Reese Kwon: The Last Book I Loved, The Modern Element



Sometimes I separate the books I intend, one day, to read, into two groups: the Bookcase of Desire, and the Bookcase of Guilt. Desire is made up of anticipated pleasures, the books I haven’t yet read only because time is cruel and limited: Bernard Malamud’s novels, for example, and Jude the Obscure, and Alice Munro’s most recent collection. Guilt, on the other hand, is crammed with the books I know I ought to read. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, for example. Gibbon and Boethius. Then there’s book after book of poetry–predominantly poetry written after, say, Elizabeth Bishop. I want to read more contemporary poetry, I ought to read more contemporary poetry, and yet, which is partly why poet-critic Adam Kirsch’s book, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, comes as a revelation and a delight. Its essays discuss poets from Geoffrey Hill to Czeslaw Milosz so lucidly, so thoughtfully, that it’s as much of a joy to be guided into a greater understanding of a poet as to find myself arguing with a critical interpretation. Itself a profound pleasure to read, The Modern Element does more than illuminate: it transfers books from the Bookcase of Guilt to the Bookcase of Desire.

Reese Okyong Kwon's writing is published or forthcoming in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony, and was named one of Narrative's "30 Below 30" writers. She can be found at More from this author →