Now and then when I am absorbed in lists of forthcoming books, whether in the delicious catalogues of university presses (now likely to be digital only, alas) or in the pages of Publishers Weekly or in some other source of bookish intelligence, a strange thought pops into my head: Books will continue to appear after I am dead. (Perhaps in heaven I will receive a special dispensation. . . .)
In any case, at the moment, I am still here in this fallen but nonetheless beguiling world, still (mostly) in possession of my “faculties.” There are so many books to instruct and divert us, miming Creation itself in their gratuitous abundance.
Consider, for instance, Sarah Shaw’s The Art of Listening: A Guide to the Early Teachings of Buddhism (Shambhala, June), a galley of which I am reading right now. I am not a Buddhist, I don’t even understand Buddhism (or Buddhisms) very well, but I read a lot about it (and them). Shaw’s book interests me particularly for its emphasis on “listening” and the oral transmission of Buddhist teachings. “Most of us liked hearing stories in the evening as children,” she begins. The sentence would be better if it began “As children, most of us . . .” but nonetheless I felt an immediate connection with Shaw, who combines great learning with great modesty.
Coming sooner—early in March—is Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (Simon & Schuster). The subtitle issues a provocation, not accidentally. You want to argue with Fletcher? He “holds degrees in both neuroscience and literature, and . . . is currently a professor at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic institute for the new field of story science.” Bring it on, he says; he’s spoiling for a fight. (Note to my lit professor friends: This book would be a lot of fun to teach.)
If you are a reader of fiction, keep an eye out for Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual (Scribner, May), already published in the U.K. (where the reviews were exceedingly good). Spufford is one of my favorite writers. Mainly he’s done “nonfiction” (that comically inadequate term), wildly various, but in midlife he’s taken up fiction as well; you may have seen Golden Hill, his first novel. I’m not going to rehearse the premise of Light Perpetual, which is strange; I’ll just urge you to give the book a look (adding that Alan Jacobs loved it).
If you share my fondness for good books about walking, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe, edited and introduced by Duncan Minshull (Notting Hill, April). I wrote about an earlier anthology that Minshull put together, Beneath My Feet: Writers About Walking; this new collection promises to be equally tasty. Patrick Leigh Fermor bats leadoff.
In addition to a torrent of individual titles, every publishing season features conjunctions of related books, some of them predictable (wait for the flood of titles on the insurrection in Washington, D.C.), some less so. I started by mentioning Sarah Shaw’s The Art of Listening. You might read it alongside John Colapinto’s just-published This Is the Voice (Simon & Schuster) and Ethan Cross’s Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Crown), also just out. Maybe this improbable conjunction will send you farther afield, until you stumble on the work of the late, great Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, who will give you a lifetime of reading-paths to follow in addition to his own magnificent shelf of books (start with The Presence of the Word). How blessed we are, despite all the miseries and vexations, despite our own failings and those of our fellow sinners.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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