as a closet psychology student, of course his work is of interest to me); and I was very impressed with and intrigued by Alice James’s diary. I am of the opinion that she could have been a great novelist if she had been allowed to live the full, robust life she had burning inside her. As a woman who is also burning, I feel a strong connection to this spirit. For an example of her skill with words, observe the following passage, written while she was an invalid in England:

What a tide of homesickness swept me under for a moment! What a longing to see a shaft of sunshine shimmering thro’ the pines, breathe in the resinous air and throw my withered body down upon my mother earth, bury my face in the coarse grass, worshiping all that the ugly, raw emptiness of the blessed land stands for—the embodiment of a Huge Chance for hemmed in Humanity!

Anyway, I can’t wait to get to Fisher’s book on the James family. I feel a weird affection for the whole strange, brilliant, incestuously-inclined bunch of them. (Even Henry had feelings for William. What a fox he must have been.)

And here’s my third find:

ImageThis is the kind of book I get very, very excited about. I especially look forward to reading it in conjunction with the following books:


Currently I’m reading The Emperor of the United States of America and Other Magnificent British Eccentrics, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Christopher Isherwood Diaries, The Novel and the Modern World, The Intimate Journal of George Sand, Whitman: Poetry and Prose, Wuthering Heights and How To Read & Why by Harold Bloom. Then I might read Listening to Prozac and Against Depression. I suspect I may well lose interest. After that I have to read 25 books for writing research, and I have three books by friends that I want to or feel that I should read soon because, well, they’re by friends:


Brooke Allen is one of my favorite professors that I had at Bennington; Jana Laiz is a friend of one of my closest friends; and Mr. Read (author of the book Alive) is my father’s cousin. In Spring 2011, when I was traveling around England, stayed at his daughter’s flat in London while she was away, and often had tea with him and his wife, a member of the Boothby Baronetcy. It was slightly intimidating, as they’re very “posh” people, and I’m not, but they were very welcoming to me, although that might have just been their exquisite manners. Read’s father was the anarchist, poet, and critic Herbert Read. Read Sr. was quite good friends with Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and others. This connection is my only one to famous writers–there’s a wonderful story about the time that my grandfather Francis Judd Cooke and grandmother MayMay were visiting Herbert and his wife (who was MayMay’s sister) in London, and they all had tea with T.S. Eliot. Apparently Eliot was a great trickster, and gave them chocolates filled with sawdust. My grandmother MayMay was so angry that she jumped up and crammed one in Eliot’s mouth, causing him to cry out, “Mind my false tuskers!” (That’s false teeth.) Definitely the best story about my family.

I’m especially excited to read Brooke’s book–in it, she argues that the founding fathers built this country much more on the ideals of the Enlightenment than on Christianity, as many (most notably the Tea Party) suggest.

I also intend re-read A Passage To India, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, and The Portrait of a Lady, which are five of my top ten favorite novels. I read Passage when I was much too young (mid-teens) and immature as a student of literature to get much out of it. I read Jane Eyre in a wonderful class that I took with Professor Marguerite Feitlowitz called “Recreating the Classics.” We read several classic works of literature, each followed by a more recent work that built off the original. For example, Antigone followed by Antigona Furiosa, The Tempest followed by The Sea and the Mirror, and Jane Eyre followed by Wide Sargasso Sea. I originally read The Portrait of a Lady in a class I took at Bennington with the inimitable Rebecca Godwin on James and Wharton, and to this day it remains easily my favorite of Henry James’s novels. And I first read Huckleberry Finn in a class called American Literature to 1900, which I took while studying abroad at the University of Lancaster in England.

Also on my list is Beyond Geography by Frederick Turner, which is about “the American spirit against the wilderness” and The Will To Believe by William James–his classic essay on religion, and seemingly right up my alley, as a closet theology and psychology student. And this recent book that I saw in the Harvard Coop:




It is truly a sad thing that I am one of the slowest readers ever to walk this earth. I want to be reading all of these, now. The Pillars of the Earth was passionately recommended to me, and furthermore, I am a nonbeliever who feels a profoundly emotional and in fact spiritual connection to cathedrals. When I was studying abroad in England in the spring of 2011, I took the month of April to travel around the country and visit as many as I could: Gloucester, Tewkesbury Abbey, Bath Abbey, Glastonbury Abbey, Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, Bristol, Southwark Cathedral in London, Canterbury, Ely (my favorite), Peterborough, and Durham. It’s hard to put into words the pure, blissful happiness of that month. Maybe I’ll try to do it in a different entry. Anyway, I am a big, big fan of cathedrals. I am also a big fan of thinking about thinking, and I’m very interested in the way that psychology affects society, so I think I’ll find McGilchrist’s book a fascinating read. Betrayal was recommended to me by Professor Feitlowitz when I thought I was going to India (which I shall, probably within the next 10 years. As I mentioned, I’m currently reading Bloom’s How to Read and Why, and it’s quite a good read. I saw The Anatomy of Influence in the Coop, and as soon as I read the subtitle, I thought, Yes, please. Literature is my way of life.

As for The Vehement Passions, I don’t know what to say about this. I was lucky enough to attend three literature classes at Harvard, in which Professor Fisher lectured the class on Swann’s Way. It was…well, I really can’t think of enough positive adjectives to describe it. It was by far the most brilliant lecturing I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness. Fisher himself is a keenly passionate man, with obviously one of the finest literary minds I’ve ever been lucky enough to be in a room with. His lecturing was absolutely, perfectly, scintillatingly clear. He made interesting, sophisticated points while never for an instant confusing or losing me in anyway. I left his class feeling exhilarated, filled with life, curiosity, and a truly buoyant, burning desire to engage further with literature. I  felt that he showed me the world of just how exciting and gorgeously moving literature can be, if we dare to open ourselves fully to it and relentlessly search to find within it everything it has to offer.

As one review describes it, “In The Vehement Passions Philip Fisher sets out to show that the passions play an imperative role in providing us with certain valuable information about the world. For this reason Fisher is throughout his book critical of philosophers and other thinkers (from the Stoics onwards) who assert that the passions (like bodily diseases) are best rid off, and therefore primarily a matter for therapeutic intervention.” As a passionate person who believes in the passions, and finds them sadly lacking in American society today, I am eager to read Fisher’s thoughts on the matter.


About Kestrel Slocombe

I like writing, meditation, art, reading, riding horses, playing guitar, watching trees in the wind, ferns, the smell of woodsmoke, Mozart and Bach, long walks in the wilderness, and the sound of the cello.
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1 Response to My Great Weakness

  1. Lois says:

    I recently reread “Catcher..” with my book group. I was so disappointed! I had read it before when I was young, maybe it is a young person’s book, but I found it dated and I couldn’t engage with Holden at all… everyone else in the group enjoyed it though! Interesting post, I just need to reread it as there is so much there!


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