John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought

John Milton is one of the enigmas of English letters; his imprint is deep, and yet its outlines are indistinct. Philip Pullman has done much to renew popular interest in Milton, even as he contests the poet's account of Good and Evil. Like Lyra's Oxford, the parallel universe that is the chief setting of Pullman's His Dark Materials series, Milton's world was topsy-turvy by present-day standards. In his strife-torn England, it was humanists who stood in the camp of monarchy, tradition, and authoritarianism, while religious conservatives were champions of science, representative government, and freedom of speech. John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought finds its force not only as a scholarly study of Milton's life and works but as a wide-ranging introduction to an age that, for all its strangeness, set the stage for modernity. Authors Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns assemble the materials of Milton in all their knotty particulars, tracing the tender complexities of Milton's personal life, comprehending the rigors and rituals of the academic and clerical spheres in which he moved, and cataloging the difficulties (not to mention the mortal dangers) of living as a public intellectual in the time of Cromwell and King Charles. Milton navigated these turbid streams with a combination of flexibility and stubborness, and Campbell and Corns are scrupulousy attentive to the twists and turns of a career that combined profound theology and political engagement with poetic invention at its highest pitch. The lengthy job of work they set for their readers is repaid in rich fare for the historical imagination. "For books are not absolutely dead things," as Milton wrote, "but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are."

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.