No time spent with a book is ever entirely wasted, even if the experience is not a happy one: there’s always something to be learned. It’s just that, every now and again, you can hit a patch of reading that makes you feel as if you’re pootling about. There’s nothing like a couple of sleepy novels, followed by a moderately engaging biography of a minor cultural figure, to make you aware of your own mortality. But what can you do about it? We don’t choose to waste our reading time; it just happens. The books let us down.

– Nick Hornby, Stuff I’ve Been Reading (2013)


In an article that first appeared in the New York Review of Books some years ago, the Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill talks of writing in Gaelic as a case of “the corpse that sits up and talks back.” She is referring to the fact that, even to her English writing contemporaries, Gaelic is assumed to be dead and the Anglophone-Irish tradition has taken on the mantle of the great tradition of Irish literature. […] “By an antiquarian sleight of hand,” writes Dhomhnaill, “it is implied that Irish writers in English are now the natural heirs to a millennium and a half of writing in Irish. The subtext of this . . . is that Irish is dead. . . . I dare say they must be taken somewhat aback when the corpse that they have long since consigned to choirs of angels . . . sits up and talks back.” The corpse talks back to announce that it is still alive—indeed, that it can speak for itself, and will not let the self-proclaimed heirs to its history cannibalize it with “equanimity, peddling their ‘ethnic chic’ with nice little translations ‘From the Irish.’”

– Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (2009)

What are we to say of the writer who admits his faults and clings to them? We may praise him for self-knowledge (self-knowledge is easier than many people think), praise him for frankness (a goose hissing at you in the yard is being frank), or we may, with polite apologies, throw away the book because self-knowledge and that sort of frankness are not what we came for.

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)

The lost artist is not hard to spot. Either he puts all his money on texture—stunning effects, fraudulent and adventitious novelty, rant—or he puts all his money on some easily achieved or faked structure, some melodramatic opposition of bad and good which can by nature handle only trite ideas. One sort of artist can see only particular trees, the other only the vague blackish-green of the forest.

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)

Sunday Review

Book I took out of a library yesterday after several abortive attempts to read it on my phone

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman


Films I half-watched because I accidentally set my Sky Q box to record Film4’s entire FilmFear series

No One Lives

A Field in England*

Yakuza Apocalypse

A Dark Song

Stonehearst Asylum


Book I reread last week and would highly recommend

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner


Book I lied about reading last Sunday

Persian Fire by Tom Holland


Books I will start reading this week if I can find the time

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood


TV show I intend to watch tonight

Tracey Breaks the News

Trump did not spring out of nothingness but from the eight years of crazy, from the hawking of Obama-waffles to shouts of “You lie,” from WHITE SLAVERY banners to Obama-phone plots, from chimpanzee memes to watermelon-at-the-White-House jokes. The former speaker of the House John Boehner claimed Obama had “never had a real job”—and Boehner was said to be one of the sane ones. Newt Gingrich called Obama the “food-stamp president”—and he was said to be one of the smart ones. I can’t say I knew white people would elect Donald Trump—and that is who did it—but I did not put it past them.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017)

To invoke the name James Baldwin, these days, is to invoke the name of both a prophet and a God. More than his actual work, Baldwin, himself, has been beatified. That is why young writers descend on his long-abandoned house, like pilgrims into the Holy Land. That is why they have founded an entire genre of essay to document the hajj. The beatification is understandable. Baldwin owes his prominence as much to his image as to his words. And we don’t simply have the beauty of his words, we have the force of his presence. I am not immune—Baldwin the Legend was the ancestor Kenyatta sought to summon up when she asked, “What would Baldwin do?”

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017)

Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the name of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them.

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to his net. This, not the world seen directly, is his raw material. […] As students of aesthetics used to say, art combines fancy and judgment. Or as Schiller once put it in a letter to a friend, what happens in the case of the creative mind is that “the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does [the creative mind] review and inspect the multitude.”

– John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (1978)