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June 27, 2008

Open book thread

Open_book_2 Today, my contribution is just a quotation from Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady that struck me when I was recently reading the novel for the first time. The speakers are Ralph Touchett (whom I've added to my list of Prince Charmings) and Isabel Archer; the subject of discussion is an English lord with "radical" sensibilities.

". . . He's a man with a great position who's playing all sorts of tricks with it. He doesn't take himself seriously."

"Does he regard himself as a joke?"

"Much worse; he regards himself as an imposition -- as an abuse."

"Well, perhaps he is," said Isabel.

"Perhaps he is -- though on the whole I don't think so. But in that case what's more pitiable than a sentient, self-conscious abuse planted by other hands, deeply rooted but aching with a sense of its injustice? For me, in his place, I could be as solemn as a statue of Buddha. He occupies a position that appeals to my imagination. Great responsibilities, great opportunities, great consideration, great wealth, great power, a natural share in the public affairs of a great country. But he's all in a muddle about himself, his position, his power, and indeed about everything in the world. He's the victim of a critical age; he has ceased to believe in himself and he doesn't know what to believe in. When I attempt to tell him (because if I were he I know very well what I should believe in) he calls me a pampered bigot. I believe he seriously thinks me an awful Philistine; he says I don't understand my time. I understand it certainly better than he, who can neither abolish himself as a nuisance nor maintain himself as an institution."

One is tempted to wonder at this point whether James was really reflecting on the nobility of 19th-century England, or if he had somehow figured out a way to look into the future and catch a glimpse of 21st-century American ideas.

What books have you been reading and reflecting on lately?

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Not yet reading, but it's in the queue by recommendation from a friend reading it -- it's not actually the sort of book I'd normally read (prefer novels to non-fiction, and anything "inspiring" generally makes me yawn). But actress Janine Turner has a book out about single mothers throughout history:

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