Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Here’s what Lawrence Douglas, associate professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, told us when we asked him what he has been reading.

I’ve read a lot of good books recently, most of them novels. Here are the best:

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
I don’t generally like academic novels, and I also don’t consider myself a huge fan of Nabokov’s. (An obsessive book-collector, I so disliked The Secret Life of Sebastian Knight that I promptly got rid of my copy, a nice Putnam hardback.) Pnin, though, is wonderful. It’s largely free of Nabokov’s typical self-indulgences like polylingual punning and plot contrivances based on obscure chess openings. The story, of an absent-minded Russian émigré professor, is funny, beautifully told and unexpectedly (for Nabokov) touching. I intend to keep both of my copies of this one.

A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh
A couple of years ago I read an interview with Bruce Jay Friedman in which he described A Handful of Dust as a perfect novel. I had just finished reading Friedman’s first two novels, Stern and A Mother’s Kisses, found them both terrific, better than anything I’d ever read by Philip Roth (sorry, Bill Pritchard!), so was happy to follow his recommendation. Granted, English leisure-class satire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but everything about A Handful of Dustworks: pitch-perfect dialogue, effortless writing, sharply drawn characters and, of course, that brilliant concluding chapter. Lesson: always trust the taste of your favorite writers (unless they happen to be plugging the works of their lovers).

Old Men at the Zoo, by Angus Wilson
The novel begins with a zookeeper trampled to death by an agitated giraffe and ends with a nuclear conflagration. In between, zoo administrators grapple with the politics of expanding their facility and with a case of apparent bestiality. This is a very odd book. It sounds like a farce, but Wilson, who turned to writing as therapy after a serious breakdown, always keeps a straight face. By the end, I realized I had never read a more interesting novelistic treatment of work.

Sweetness, by Torgny Lindgren
Lindgren is a Swedish novelist largely unknown in this country, though his books are widely admired in England. Sweetness is his most recent novel, or at least the most recent to appear in translation. It tells the story of two elderly brothers, living in adjacent cabins on the tundra of northern Sweden. Both brothers are in failing health, each sustained only by the desire to outlive his despised sibling. It’s a grotesque little book (there’s a lot of lancing of boils and suppurations), Beckett-like both in its humor and sparseness and quite unforgettable, too. Bibliomanes will also appreciate the beautiful job that Harvill, the British publisher, has done with this slender volume.

Continent, by Jim Crace
Crace is a young, or youngish, English novelist (he’s under 50). His most recent novel, Being Dead, earned a top-10-of-the-year citing by The New York Times Book Review in 2001. Continent was his first book, and at least in my mind, it’s better than Being Dead (which was awfully good). Less a novel than a cycle of stories, Continent is about the clash of cultures, the penetration of traditional worlds by contemporary forms. The stories have little in the way of plot or character; the volume is sustained by Crace’s exquisite writing. Like Sebald’s, Crace’s work bears the traces of extensive research. His success lies in his ability to turn recondite learning into striking images and evocative prose.