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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading / literature

Mirror Gazing

Warren Motte

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To purchase Mirror Gazing

Title: Mirror Gazing
Author: Warren Motte
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2014
Length: 262 pages
Availability: Mirror Gazing - US
Mirror Gazing - UK
Mirror Gazing - Canada
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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinatingly obsessive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2014 Andrew Piper

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a book first and foremost about the literature of self-regard. (...) Motte has built an impressive array of examples, which he admirably tries to tame into a system of types. And yet the joy of this book is in its contradictions, not its resolutions." - Andrew Piper, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Many readers make notes about their reading; many mark or even copy out and collect quotes or sentences. Some, like Warren Motte, focus on something specific: as he explains, he has made note of very specific mentions on index cards for decades now:

Since the late 1970s, I have been collecting mirror scenes in literature, moments when a subject glimpses himself or herself in a mirror.
       An avid reader, he's collected a great deal of material over his many reading years. In a talk he delivered in 2004 he admits:
I find that I now possess something approaching 10,000 mirror scenes -- far too many to be of any practical use -- in roughly 1,500 books, from say, Homer to Jacques Jouet.
       Mirror Gazing is, finally, his attempt to shape something out of this reading-sideline, both an attempt at some analysis of the collected material itself and an examination of his fascination with it.
       Mirror-mentions in literature tend to be incidental -- a glimpse in passing. Even where a character stares at and actively considers his or her reflection, it's rare for the scene to be particularly protracted. But it's not an unusual occurrence either: any given novel might well offer a fleeting glimpse here or there.
       Mirror-images are also striking, even just in passing: reflections of and on the observer -- and, despite being 'perfect' mirror-images (except, of course, when the mirror itself is not -- a not too infrequent occurrence as well) still so often not quite the picture the observer expects or imagines.
       Motte offers a sort of taxonomy of mirror-scenes, describing the many variations he's encountered, grouping together examples and suggesting what can be read into the authors' uses of mirrors in these particular ways. Mirror Gazing isn't truly encyclopedic -- neither in its presentation (which has a personal-digressive touch) nor in the collection of material itself (the sampling is selective -- again also personally so -- rather than fully representative) -- but it seems safe to say that readers are unlikely to easily come across such a thorough consideration of mirror-scenes in literature -- or one that is this entertaining; it helps a great deal that Motte doesn't take his enterprise entirely too seriously.
       The book benefits greatly from Motte's catholic approach to reading: though an academic, he doesn't limit his discussion to what is generally called 'literary fiction'. Explaining what books he draws his material from he writes:
I read a lot of "serious" fiction and a lot of "popular" fiction, but very little "bestselling" fiction. (I am not happy with these categories, but I lack better ones.)
       So, for example, a typical sequence of quotes is from: Stanisław Lem, Elizabeth George, Vladimir Voinovich, Walter Mosley, Louis-René des Forêts, Muriel Cerf, Lydie Salvayre, José Donoso, and William Gaddis.
       A thirty-two page list of books is included, citing all the books that get a mention -- a solid reading list, though with some rather large gaps (particularly weak on Japan, India, and Africa, scraping only the Chinese surface, very hit and miss on contemporary European fiction beyond France and the UK). A specialist in French literature, it's not surprising that much of Motte's reading (and hence examples) come from modern French literature (or are published by the publisher of this book, Dalkey Archive Press, whose general sensibilities Motte seems to share). It is difficult for anyone's readings to be all-inclusive enough to satisfy others, but -- though perhaps biased because of the great overlap with my own reading -- Mirror Gazing certainly seems built up on a good foundation.
       Reading is a personal and individual matter, and Motte is aware that his reading-list is unusual; he pokes some fun, too, at his reading -- as when he cites: "Sharon Kendrick's contemporary classic, The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable Girl", and jokingly takes for granted: "You have read the novel, I trust, so I have no need to point out [...]". (It's a Harlequin romance, and is in fact the least likely of the several hundred titles cited in the book that readers will have come across.)
       The personal asides and comments can be a bit hit or miss, but lend a nice backdrop to what could otherwise easily become too academically dry and dreary. Motte's willingness to step back and wonder (aloud): "Am I reading too much into these things ?" helps ground the book.
       As Motte demonstrates, a lot can be made out of looking into mirrors. The examples he cites show just what authors can do with them, and with the reflections they offer, ranging from the apparently perfect and true to the surprising. Significantly, too, mirrors don't merely serve for introspective reflection; indeed, among the more interesting aspects revealed by Motte is in the more incidental uses of mirrors.
       The idea of books as mirrors themselves is of course impossible to ignore throughout, and Motte's mirror-examples reinforce that notion. Though mirrors would seem far more objective -- offering an accurate reflection -- time and again authors show and use them in ways that demonstrate that the observer often finds the unexpected there, that the reflections on offer are, just as when reading a book, shaped by both the observer and the mirror, as well as an often unexpected interplay between the two.
       Looking into texts -- reading -- is a kind of mirror-gazing; Motte's highlighting of the mirror-incidents in his reading allows us to consider the variations all the more closely. It makes for a worthwhile -- and entertaining -- exercise.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 January 2015

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Mirror Gazing: Reviews: Warren Motte: Other books by Warren Motte under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Warren Motte teaches at the University of Colorado

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