Joseph Brodsky’s Reading List for Essential Conversations

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Nobel Prize-winning poet, essayist, and professor Joseph Brodsky

In 1972, poet Joseph Brodsky angered government officials in his native Russia and was expelled from the country.  With the help of fellow poet W.H. Auden, Brodsky settled in the United States, found a position at Yale and taught classes at Mount Holyoke as well.  Later, he accepted professorships at both Cambridge and the University of Michigan.  (Not bad for an autodidact!)

Of the many opinions Brodsky espoused to his students was that they could not carry on intelligent conversations unless they had done fundamental reading in what he considered influential texts. He passed out a list of these works to everyone in his classes.

Monica Partridge, a former student at Mount Holyoke recalls an early class meeting with Brodsky.  On the Brodsky Reading Group blog, Partridge wrote that

“Shortly after the class began, he passed out a handwritten list of books that he said every person should have read in order to have a basic conversation.  At the time I was thinking, ‘Conversation about what?’ I knew I’d never be able to have a conversation with him, because I never thought I’d ever get through the list. Now that I’ve had a little living, I understand what he was talking about. Intelligent conversation is good. In fact, maybe we all need a little more.”

Here are the books or works on that list. I’m proud to say that unless the conversation turns to “Icelandic Sagas” I could pretty well hold my own at a Brodsky cocktail party…

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One Hundred Years: Celebrating Albert Camus

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Today would have been Albert Camus‘s 100th birthday.

I have had a crush on Albert Camus for a long time.  C’mon… he’s hot, rebellious, an intellectual, and like most artists I’m madly in love with, dead… the ultimate unattainable.

Although he is often called an existentialist, Camus rejected that label (“Sartre and I are often surprised to see our names linked,” he once remarked.)  Some critics and readers have instead called him an “absurdist,” which is sometimes thought of as the philosophy of the absurdity of the individual experience. However, Camus rejected this label as well.  Camus’s philosophy is often called the “Paradox of Absurdity“:

The essential paradox arising in Camus’s philosophy concerns his central notion of absurdity. Accepting the Aristotelian idea that philosophy begins in wonder, Camus argues that human beings cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of existence?” Camus, however, denies that there is an answer to this question, and rejects every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate answer. Thus, while accepting that human beings inevitably seek to understand life’s purpose, Camus takes the skeptical position that the natural world, the universe, and the human enterprise remain silent about any such purpose. Since existence itself has no meaning, we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation, then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the consequences arising from this basic paradox.

Camus’s intellect is even more impressive when you know his background. His father  died when he was very little. His mother worked as a washer woman and was deaf.  Mother and son lived in Algiers (the setting of one of my favorite short stories, “The Guest“) where Albert was eventually accepted into the University of Algiers.  His first  and most famous novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) was published in 1942.

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After the Dash: Ten Literary Epitaphs

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It’s Halloween!  In honor of the creepiest of holidays, why not contemplate your own mortality? GOOD TIMES!

Here are ten well-written or interesting conceived final goodbyes from folks (or folks who knew them) who have shuffled off this mortal coil.

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1.  William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
[Gravestone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon]
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE
BLESTE BE Y MAN Y SPARES THES STONES
AND CVRST BE HE THAT MOVES MY BONES

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2.  Edmund Spenser (1510-1596)
Here lyes
(expecting the second Comminge of our Saviour Christ Jesus)
the body of Edmond Spenser, the Prince of Poets in his time;
whose divine spirit needs no other witness
than the works he left behind him.

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Erudite Frights for All Hallow’s Night: Ten Spine-Tingling Lines from Literature

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Here at eNotes, we would NEVER let Halloween pass without a few good scares from the masters of horror!  Let’s all take a break from the tedious terror of government shutdowns and 404 Errors of the new healthcare law and enjoy some scares that are a lot more fun.

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1.  “The shortest horror story:   The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
― Frederic Brown

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2.  “At bottom, you see, we are not Homo sapiens as all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder. What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle. And that is what the Pulse exposed five days ago.” –   from Cell by Stephen King 

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“This Is Not My Hat” Wins the 2013 Caldecott Medal

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A couple of years ago, I was going about my Sunday chores and listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon.  A writer of children’s books myself and a lover of children’s literature in general, my ears always perk up when Daniel Pinkwater comes on the show to discuss a new children’s book.  The one he selected for this program was I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

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I was captivated by the deceptively simple story and delighted in Simon and Pinkwater’s animated reading of the book and their descriptions of Klaussen’s illustrations.  It seemed to me to strike the right balance of humor and a bit of angst, just right for the 4-to-8 year old set.  (You can listen to that broadcast here.)

Of course, I wasn’t alone in my delight. Klaussen’s book went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller, winning a place on its list of “Best Books of 2011, and also nabbing the Theodore Geisel Honor (Dr. Seuss) that same year as well.

This year, Klaussen followed his runaway hit with This Is Not My Hat, and again found popular and critical success, ultimately winning the Caldecott Award, the highest honor for an illustrated children’s book.  In this story, a tiny fish comes upon a round top hat which fits him perfectly…and all will be well, unless the enormous fish to whom it belongs wakes up.

Hats and children’s books have a long history.  Here are some examples which you might also recall fondly:

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