Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

I was doing very well at not buying books.

And then the urge struck me.  I bought three books and smuggled them into the house, so as not to be lectured by Himself.

I am not a bookish Puritan, but I felt a bit like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, only with a scarlet “B” for “bookish.”

But really I enjoy books too much to wear the “B.”

Here’s what tempted me:

 John Crowley’s Ka.  Crowley’s books are fantasy/literary fiction, loved by critics Harold Bloom and Michael Dirda as well as by fans of brilliant, entertaining novels.  He has won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the World Fantasy Award.

I have just begun his new novel, Ka.  It is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, who is our guide through 2000 years of history.  If you loved Watership Down, you’ll find Dar’s account of crow life fascinating, and a bit  post-modern.

Here is a passage from Elizabeth Hand’s review in the L.A. Times.

So yes: John Crowley is a writer’s writer, the rare stylist whose stories can feature both downtown New York City bars and 16th century cosmologist and martyr for science Giordano Bruno. Yet Crowley is also a serious reader’s writer. As with Middle Earth, his imaginary worlds so enchant and entice that many fans read and reread his books obsessively, the closest we can come to inhabiting them. But, unlike Tolkien’s legendarium, most of Crowley’s fiction is resolutely set in our own world. Even those works that venture onto other planets maintain quicksilver ties to this one. Decades before George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Crowley’s first novel, “The Deep” (1975), recounted an ancient, seemingly endless conflict that evokes the War of the Roses and its precursors. In his second novel, 1976’s “Beasts,” humans and genetically engineered sentient animals make their way across a near-future U.S. devastated by civil wars and a totalitarian government.

Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by David Ferry.  Ferry, a National Book Award winner, is one of my favorite American poets.  He is also a brilliant Latinist who knows his Virgil:  his translations of the Eclogues and the Georgics are lovely.

I reread the Aeneid every year in LatinSo why buy Ferry’s translation?  His style is brilliant, and I am anxious to see how he handles problems in translation.

As I grow older I appreciate the Aeneid more and more, particularly Virgil’s brave characterization of the first weak hero.  (I am calling it the first, but I should say my first.)  I first taught the Aeneid as a T.A. many years ago, and many, many times later as a prep-school Latin teacher.

I’ve been thinking about Latin descriptions of passion.  Virgil often uses the words amens (pronounced ah-mens, and literally meaning “out of one’s mind”).  In Book II, during the fall of Troy, Aeneas is amens  when he loses his wife Creusa as they are running away during the fall of Troy.  Ferry translates it “in my frenzy.” (And that is an excellent, popular translation.)  But I keep visualizing the more pictorial amens   (“a” means “away from” and mens “mind”):  a diagram of  a man outside his mind.  Later, in Book IV, Dido, the queen of Carthage, is amens when she falls madly in love with Aeneas.  So perhaps Aeneas was only really passionate about Creusa?  Poor Aeneas.

Sara Maitland’s Three Times Three.  In Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, he mentions  Sara Maitland.   Three Times Three was one of my favorite novels of the ’90s.  I ordered a cheap copy online, and it arrived today.  I can’t wait to reread it!



18 thoughts on “Three New Books & The Scarlet Letter: “B” Is for Bookish

  1. The Scarlet Ketter was one of my O level texts. I remeber not one single word of it, nor fact about it, which tells you all you need to know about the way I was taught literature. The wonder is that I still read at all. However, reader though I am, I have never read anything by John Crowley. He sounds interesting. Is there a good place to start?


    • Oh, I love Crowley! I especially love his “Aegypt” cycle quartet, which I got hooked on after I read a review of it in the Washington Post, but he has even written a novel about an imaginary novel written by Byron!


  2. I’m not sure I agree that you can buy more books than you need but I’ve found that I lately have bought more books than I’ve read. Now suffering through a temporary book buying pause until I have read as many of my unread books as I’ve bough this year. It’s doing wonders with my TBR-pile and with only six to go I should be finished in time to buy myself some christmas books (if not I’ll probably cheat).


  3. Yes two months ago now — or maybe slightly more — when I started my “Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as biographers” project (I’ve agreed to write a section of a paper to be called the Modernist Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson” ( or some such title), I’ve had a bad spree of beautiful books by and on Woolf and also a couple on Johnson — I already have a good library of Samuel Johnson. Now I have a book on him as a disabled man. He was, and it’s very good.


  4. A lovely friend just sent me three books – we’ve been swapping BookCrossing books for probably a decade and I had a parcel come with two running books and a travel one, hooray! Then I picked up another one when a friend and I were re-stocking our BookCrossing shelf … but, there are worse addictions to have, indeed!


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