Yesterday I finished Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It came to me highly recommended but I wasn't extraordinarily impressed though it was certainly readable. What I found problematic was the feeling that there were really two separate books here combined uncomfortably into a single text. One book, the one I enjoyed, was a well-grounded well-referenced exposition/exploration of a reasonably convincing explanation/description of a psychological state with which, I suspect, we are all familiar and which is worth some consideration. The other book was a sort of grand theory-of-everything self-help manual, of the kind that's intended to sell well and change the lives of enough of the people who read such manuals to muster some sort of validity (and boost further sales.) This book featured lots of those irritating potted biographies of the lives of the great and good, and equally irritating similar pieces on folk you've never heard of but are led to believe are the bees' knees. The problem is that once you realise that any life, no matter how small, will be contradictorily slippery enough to defy any simplification it's impossible to take those things seriously.
In the meantime I've been plugging on slowly with Saul Bellow's Herzog, a novel I last read at university. Now this does involve a refreshingly slippery, utterly convincing life. I must confess, there's a bit of guilt involved in my reading. All those years ago I reached the conclusion that Bellow wasn't up to much compared to Mailer and Malamud, the two other writers on the course I was taking in the contemporary American novel (or something like that.) Even then I knew I was missing something and my verdict was way off the mark and it's chastening to be made aware of just how badly wrong I was with almost each paragraph. I'm going slowly because I want to because it's that good.
Other things to mention: my Complete Verse of Rudyard Kipling is my lucky dip at the moment - a bit of a cheat as you really can't lose so there's no real luck involved. And I bought Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled on a whim last week when I realised it was based around some exercises on writing verse. I've tried a couple and they're highly engaging. This is, of course, the kind of thing we should be doing in schools in English classrooms, but it's not and is never likely to be. As our American cousins would say: go figure.