Monday, June 06, 2011

A Delectable Discovery

When I'm spending so much time writing and researching, I like to escape now and then to a good novel on my kindle. When I'm not reading Spenser, Milton, and Donne, of course. My favorite historical novelists tend to be those that absorb the literary stylistic touches of their periods, like John Barth and Allison Fell, or who adopt a (post)modern style all their own, like Hilary Mantel and James Morrow. To give you broader a sense of my escapist reading tastes, the last few novels I've read have included medieval mysteries by Ariana Franklin, historical fiction by David Mitchell, Michel Faber, Ronan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Sarah Waters, James Morrow, and the early modern young adult fantasies of my friend and colleague Marie Rutkoski. Not to mention the literary fiction of my adorable beau, who likes to tease me when he sees me reading something fun by calling it a "trashy novel." This time, when he asked me what my "trashy novel" was about, I immediately called it rarebookporn, which left him a bit confused.

As fate would have it, I chose A Discovery of Witches, and finished it (579pp) in two days. Anyone who loves reading historical novels, fantasy, research, and early modern rare books ought to be aware that the talented historian Deborah Harkness, author of the remarkable book The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven: Yale UP 2007), has written this, and though by no means high art, it is still a fantasty romp that is nearly impossible to put down. I kind of felt as if it had been written just for me (and not simply because it ends with quotations from the two poets who feature in the final chapter of my book). If you mix what's seriously cool about material textual research with Buffy (and I realize that may already be a redundancy to those familiar with Joss Whedon's series, since in the Buffyverse a fair amount of strategizing takes place in rare book rooms and Latin and Aramaic are living languages), Brooks's People of the Book, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, you might come a bit closer to what was so pleasurable about this book, but basically reading it felt like a vacation filled with magic and illuminated manuscripts and tiny pointing manicules and emblems and Giordano Bruno and sexy vampires in Duke Humfrey's library.

I am even more contented by the knowledge that there's going to be an Elizabethan sequel. Now, back to my manuscript. With the new chapter completed, it's off to thinking about language and the body politic in Poetaster. And I've got almost no time to lose, as I've seen the syllabus for my summer seminar, and it's more reading per day than I had in grad school per week at Quill & Stylus, which was kind of known for overloading its courses.


Renaissance Girl said...

I am ordering this book from my library right this minute. Thank you.

Pamphilia said...

I hope you like it--it's definitely escapist fantasy, not high art.