What is life, in fact, but a (dis?)organised digression? In answer to your question, I’m reading/recently read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) – a novel with a title that makes it sound like it’s an essay, right? As you probs know, the book is based on my literary boyfriend’s best work Howards End (1910), and it was, frankly, a joyful read. Both that novel, and its antecedent, feel like the perfect anodyne for these divisive times where two very different worlds are forced (imperfectly and with difficulty) to connect. Smith has moved the action, broadly, to a campus of a US university in which the two contrasting worlds are headed (ish) by the liberal professor Howard Belsey, and on the other side a cultural conservative critic Monty Belsey (a kind of Clarence Thomas/Roger Scruton figure).
It, alongside your current predilection for non-fiction, made me think of a long distant time (maybe three years ago, alas when I was young, alas) in the run up to my MA when I was (do you detect here the tell-tale shimmer of a flashback?: there I am, rifling through various tomes on the third floor of the Warwick University Library, comparing the classmarks on the spines to those scrawled on a scrap of paper) thinking about the possibility of what seemed (in my view at that time) to have fallen away in the academy: a liberal criticism in the tradition of Arnold, Mill, Trilling, of Forster himself (I imagine it would have drawn on figures like Dewey, Rorty, Nussbaum also). I was interested in a criticism that didn’t clatter and clank with jargon (though wasn’t anti-intellectual), was deeply felt and thought, that was aware of the beautiful, and of a public beyond simply others working in literature departments, and the promotion of reading more generally. It would have the joyful enthusiasm of Marshall Berman’s work. It would have been imaginative (I have almost always preferred the writing of novelists on other novelists). It would definitely have been mindful of the penultimate sentence of the introduction to Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950): ‘The job of criticism would seem to be then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.’
Now, don’t ask me what all that looks like in practice. My life digressed into other things, or that was a digression from those other things, and I returned unto those things. All I write about this is tentative as a) it was wrested and rescued through the flicker and shimmer of a flashback heat haze, b) my past self, as much as my current self, was a moron, c) tentativeness is a good disguise for vagueness.
P.S.Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is great.
P.P.S.What does keeping a reading diary strictly involve? Or what is your approach to it?