My Daily Read: Jessica Burstein

MDR_BursteinJessica Burstein is an associate professor of English at the University of Washington. She specializes in modern British and American literature and culture.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

I look at e-mail and the Guardian online, since it has a better sense of proportion than American papers. Then I look at The New York Times. I have a friend in New York who reads everything and sends me articles that I need, even before I know I need them.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

I receive The London Review of Books in the mail, as well as online; ditto for The New York Review of Books. I read The New Yorker online—my Internet-less mother requires the hard-copy version, so I have my minions get that to her. That’s the magazine I grew up with, and as much as the cartoon contests pain me, I will never leave it. I prefer the Times Literary Supplement to The New York Times Sunday Book Review: Substantive evidence about whether something is worth reading or avoiding can be useful.

Substance aside, because I am shallow and write about fashion, I subscribe to Harper’s Bazaar. I comb the captions but never read the articles. I don’t even know if they have them, now that I think about it. Vogue has better writers, so occasionally I slip up and read them. That’s all hard, cold, slick copy, even as I go online to watch the models teeter around in the magazine extras. Once in a while I will buy W magazine, but it is so physically large that I can barely fit it into my apartment. I read nothing mobile, unless you count taking my hard copy of the LRB onto the bus.

Q: What are the best books and articles you’ve read recently?

I just finished Julian Barnes’s new memoir of grief, Levels of Life. If you love anyone mortal, it is mandatory. I need one book of fiction that has nothing to do with my academic life or I go numb; right now I am finishing Spring Torrents by Turgenev—I like his blend of merriment and pity. For work, I read Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton, which got to me far more than James’s other books, so perhaps my ear has advanced to the point where I need to go back to the big novels and listen again. I just reread Howards End, and after thinking I had grown out of Forster (and writing a long letter to a friend excoriating him), wept—and I mean wept—when it was over. It was because—and pardon me for being technical—the people playing on the grass at the end weren’t real.
I truly miss being able to read Frank Kermode’s newest—his voice was so poised and clean. Oh, and since you politely abstained from asking, I will note that the worst article I just read by someone whose aesthetic (not political) judgment I otherwise appreciated, if not always liked, was Christopher Hitchens’s bozo piece on women not being funny. I just want to make plain that I do speak ill of the dead.

Q: What are among the most overrated novels, past or present? Underrated?

There’s no point in mentioning overrated novels if the point is to winnow them from public consciousness. Therefore let it be known that Penelope Fitzgerald is extraordinary, and should be read more. She possesses such moral acuity and range: If you need a description of doing laundry in 18th-century Germany alongside Romanticism, Moscow before the revolution, or how to run a bookshop, she’s your woman. Barbara Pym has a different set of muscles; she plumbs closer terrain. She is amazing and subtle, and attention should be paid. Her Excellent Women is in fact excellent. I will never tire of teaching or reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Last year an undergraduate asked me why no one was celebrating a particular character’s birthday, and I about kissed him—in an ombudsman-friendly fashion—because it was such an important question, and had never occurred to me.

Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?

This could be understood as a question about either the mechanics of reading habits—I dislike reading online—or habits of thought. I have a lifetime subscription to Critical Inquiry. I also receive Modernism/modernity. I was its first managing editor, and I continue to see all the mistakes in its editing, so it’s difficult to read, but I do it anyway. In terms of habits of thought, I now look at professional journals in terms of their sensibility. Hopefully they have one; some don’t. Grey Room really did—it was so damn groovy—and it has just changed editorial boards, so I am curious about what happens next; The Space Between is developing an interesting one; and I can see the lucidity of the editors’ voices in the newish Journal of Modern Periodical Studies.

I also look at arcs of current critical interest. (When I was a lackey at Critical Inquiry, we established that if three academics have said something, it would be referred to as a “critical wave”; I therefore now look for arcs rather than waves.) I have recently developed a cross-disciplinary crush on The Journal of Inverse and Ill-Posed Problems, for what to any humanities type would be obvious reasons.

Q: The book as object: Is it a pleasure, a necessity, an anachronism?

In this realm at least, why should pleasure be distinct from necessity? There is no substitute for a book qua object (well, they’re all objects, but I assume this means the one that isn’t electronic, or fed directly into your brainstem). They really are, or should be, objects of beauty, as well as something to misplace in order to re-find, mark, carry around, throw out the window (once, a novel I won’t name), and complain about having to pack. I keep a peacock-feather necklace in Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, and you can’t do that with an e-book. I recognize the ergonomic wisdom of e-books when it comes to travel, but haven’t succumbed.

Q: Do you read blogs?

No, thank you.

Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?

I signed up years ago, but just because Stephen Fry did. Now that I don’t check my Twitter account, he e-mails me constantly.

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?

If you can admit to it, it’s not guilt.

Sketch by Monica Hellström

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