A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of WomanA Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a fantastic piece of philosophy, analysis and policy that ventures to allow women to fully engage with the world. Why wasn’t I ever exposed to this? I was lucky to be introduced to so many classics, but women were almost totally absent from my curriculum, especially when it came to philosophy or politics. Wollstonecraft shows that people were writing, talking and thinking about these important issues 222 years ago. She just blew me away with this piece and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Education is at the forefront of her recommendations, noting that women excel at learning, when they are given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. In her introduction, she attributes one cause of the lack of advanced knowledge and cognitive power in women to “a false system of education gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives” (p. 11).

Wollstonecraft works to deobjectify and humanize women: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists–I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt” (p.13).

She hits the moralists, and this resonates today with calls from the rightwing and evangelicals in the United States: “And will moralists pretend to assert, that this is the condition in which one half of the human race should be encouraged to remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence? Kind instructors! what were we created for? To remain, it may be said, innocent; they mean in a state of childhood” (p. 75).

Let me close with one more quote: “I know that libertines will also exclaim, that woman would be unsexed by acquiring strength of body and mind, and that beauty, soft bewitching beauty! would no longer adorn the daughters of men. I am of a very different opinion for I think, that on the contrary, we should then see dignified beauty, and true grace; to produce which, many powerful physical and moral causes would concur. Not relaxed beauty, it is true, nor the graces of helplessness; but such as appears to make us respect the human body as a majestic pile, fit to receive a noble inhabitant, in the relics of antiquity” (p. 209).

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The Golden Book of Coleridge by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Golden Book of ColeridgeThe Golden Book of Coleridge by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It can be difficult to read the collected works of a poet. It also may do a disservice to the poet if the work was put together after they’ve died. It might not be in the order they want and it will almost always group better works with lesser ones. But I thoroughly enjoyed Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Golden Book of Coleridge, published by Everyman Library (1945). A great introduction by Stopford A. Brooke provides a reverential yet solid introduction to the man and his works.

Frost at Midnight (1798) is beautiful, combining nostalgia and the present, love and an argument for country and nature over city life. It is simply wonderful. The Nightingale (1798) is serenity in writing. The emotional impact of Ode on a Departing Year was powerful for me. Emotion just poured off the page. It even required me to dig up my copy of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, in order to translate the Classical Greek in the introductory quote.

I love the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1817 version in this edition), but I prefer the original from Lyrical Ballads (1798). The one included here uses less archaic language in the body of the poem but includes a gloss that destroys the flow of the story (think footnotes as opposed to endnotes). The story itself is still wonderful, enchanting and frightening, in an early 19th century way.

The Three Graves (1797-1809) was very haunting and faced paced. Like many of his other dark works, Coleridge didn’t finish this piece and I feel sad that there isn’t more of it for me to savor.

In 1816, Coleridge published three poems in a pamphlet, Christabel, Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep. Oh, if only I could have been there when this “hit the stands.” Christabel blew me away. I could see the influence this poem had on later writers, especially J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Edgar Allan Poe. Coleridge evokes a dark and delightful mood. I might like it better than The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and wonder what Christabel would have been like if it had been finished. The Pains of Sleep (1803) was excellent and visceral. Kubla Khan was enjoyable the first time I read it, but upon a second reading, I felt it never opened up fully for me. The memorable first stanza grabs your attention with its rhyme and pacing, but the rest of the unfinished work is slower.

All in all, this was a wonderful collection of Coleridge’s work in an edition I picked up at Red Letter Secondhand Books in Boulder, Colorado.

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Prices of Books by Henry B. Wheatley

Prices of Books (Barnes & Noble Digital Library)Prices of Books by Henry B. Wheatley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a fun piece of book porn from 1898. This wonderful volume covers the rise of the book collector and the prices at which books have sold from the 17th century up until this edition was published. Wheatley chronicles the rise of the great private and public libraries and how they were built and sold. He has lots of anecdotes about sales, the rise of auctions and little tidbits about various famous, infamous or forgotten books. Well worth the time to peruse.

N.B. My edition was actually the Project Gutenberg one.

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Fantasmagoriana (story collection)

Fantasmagoriana: Tales of The DeadFantasmagoriana: Tales of The Dead by A.J. Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was hooked. The second time, I became obsessed. I turned to John Polidori’s The Vampyre. Both of these stories were germinated during a summer stay by Lake Geneva in 1816. Gathered at Lord Byron’s residence, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and Polidori read each other ghost stories to set a mood. These stories were contained in Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German ghost stories. The edition I read was a print-on-demand, English translation of the French version.

Beginning with Johann Musäus’s “The Spectral Barber”, I found it an enjoyable read. Next up was August Apel’s “The Family Portraits”. This excellent tale also included a great way to approach ghost stories. Before a ghost story telling session, one of those present said:

”No one shall search for any explanation, even though it bears the stamp of truth, as explanations would take away all the pleasure from ghost stories” (p. 39)

So very true. This collection continued to get even better with Friedrich Laun’s “The Fated Hour”. I found it a well-told, chilling scare with no simplistic closure at the end. My reading notes say it all, “Well done.”

I wasn’t as excited about the rest of the stories in the collection, which included three more by Laun, add another by Apel. They mostly had simplistic, Hollywood-style trajectories and endings. Although, one story by Heinrich Clauren (“The Gray Room”) was interesting in that it reminded me of Ann Radcliffe’s approach to Gothic, in which the supernatural is always shown to have a rational explanation.

Overall, I’m glad I read this collection and would enjoy being able to see the 1812 French first edition some day.

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Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies: A NovelTwo Serious Ladies: A Novel by Jane Bowles
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to read Jane Bowles, as I’ve read everything her husband Paul Bowles wrote. I almost picked up “My Sister’s Hand in Mine”, her collected works, several times. I finally saw an old edition of her only novel at the Southwark Book Market in London in 2013 and almost bought. This primed me, so that when we were in Boulder in April this year, I bought this new edition from the Boulder Book Store, a fantastic indy bookstore right on Pearl Street. I finally got a chance to read it this weekend.

I was a bit disappointed. I never engaged with the characters. I thought the language was stilted at times and mostly written in Hemingway-esque short, simple sentences, which I don’t like.

But, I did think there were a lot of possibilities, especially with the storyline of Mrs. Copperfield and her husband. In some ways, this reminded me of the story of Kit & Port Moresby from her husband’s first novel, The Sheltering Sky. It explored themes of fear, travel vs. tourism and exploring and expanding boundaries. Jane Bowles novel was published six years before Paul’s, so I wonder if he was influenced by her work and explored some of the same themes in his writing.

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Shelley’s Poetical Works, ed. by Mrs. Shelley

The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe ShelleyThe Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed working through the three volumes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetical works, as edited posthumously by his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This was the second edition, published in 1853. I have a thirst for the Romantic period and Shelley has been called one of the greats. Having read a little bit of William Blake and a great deal of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, I think I’d say Shelley was definitely one of the greater second generation Romantics. I currently prefer first generation poets Coleridge and Blake. When reading Shelley and his contemporaries Keats & Lord Byron, I found it hard to sustain my momentum through several of their works. Perhaps it was just me, and there is certainly a large amount of Shelley’s work that I truly enjoyed. I will surely return to these volumes again and again.

I liked Queen Mab (1813) and was impressed that he wrote it when he was so young. My edition only contained the first two cantos, so I had to read the rest from a Project Gutenberg edition. My edited version was due to self-censorship to avoid prosecution for blasphemous libel for Shelley’s atheistic passages and criticisms of organized religion. The long poem covers many topics, including business greed, religious shams and the guile of kings and leaders. Queen Mab still resonates 201 years later.

Ozymandias (1818) is one of my favorite Shelley pieces and one that I hope someday to commit to memory. It so cleanly, quickly and incisively gets its point across. It conveys how small we are and how fleeting our glory and power are when compared against the expanse of time.

I really enjoyed the Cenci (1819), based on a true story from the end of the 16th century. It was more direct writing and easier to read than Prometheus Unbound (1820) or Hellas (1822). Those two felt unnecessarily complicated and overwritten. The Revolt of Islam (1817) was interesting but what I took most from it was Shelley’s preface where he notes that many writers of his day were writing for contemporary critics, not the ages or freely (1: 67). He said that was the problem of his age, and something I think people still fall prey to today.

The Masque of Anarchy (1819) touches on nonviolent resistance: “With folded arms and steady eyes / And little fear, and less surprise, / Look upon them as they slay, / Till their rage has died away” (stanza 86, 2: 373). Powerful words now, I can’t imagine how new and powerful they were when first published.

To a Skylark (1820) wowed me, especially at the end. I hope, like Shelley, that my writing will one day learn from the skylark:
“Better than all measures
Of delightful sound
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world would listen then,
As I am listening now.” (stanzas XX-XXI; 3: 26)

Adonais (1821) is a beautiful elegy for John Keats, after his tragic death at just 24. Adonais is Shelley at his best. He conveys honor, love and regret on the death of his contemporary. I was touched by his plea: “Awake him not! Surely he takes his fill / Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill” (Stanza 7; 3: 127)

Finally, Shelley and I seem to approach our reading time in similar fashion: “How sweet it is to sit and read the tales / Of mighty poets, and to hear the while / Sweet music, which when the attention fails / Fills the dim pause–“ Fragments (stanza XIV; 3: 244).

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The Iliad by Homer (transl. Edward, 14th Earl of Derby)

The IliadThe Iliad by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my third time reading Homer’s Iliad. I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation in college. In 2008, after reading his rendition of the Odyssey, I turned to Robert Fagles. This time, I read a much older version, done by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby. He published his work in 1864. He was also a UK prime minster, serving three, non-consecutive terms. He studied at Eton and Oxford before venturing into politics. I wish he’d stuck with classics and published an edition of the Odyssey.

I didn’t like the Iliad the first time I read it; however, Derby’s translation blew me away. It read so much faster than Fitzgerald’s, yet kept close to Homer’s original intent, as far as I can tell from reading multiple translations and studying a bit of Homeric Greek. Fitzgerald’s translation was good, but it seemed stilted in its word choice and the pacing stuttered at times. Fagles seemed to write his own interpretation of the story, rather than translate it (like Pope did with his version of the Odyssey).

As an example, see the various sections that describe Achilles’s new shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. It just sounds so much better in this translation than in Fitzgerald’s or Fagles’s versions.

When I read Fagles’s version, I gave the book only two stars. After finishing this one, I gave it five stars. I savored each book (chapter) and truly was sad as I neared the end. I wish the 14th Earl of Derby had translate the Odyssey so I could turn next to that.

For more on the Iliad and its translators, see this excellent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: http://m.chronicle.com/article/articl…

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