‘What are you reading?’ column

Contributions to the Times Higher Education ‘What are you reading?’ column, in which regular reviewers report on books they are currently interested in …


Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, edited by Scott L. Newstok (Parlor Press, 2007)

9 July 2009

Concentrating mainly on the tragedies, Burke demonstrates how they work as symbolic acts that force us to recognise and reconsider the motives of sacrifice, scapegoating and social hierarchy. For the sheer range of ideas, together with his capacity for audacious insight, he can be matched only by Coleridge. The introduction is one of the best short overviews of his thinking that I’ve read.


The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999)

29 April 2010

I’ve been prompted by the recent death of Thomas Berry, the Christian ecologist who described himself as a ‘geologian’ rather than a theologian, to re-read The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Here he guides us into the ‘Ecozoic Era’, during which we will take our modest and respectful place within the Earth community after centuries of destructive arrogance. The keys to our transformation will be not only imagination but also the rediscovery of ancient and native wisdoms. His chapter on the function of the university should be compulsory reading for vice-chancellors everywhere.


Steven Heine, Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, A Zen Master? (Continuum, 2009)

29 July 2010

Heine’s central idea is that for most of his career, Dylan has oscillated between two radically different world views: one based on duality, the other on non-duality. The latter is reminiscent of Zen – hence the subtitle – but Heine doesn’t want to leave things there. He demonstrates that in his more recent work, Dylan has found a ‘middle way’ that brings him closer to Zen than ever. This book could have been reductive, but I’m pleased to report that it is genuinely enlightening.


Rosaleen Duffy, Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong (Yale University Press, 2010)

4 November 2010

This is not an easy read. I don’t mean it’s difficult to follow the argument; I mean the argument is deeply disturbing. Attempts to deal with wildlife extinction by focusing on poachers and small traders are doomed, says Duffy, because the problem is Western consumerism. And it’s no use trying to salve our consciences with eco-tourism: that’s part of the problem, too. Everyone who cares about conservation should read this to discover an alternative model.


John Parham, Green Man Hopkins: Poetry and the Victorian Ecological Imagination (Rodopi, 2010)

23 December 2010

Amazingly, this is the first sustained study of Hopkins’ work from an eco-critical perspective. Parham’s general argument is that, if we are to confront the ecological challenge of our own age, we must stop fixating so much on Romantic ecology and start taking into account Victorian ecology, especially the ideas of Ruskin and Morris. He contends that Hopkins’ work is so complex and vital that it comprehends different strains of ecological thought with which we’re still coming to terms. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


David Ingram, The Jukebox in the Garden: Ecocriticism and American Popular Music Since 1960 (Rodopi, 2010)

17 March 2011

Leo Marx, in The Machine in the Garden distinguished between ‘popular and sentimental’ pastoral on the one hand, and the ‘imaginative and complex’ pastoral on the other. Ingram queries this distinction, and is certainly loath to make it within ‘pop’ itself. For instance, he refuses to dismiss the apparently naïve nostalgia for a rural past which informs the harmonies of folk, of country and of country rock, even while drawing our attention to the more discordant, and potentially more ecologically challenging, sounds of avant-garde dystopian rock, of indie music and of hip-hop. This book works both as survey and speculation. As such, it invites us to rethink music that is all too often taken for granted.


Patrick Curry, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction (Polity, 2011)

25 August 2011

This significantly expanded second edition is more helpful than ever. It demonstrates that without addressing the question of human overpopulation, without educating ourselves in traditional ecological wisdom and without developing a ‘post-secular’ spirituality, we’re likely to produce only more and more hot air (pun intended). Ultimately, it all comes down to whether we accept the intrinsic worth of non-human nature, and how we need to behave once we do. Indispensable.


Faye Hammill, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2010)

29 September 2011

From Jane Austen to Sofia Coppola, Hammill traces the shifting meanings of an elusive quality. I’ve been impressed by her astute discussion of the paradoxes involved in the attempt to live artfully, not least the way artifice implies authenticity and vice versa. Relating her theme to topics as various as sensibility, pastoral, nostalgia, decadence, glamour and camp, she has made me realise just what an unsophisticated notion of ‘sophistication’ I had.


Ecocritical Theory: New European Approaches, edited by Axel Goodbody and Kate Rigby (University of Virginia Press, 2011)

24 Nov 2011

Ecocriticism is often regarded as something that Americans do best. But in Europe, ‘green studies’ is becoming much more confident, and conscious of its rich tradition. This useful and significant volume reminds us how much we still have to learn from European Romanticism: a point made by Kate Soper with her usual clarity. It also makes some fascinating connections: for instance, between Blake and Deleuze, and between D.H. Lawrence and Heidegger. With material both by and on Irigaray, plus musings on Bakhtin, we have here a useful and significant volume.


David Blakesley, The Elements of Dramatism (Longman, 2002)

26 July 2012

Kenneth Burke is the only literary theorist I’ve read who has transformed my way of looking at the world. His central theory of ‘dramatism’, which treats language as ‘symbolic action’ and literature as ‘equipment for living’, is presented here in clear prose with a range of thought-provoking examples. I return to this book regularly: it’s the most accessible exposition of Burke’s ‘comic corrective’ to human folly which I know.


Grevel Lindop, A Literary Guide to the Lake District (Sigma, 2005)

9 August 2012

Visiting this area is so much more interesting when you think, for instance, about Coleridge’s moonlight walk over Helvellyn to read Christabel to the Wordsworths at Grasmere … or Dickens and Wilkie Collins’ ascent of Carrock Fell (Collins managing to sprain his ankle) … or Ruskin’s purchase of Brantwood without having seen it because he loved Coniston Water so much. Both erudite and entertaining, poet Grevel Lindop makes an ideal travelling companion.


Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Souvenir Press, 2009)

23 August 2012

I always go back to Watts with a sense of relief, and I always come away with a sense of wonder. Way ahead of his time (the book was first published in 1966), he moves with ease between Eastern religion and Western science in order to convey what it might be like to see through the ‘hallucination’ that one is ‘a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin’. Writing without jargon and wearing his learning very lightly, he is a joy to read.


Susan Rowland, The Ecocritical Psyche: Literature, Evolutionary Complexity and Jung (Routledge, 2012)

20 September 2012

The author contributes to the greening of literary theory by showing how Jung’s ideas can help us celebrate the human imagination as an aspect of the endless creativity of more-than-human nature. Exploring works as diverse as The Tempest, Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden, she reveals how literature may serve to keep us in vital connection with the body and the unconscious, and so with the Earth itself. A fascinating book, it is also beautifully written.


Peter Barry, Literature in Contexts (MUP, 2007)

18 October 2012

The author challenges a prevailing tendency in recent literary theory: to reduce the ‘text’ to a ‘context’ of historical associations which takes one further and further away from the imaginative challenge of the work itself. This ‘contextualism’, by subordinating the intrinsic merit of the text to endlessly extrinsic speculation, ends up missing the point of what is being studied. Barry demonstrates his alternative: to focus on the text, while bringing in contexts which are genuinely literary. A bracing argument, well sustained.


Jeffrey Wainwright, The Reasoner (Carcanet, 2012)

16 May 2013

I’m not one for self-consciously intellectual verse, but this isn’t that. Rooted in the everyday stuff of existence, it’s a series of meditations on the discrepancy between words and world which revitalises our most common clichés and in doing so offers a sustained defamiliarisation of experience. Like King Lear, Wainwright’s ‘reasoner’ is someone driven to take upon himself the mystery of things, and the result is deeply affecting. This is a volume which I’d recommend to the very people who might be put off by its title.


Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method (University of California Press, 1966)

3 October 2013

In these essays, Burke offers his most accessible account of the way human beings use words to cope with situations, and how they so often abuse them in their attempt to subdue nature, to maintain hierarchy and to pursue perfection – with literature usually, but not always, offering the necessary corrective.


John Hughes, Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Ashgate, 2013)

14 November 2013

Hughes rejects the familiar idea of a Dylan who adopts a series of ‘masks’, behind which he hides his true motives. Rather, we are told, the singer enacts a continual sense of indeterminacy and contingency, so that in refusing all identity he challenges our own. His creativity is a form of radical evasion, by which self and substance are deconstructed. In this light, Hughes offers an intriguing account of the key albums of Dylan’s first and most fruitful decade of invention.


Philip D. Beidler, Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the 60s (Georgia UP, 1994)

12 December 2013

I wish I’d discovered this fascinating handbook before I wrote Beat Sound, Beat Vision, my study of the influence of the Beat movement on songwriters of the 1960s. It would have, firstly, assured me that I was on the right track with the Beat connection (there are entries on Kerouac, Ginsberg & co) and, secondly, confirmed my instinct that the ‘counterculture’ owed a great deal to that visionary tradition which, including the Beats, goes back to William Blake.


John Williams, Stoner (Vintage, 2012)

7 March 2014

This novel made little impact when it was first published in 1965, but deservedly it is now a best-seller. Never has the malice, hypocrisy and pettiness of the academic world been more painstakingly delineated; but never has the importance of reading, learning and teaching been more powerfully conveyed. Though many of us find it increasingly hard to function in the current university system, Williams’ celebration of a decent, dedicated lecturer makes it seem worthwhile.


Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

20 March 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poet Edward Thomas lately, trying to come to terms with his subtle, intriguing insight into the relationship between humankind and the natural world. Macfarlane’s book about walking is also a book about Thomas, and it captures his spirit more vividly than a conventional critical study could do. An absorbing meditation on how we make contact with the landscape, it deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s own nature writing, which in turn deserves to be read alongside Thomas’s verse.


Nicholas Royle, First Novel (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

April 2014

Having only just finished reading this book, I feel as though I ought to go back through it to make sure I’ve not missed a trick. This is an absorbing tale which mixes metafiction, mystery and murder. It’s certainly a gripping read, but it also arouses critical curiosity. Though I don’t usually like novels about writing novels, I was hooked by this one.


Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Cornell UP, 1981)

30 October 2014

It’s thirty years since I read this, and if anything it seems more relevant than ever. Berman outlines the ‘disenchantment’ which set in with ‘the Cartesian paradigm’ and which has only deepened since – separating mind from body, humanity from nature, knower from known. We need, he argues, to rediscover the holistic vision of animism, the earliest form of religion. But ‘reenchantment’ cannot be a simple return, and Berman makes a convincing case for ecology as the unifying model for our era.


Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Abacus, 2013)

9 April 2015

Initially put off by the sheer length of this novel, I soon realised that it was going to be as rewarding as my favourite monuments of fiction, whether by Dickens or by Dostoevsky. The title alludes to a 17th-century painting of a beautiful bird chained to its perch: a work of art that dignifies, illuminates and redeems the life of such a fragile, suffering creature. The novel does likewise in recounting the struggle of a contemporary American teenager to survive amid the chaos and cruelty of circumstance. Stunning.


Tim Lott, The Last Summer of the Water Strider (Scribner, 2015)

20 August 2015

Set in the early 1970s, the story concerns a 17-year old, significantly called Adam, who is forced to enter the world of experience when he witnesses his mother’s death. He is then sent to stay with his uncle Henry Templeton – a character whom Lott bases on the self-proclaimed ‘spiritual entertainer’ of the hippie era, Alan Watts. Despite being deeply flawed, Henry helps Adam awaken to a whole new way of seeing the world. An absorbing and atmospheric read.


David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

27 August 2015

This study is unconventional in format, consisting as it does of a vast variety of anecdotes and assessments of the fiction writer J.D. Salinger, most famous for The Catcher in the Rye. About 200 interviews have been conducted, and together they paint a much more complex picture of the man than a conventional biography might manage. His traumatic wartime experiences, his absorption in the philosophy of Vedanta, his unwitting influence on Mark Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon: it’s all here, but with no forced coherence.


Martin Amis, Experience (Jonathan Cape, 2000)

28 January 2016

This unconventional autobiography essentially consists of three alternating narratives. The first is a remarkably good-humoured account of the author’s dental ordeals, which the press took so much pleasure in misreporting. The second concerns his troubled, often embarrassing, relationship with his famous father. The third is a commemoration of the short life of his favourite cousin, who was murdered by the diabolical Fred West. The way that the author moves between these interspersed stories without misjudging the tone is remarkable.