Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Ward Farnsworth

By posted at 11:00 am on December 14, 2011 1

I have two items to mention.

cover1. I have long enjoyed the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, owner of the most prodigious imagination of the twentieth century. The reader probably is familiar with that body of work; if not, I suggest laying hands on “Funes the Memorious,” or “The Library of Babel,” or any of his other short stories. In the likely event that you find them delightful, you might become interested in spending additional time in the company of Borges to learn what he had to say when he wasn’t writing those remarkable tales. For that purpose I recommend a book that I enjoyed immensely this year and that is a bit less familiar: his Selected Non-Fictions.

The book collects more than 150 essays, biographical sketches, book and movie reviews, and other miscellany that Borges wrote over the course of about sixty years. Every piece is short. The range of his curiosity and knowledge is astounding. There are comments on Virgil, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Melville, Henry James, William James, and dozens of other writers and thinkers, many famous and many obscure. There are his contemporaneous reviews of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and of King Kong and Citizen Kane. He writes about the history of the tango, and about the blindness that overtook him in middle age. There is an essay on the paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, another called “The Art of Verbal Abuse,” and another on sixteenth-century projects of John Wilkins that would be at home in a Borges short story. And on and on; these hints only start to suggest what is here (and what is here is but a sampling of his gigantic output).

Borges is provocative, eccentric, ingenious, peremptory, and often funny. He leaves the impression of having been one of the best-read people ever to walk the earth, with an ability to deploy all that he knew on short notice and with a light touch. I don’t find every one of the entries interesting. Perhaps nobody would. But open to any page and you are in brilliant company, with an excellent chance of being edified and amused.

2.  I’ll bet few readers of this site have heard of John Jay Chapman, let alone read anything by him; in any event, I had not until this year. He deserves better. Chapman was one of the finest American essayists of the early 20th century, and a very singular character; after starting an unjustified fight as a young man, he punished himself by putting his hand into a fire until the skin burned off, forcing its amputation. Fortunately he did his writing with the other hand, and was prolific with it. He wrote with learning, passion, moral energy, and rhetorical skill about all sorts of topics, most related to American political and cultural history. An excellent example is his piece on William Lloyd Garrison, the great anti-slavery agitator. Garrison might sound like a dull subject; I only bothered to read the essay after much badgering by a friend. I’m glad I did, though, because Chapman’s fascination with the man, his work, and his place in history is sufficiently intense to infect the reader from a great distance. Unfortunately most of Chapman’s writings are out of print, but many can be found online. Here is the one I just mentioned.

If I am fortunate enough to count you as a reader of Classical English Rhetoric, you are especially likely to enjoy Chapman’s work. He writes very clearly, but in an older tradition; he makes vigorous and skillful use of figurative language. Chapman merited inclusion in the rhetoric book, and I am sorry not to have provided it. He will certainly appear in any sequel.

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One Response to “A Year in Reading: Ward Farnsworth”

  1. Jim
    at 11:35 am on December 14, 2011

    The New York Review of Books had a piece on Chapman within the past two or thee years that intrigued me–I’ll follow up your suggestion and check out his work.

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