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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared

Alice Ozma

New York: Hachette, 2011.

Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about.  It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it.  Was that book here last time?  Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock?  I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me.  It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day.  Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).

Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.  Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names.  She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.

When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights.   While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000?  They got much further than that.  From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night.  Including prom night.  They called it The Streak.

I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to.  But this book had me hooked.  It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.  

The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start.  But it was also a page-turner.  I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them.  Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading.  There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide.  The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line.  Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well.  The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat.  That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.

After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes

We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but.  Every night was different because every story was different.  Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting.  But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages.  Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces.  The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.

Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen.  (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time.  Jim Brozina was not.)  Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading.  As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort.  The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.”  This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.

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Yesterday I spent an hour-and-a-half talking to an audience about what I love, which is working with words. I am, in fact, paid to keep words around, tend them, and give them to other people. … And here I can mention that there is nothing like writing for those you love. Building something out of words, an intensely personal medium – something for someone you respect, someone for whom you care – that’s both a pleasure and a properly testing exercise. I have long argued that the writer’s relationship with the putative reader should probably be one of loving respect: it’s a way of maintaining a correct form of address.

More at The Guardian.

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Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

Stephanie Staal

New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Reviewed from an advance reading copy from Library Thing

A great book about books for International Women’s Day: Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life.   Very much along the lines of David Denby’s Great Booksthis is a memoir by a freelance writer–mired in the daily details of being a wife and mother–about going back to Barnard College to take the Feminism 101 course she took as a 19-year-old student.  Equal parts memoir and reportage from the classroom, the book tackles the question of the place of the great books of feminism in this writer’s life and in 21st century sexual politics.

I was immediately hooked by the book when I read Staal’s eloquent expression of the tensions of the maternal and feminist self.  Remembering herself as a student, she writes,

We were, all of us on that graduation day almost two decades ago, poised to take over the world.

Life, however, is not lived by directive, and there has been much talk in recent years of the false promises of feminism, the disillusionment and disappointments, the lash and backlash, especially for those of us who married, who became mothers–or perhaps it has always been thus?  Each generation, I suppose, forges new paths over the same old terrain.  The role of feminist has never been easily reconciled with that of wife and mother, particularly in the public eye, but neither, it’s true, has it rested easily in the privacy of our own homes.  Parental love and professional ambition make for uneasy allies.  And for my generation–women empowered by feminism as our due course–the contradictions strike at the heart of who we are, or at least the way we see ourselves.  The same women who grew up believing we could have it all now understand the toll of the transformations into wife and mother, the ambiguities and compromises they raise, the pledges broken both to ourselves and to others, the stark realization that perhaps we are not the heroines we once thought we were. (x)

I am drawn powerfully to descriptions of maternal ambivalence, to stories that weave the mourning for a lost self into the narration of motherhood.  (Rachel Cusk’s lapidary A Life’s Work is my touchstone in the mother memoir category, a must read for its astounding articulation of the division of self after childbirth.)  The knots of our various selves are, indeed, difficult to untie, and Staal’s approach throughout is a wonderfully grounded examination of the struggle between professional ambition, the fulfillment of a feminist self and the duties of love.  She negotiates the tensions with the wit and wisdom grounded in the practical questions of who washes the dirty socks (a fight over which is one of the best passages in the book.)

Even before I became a wife and mother myself, I had heard how this particular story unfolded.  Like many women who came of age between the second and third waves of feminism, I had been taught that throughout the ages, the transitions into marriage and motherhood were the vulnerable points at which we might lose our voices, might cease to be the narrators of our own lives. … I found myself in the midst of an identity crisis much like our feminist foremothers had described, feeling especially disquieted given that I, perhaps naively, had not quite expected it would happen to me. (5) [funny note: the wordpress spell-check does not like foremothers and suggests forefathers instead!]

   Pride goeth ever before the fall.  Staal’s solution: “I turned to books.”

My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home.  If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience.  To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit.  I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1.  In a special section, old favourites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savor a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration. (10)

Quite by chance, Staal picks up a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique during a trip to a bookstore with her toddler, and it brings back a self that had gone into hibernation with motherhood.  Going through her undergraduate notes for her Feminist Texts course that night, Staal lights upon a plan to go back to Barnard and reread the foundational texts of feminism.

What follows is a richly textured reading of those texts, Staal’s various selves (in her undergraduate teens, her bustling twenties and married-with-child thirties) shading the already complex politics of sex and gender.

After rereading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, she writes,

I still felt angered by the severe limitations placed upon women during Gilman’s lifetime, but at the same time, the landscapes of absolutes that once dominated my thinking had been rubbed down by experience. (95)

She follows up on a notable silence around Gilman’s autobiographical fiction.  While the story is based on Gilman’s experience of marriage to Walter Stetson, whom she eventually divorced, the story less often told is of her second, happy, and thirty-year marriage to George Gilman.  Staal includes this story, not to reinforce a retrograde happy ending–she lost custody of her daughter in her divorce and mourned that loss to the end of her days– but to underscore the real complexity of the hardships and difficult choices in marriage and motherhood, then and now.

I appreciated the effects of the wear of experience on Staal’s readings.  As I usually do, I found myself wanting more memoir, more of the author.  I could certainly have done with much less reporting of other students’ opinions from the classroom.  If the book has a weakness, it is the length of the passages of classroom dialogue.

Of course, Staal does not find an answer to the intractable problems facing the have-it-all generation of women to which she belongs, but she does find a good story, and it’s well told.

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Alphabet Table: Memoir of a Childhood in the Language

Bruce Meyer

Windsor: Black Moss Press, 2010.

This memoir, the ninth in the Settlements series of short Canadian memoirs being published by Black Moss Press, is a love letter to language and books, a tribute for the home they have given its author.  It is also peppered with poignant reminders that bookish children not only find a home in books, but are often painfully out of place among their peers.  Meyer describes how his voracious appetite for books not only alienated him from the other kids, but made him a target for teachers who bullied the boy who was bored by their classes.  It gave me a knot in my stomach to think of such isolation. 

Meyer recalls that he saved up all his pocket-money to buy books, and spent it at the local stationers: 

They had two racks that were not the usual pulp fiction in the store: a free-standing swivel display of New Canadian Library Classics that included Laurence’s The Stone Angel, Wiseman’s The Sacrifice, and anthologies edited by the University of Toronto professor Milton Wilson….  I became enamoured with the poetry of Layton, Birney, and Purdy, and determined that I would meet them and talk to them about my own work—and learn from them, if I could.  The other display was a slanted series of short shelves that contained the Signet Classic Editions of the plays of Shakespeare.  Some of the kids in my neighbourhood would hang around the plaza, smoke, and buy drugs.  My fix was found in that card and gift shop, in the back corner, where no one from my generation ever seemed to go except me. (80) 

“No one from my generation”: this phrase somehow encapsulated for me the palpable loneliness of the boy lost in books, even if they have their compensatory pleasures. 

The title of the book is its controlling metaphor.  The alphabet table is the dinner tray Meyer had as a child that clipped to his chair with the letters of the alphabet and representative animals parading around it.  He takes that wonderfully concrete introduction to letters from earliest memory and plays with its metaphorical possibilities:

Language and all the things that words can do have always been a table set before me—some days I refer to it as my work bench, but it is really a table, a banquet, where I can feast not only on the sound of the words but their role, their meaning and their vanity.  As I sit at my desk in front of a computer screen and the characters appear before me, I realize that my alphabet table, my word feast, has been a process of evolution that will keep growing and changing and feeding me for as long as I live.  Few poets can earn a living from their poetry; but every poet I know lives off language and is sustained by it. (25)

I refer often to books as food for my soul, and the gustatory metaphor and the image of the word feast resonates with my own sense that we nourish ourselves with words.

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The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block and the Creative Brain

Alice W. Flaherty

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

 

I write because when I don’t, it is suffocating.  I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning.  Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real…. (266)

So ends Alice Flaherty’s fascinating look at the twin disorders of writing: writer’s block and its opposite, hypergraphia. 

Flaherty’s book was quoted in Lee Gutkind’s creative nonfiction how-to book, Keep It Real, so I hunted her down to read more of her delicious brain talk for myself.  She examines two areas of the brain often neglected in discussions of writing: the temporal lobes and the limbic system, the seat of emotion and drive and feeling inspired.  Damage to the temporal lobe can sometimes result in hypergraphia, the unstoppable urge to write, and manic depression shares many mood and personality characteristics with temporal lobe epilepsy, with hypergraphia being one of the symptoms in the manic phase.

Dostoevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy.  So did Lewis Carroll.  Ditto Gustav Flaubert.

*I* have temporal lobe epilepsy.  It cost me my driver’s licence, and I’m bitter about its limits on my freedom.  I also suspect it is the reason for my awful memory.  Bitter again.  I was hoping to discover something about it in this book, a balm for bitterness in more knowledge, but since my seizures only result in episodes of profound deja vu, which she mentions only briefly, and since I have not written an Alice in Wonderland or a timeless classic of a novel, I found out little about myself in Flaherty’s book. 

Luckily I found a lot of other things.  In the end, the science is not what enthralled me.  It was Flaherty’s own experience with hypergraphia that most moved me.

In part, this book emerged out of Flaherty’s own experience of mental illness.  She was hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown after giving birth to twins who did not survive, and one of her symptoms was hypergraphia.  Her husband found her on the floor of her office surrounded by post-it notes on which she was maniacally scribbling in miniature writing.  She did not feel at all in need of help.  She was not troubled by her unstoppable urge to write, but because it was unstoppable, she accepted his judgement.

In some ways, this book feels like work on the symptom.  Often, this read as a book in search of a thesis, and its focus was pulled in too many different directions: science, psychology, psychiatry, literary history, literary criticism, memoir.  The chapters are clearly organized, and she examines writer’s block both as a mental state (psychological) and then as a brain state (physiological), but the book does not have a clear drive.  In fact, the hypothesis she is testing, proves wrong:

I began this book with the suspicion that writer’s block might be the opposite of hypergraphia from a neurological point of view as well as from the viewpoint of productivity and pleasure.  Hypergraphia—and metaphor, and inspiration—are associated with altered activity in the temporal lobes.  Might writer’s block be the opposite temporal process?

The more research I did, however, the more likely it appeared that writer’s block is a frontal lobe process rather than a temporal lobe process.  (Granted, the two lobes influence each other strongly.)  Block shares the strangled muteness of Broca’s aphasia, the inflexibility of perseveration, and the task specificity and stress dependence of writer’s cramp—all frontal lobe neurological disorders.  And the two psychiatric disorders most closely tied to writer’s block are depression and anxiety, both with evident neurological underpinnings and both showing decreases in brain activity that are especially severe in the frontal lobes. (147)

She has this wonderfully dry wit that pops up unexpectedly in the middle of a discussion of scientific facts.  This is her quip about the debates about the use of drugs or behavioural therapy in treating mental illness:

People fear drugs, rightly, because they fear the very real side effects.  But behavioral techniques have significant side effects, too, and not effects we can necessarily predict.  A student who goes to college to get a liberal arts education may inadvertently pick up values that turn her into a stockbroker. (110)

That wit kept me engaged.

She also captures beautifully the ambivalence of healing after a mental illness:  “While my hypergraphia felt like a disease, it also felt like one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  It still does.” (11)  It is her autobiographical excursions that stay with me, and I am grateful for her teasing out, not the science of the brain as it relates to writing, but her own mixed feelings about her own work:

during my postpartum break I discovered a mystery: I loved my sorrow.  It was as if I had been preparing all my life for that event, that I had entered into my birthright.  When I was in graduate school, my husband and I lived in an apartment over a ruined garden that had a grapevine as thick as a child’s body, coiling up the fire escape to my window.  At night I could lie in bed and reach out into the dark and pluck grapes to eat.  My grief was like that, as if it had given me access to a shadowy world that lies so close to this one that when I concentrated I could push my arm into it and pluck dream fruit.  It is a world where beauty cannot be separated from pain, and should not be, as when a scalpel is needed to expose the exquisite organs of the belly.  A pen can be a scalpel too. (205)

This book counts towards my 3.14, easy as pi, science book reading challenge.

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Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction

Ed. Lee Gutkind

New York: Norton, 2008.

This handbook to writing creative nonfiction came into existence in response to the controversy that arose with the revelation of the fictionalized events in James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces.  As Lee Gutkind writes in the introduction, “Each time a new controversy rages I cringe, for the media tend to indict the genre of the form along with the individual violators of the basic line between fiction and nonfiction” (24).   Creative Nonfiction, of which Gutkind is the founder and editor, did a special issue, “A Million Little Choices,” to lay out guidelines for the genre.  This book expands upon the original journal issue.

So that there can be no doubt about his view on the role of imagination in the genre, Gutkind defines the term in his introduction.  “Creative” in creative nonfiction denotes the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—”that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events…. [It] presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” (12)

The book is organized into short chapters that cover the ABCs of writing and researching creative nonfiction.  The essays include legal topics like Acknowledgment of Sources, Defamation and Libel, Facts and Legal Responsibilities of Publishers; topics on craft like Composite Characters, Compression, Metaphor and Point of View; topics on method like Quotation Marks and Tape Recording; and topics on the history of the genre like Evolution of the Genre, The Memoir Craze and The Narrative Impulse.

It is this last category that most interested me, and I thrilled at seeing a scientific discussion of the narrative impulse.

In 1996, James Atlas declared, none too joyfully, that the late twentieth century is the age of the literary memoir.  The writers of this collection respond to the denigration of the genre by writers like Atlas:

Some claim it’s a fad, a filling of the literary troughs with sentimental slop.  Yet recent research regarding the brain would suggest that narratives of self—both the telling (writing) and the hearing (reading)—stem from impulses basic to our being.

We’ve learned that the mind is malleable, that the brain’s neural pathways constantly rewire themselves to order sensory input, creating connections among disparate facts and ultimately spinning explanations about the self in the world.  In essence, the mind is “telling itself a story,” notes David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature.  He argues that this knack for narrative enabled our ancestors to recognize, understand, and remember the meaning of patterns in nature, such as the migrations of animals, the sequencing of the seasons, and the duration of night and day. … [T]aken together, our memories and perceptions form an autobiographical self, a set of personal myths and stories that give our lives meaning.  …

The story-telling urge begins early in life, notes Alice Weaver Flaherty in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.  She observes that children “compulsively narrate their experiences and desires,” as anyone who has been subjected to a three-year-old’s running commentary can attest.  The act of autobiography forms in our frontal cortices, while the will to write likely lies in the limbic system, one of the oldest parts of the brain, governing not only basic desires for food and sex but social bonding, learning, and memories.  We are the most vocal of the primates, and sharing the intimate details of our lives has many functions: The act makes us feel connected to others, alleviates stress, and makes us healthier.  Writing about emotionally laden events increases our T-cell growth and antibody response, lowers our heart rate, helps us lose weight, improves sleep, elevates our mood, and can even reduce pain.

Given the importance of sharing stories, we should not be surprised that the age of literary memoir has flourished in an age of disconnection. (109-110)

Now, I will say that the pace gets rather too breakneck with that long list of all that writing can do for you (increase our T-cells?  Really?), but I am a sucker for brain words like “limbic” and “frontal cortex.”  Perhaps having served so much time in the humanities, I’m easily charmed by a little brain talk.  Who knew that memoir writing had such august origins and so many therapeutic uses?

I am no fan of the memoir of raw pain and humiliation, of exposure for exposure’s sake, but this description of the urge to tell and to listen struck a chord with me. 

We are wired to create and to share narrative, but our wired lives keep us more and more alone for longer parts of our days, weeks, years.   Some of my screen time is social, and I have met, in real life, several people I first met through books or blogs.  But those real life encounters are, sadly, too infrequent and too often interrupted by our little people narrating their desire for juice, that piece of lego there that she has, attention or sleep.  

The result is that I read about others’ responses to books far more than I listen to my friends and acquaintances when they talk about books, and I write about my reading more than I talk about it.  I would love to be able to chat about my book loves more often and with fewer distractions, but the fact is that I have to have those interactions in bound or digital form if I want them at all.  And I do, I do want them.  Sometimes, the thrill of reading a superbly written account of another’s bibliophilia is better than the delights of reading the book itself. 

So bring on another century of memoir, the more bookish and bibliophilic the better.

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I asked a few weeks ago who would elegize the library card catalogue.  Nicholson Baker did, in an essay that was the beginning of his research for Double Fold, but after struggling to finish Double Fold, I can’t face it yet.

Thankfully, I found Susan Olding’s essay “Library Haunting” in the most recent issue of The New Quarterly, with which I curled up while my youngest refused to nap.  I would have had less patience with his antics if I hadn’t been tuning him out to the rhythm of Olding’s prose. 

Here she is on card catalogues:

The card catalogues are mostly gone now.  A few places keep them for their aesthetic value; in one Los Angeles library, a collection of typed and handwritten cards lines a glass-walled elevator, and Yale University still maintains its room of wooden cabinets.  Some librarians argue for the artifact; important information is lost, they claim, when those old cards are thrown away.  But most libraries have moved to online cataloguing systems, and before we get to the stacks, we have to shoulder past banks of computers.  People huddle at the screens, their faces bluish in the LED lights.  In my city’s main branch, circulation and returns are also fully automated.  I can enter and leave this library with less human contact than at a supermarket–which ought to be a good thing, since I go there to be alone with the books.  Why, then, do I go less often than I once did, to browse the shelves?  Why, with every change in the library’s floor plan to accommodate new equipment do I feel a little less welcome? 

I ought to get over myself, because for millennia, the capacity to change and adapt to new technologies has helped to keep libraries vital. 

I love that last sentence, its commonsensical, no-nonsense layering over her nostalgia.

Here is the description of the elevator catalogue concept from the LA Public Library website

David Bunn envisioned two passenger elevators in the Tom Bradley Wing as more than a way to get from one floor to another. The artist transformed them into “observation pods” traveling between subject divisions by using some of the Library’s seven million catalog cards rendered obsolete by the new state-of-the-art automation system. With these cards Bunn papered the inside of the elevator cabs and lined the shafts which are visible through a viewing window in the cabs. The elevators also display a digital readout of the Dewey Decimal numbers for each floor the elevator passes. “The elevators and the card catalog together form a kind of ‘core sample’ of the library,” explained Bunn. “As the catalog dutifully classifies and finds a place for every book, so the elevators travel deep through the center of the building, encompassing and accessing all the building’s holdings.”

Olding’s essay is full of wonderful insights about the place of the library in our lives.  My favourite is her linguistic riff on the etymology of the word library:

One librarian objected when, at age ten or eleven, I tried to withdraw adult books, but my mother must have spoken with her, for on my next visit no one challenged my choices.  I felt a freedom there, a freedom that makes perfect sense if you recall that while our “library” derives from the Latin “liber”, meaning the inner bark of a tree–an early form of paper–the primary meaning of the word is “free, independent, unrestrained.”  Books and liberty are born of the same parent.

What is so lovely about this passage is how it also speaks to other essays in the issue, particularly Theresa Kishkan’s essay “Arbutus menziesii” about the Arbutus tree, its distinctive peeling bark, peeling off clothes for moments of intimacy on canvas, on sand, on paper. 

image credit

And Kerry Clare’s essay about the frustrations of new motherhood and her desperate daydreamed bids for freedom.  Great reading, even with the soundtrack of a 2-year-old boy asking to be set free from his crib.

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I am slogging through one book and hop, hop, hopping along through another.  A quotation from the latter:

The most useful thing I brought out of my childhood was confidence in reading.  Not long ago, I went on a weekend self-exploratory workshop, in the hope of getting a clue about how to live.  One of the exercises we were given was to make a list of the ten most important events of our lives–the key moments that brought us from birth to wherever we are now.  Number one was: “I was born,” and you could put whatever you liked after that.  Without even thinking about it my hand wrote, at number two: “I learnt to read.”  “I was born and I learnt to read” wouldn’t be a sequence that occurs to many people, I imagine.  But I knew what I meant to say.  Being born was something done to me, but my own life began–I began for myself–when I first made out the meaning of a sentence.

from Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain

Thanks to Mark Sampson at Free Range Reading for linking to the interview with Eleanor Wachtel that led me to buy the book and fall headlong into this woman’s life.

(Links to come later.  Something’s wonky over here, and it’s not just my brain.)

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Christopher R. Beha

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About, Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

New York: Grove Press, 2009.

When Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins released their Great Books of the Western World, Alex Beam reports, Adler boasted that the set measured 62 inches, two inches more than the five-foot shelf of The Harvard Classics.  Really? When I think of the myriad ways in which to artificially and arbitrarily ensure that mine is bigger than yours, I have to laugh.  Of all things on which to base a comparison of sets of great books!

Interestingly, his boast foreshadows the rather masculine form of stunt journalism, reading through these sets of books in a set period of time.  (Is that fair?  To call it masculine?  There’s Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, and Robyn Okrant’s Living Oprah.  But conquering sets of books seems to be male terrain.  There is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21, 730 Pages by Ammon Shea.  Then there’s The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs’s book about his reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and his Year of Living Biblically, about, you guessed it, living by the 800 or more rules in that book.) 

David Denby did the great books project well, by going back to school rather than simply holing up with a great pile of books.  By being part of a community of readers, his re-reading of the classics has a wonderful dynamism and depth.  His book also predates the other examples of stunt journalism I mention above, and it has a leisurely feel to it that distinguishes it from the other races to read/do/write.

Christopher Beha, by contrast, reads his way through the whole five feet of the Harvard Classics over the course of one year, but alone and as a direct consequence of feeling adrift in his life after moving back into his parents’ apartment.  In one of my favourite passages, he describes his boomerang angst:

Of course, as a necessary condition of our post-belated age, one can never merely feel adrift or turned against oneself.  One must also hold certain awkward feelings about these feelings.  One must recognize such malaise as banal and used up, as a kind of American consumer indulgence.  One must stand detached even from one’s sense of detachment, alienated from one’s own alienation. (3)

Wonderful insight.  We are so worldly that we no sooner have feelings than we dismiss them as clichéd.  Nothing can be felt as new, as insight, but as always already yesterday’s news.

Perhaps that is the appeal to immersing oneself in a set of the classics for a year.

The set of Harvard Classics appeared in 1909, and they were edited by Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard for four decades spanning the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I.  He wrote, “It is my belief that the faithful and considerate reading of these books … will give any man the essentials of a liberal education, even if he can devote to them but fifteen minutes a day.”  The idea was to democratize higher education at a time when only 3% of the adult population finished undergraduate education.

Beha’s grandmother owned a set, and he remembers investigating their contents, tentatively, as a child and young man.  Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, the canon established by Eliot was never revised.  This was a one-time-only offer of what constituted the great, and his grandmother seems to have taken that on faith.  When he tells his mother and aunt about his plan to read them, he is thrilled to hear their stories about their mother’s discussions of individual books from the set.  The books were not just decoration, and Beha knows that his own reading of them is not simply about acquiring knowledge, rather, “I had started reading them with the idea that they might bring me closer to her.  Perhaps this is the knowledge we are always after, though it’s destined to remain out of reach: the knowledge of those we have lost.” (120)  Indeed, much of the narrative is given over to his discussion of his relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents and aunts, and they make charming secondary characters.

Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, Eliot’s set of classical texts is not ordered chronologically.  After working his way through the first several volumes, which appear to him to have been ordered randomly, Beha has a revelation:

All the knowledge I might gain from reading these books, Socrates seemed to be telling me, would be worth little beside the knowledge of how little I still knew. … The earliest parts of the Harvard Classics were trying to turn me into the person I needed to be in order to read whatever came next.  (30, 33)

I am particularly fond of this trick: let the book tell you how to read it, let the book define you as its reader.  I performed this trick in many graduate school papers, and with considerable success with Britomart and The Faerie Queene. 

But, and by my use of the word trick you may have guessed where I’m going with this, it is a trick, and its novelty does wear off.  Beha did not capture and keep my attention in the same way that Denby did, and again, I have to put it down to too limited a canvas.  Beha devotes very little space to discussing the actual works he reads, and it is a lack that weakens the book.  Denby goes back to the classics because he knows that these books have formed him but he no longer remembers why.  He wants to steep himself in the books again.  Beha’s pace is much faster, and more shallow as a result.  By the end of his book, we know that Denby has worked the classics back into the fabric of his life.  Beha, on the other hand, has been on holiday from his life:

It must seem an odd thing for one to “realize” about books at such a late stage in the game.  But somewhere in my months of checking titles off a list I had forgotten the simple fact that great books were meant to be reread.  In many ways, this is precisely what makes them great.  It felt invigorating to be reminded of this truth, to be reminded that I could live with these books for as long as I wanted, that I never had to return to the cultural landscape I’d left behind for the most of this year.

But a certain sadness came with this realization.  After all, one wants to go home. (216)

Home is a world where no one else reads Wordsworth, whose “Tintern Abbey” inspired the insight.  Home is where no one else partakes of the Great Conversation, and because Beha does not want to be a “scold” and prescribe a course of the canon to his contemporaries, his reading of the classics is cast as, well, a stunt, an exercise with a limited shelf life.  It can be bracketed off and left behind.  I prefer Denby’s model of excavating, re-inhabiting and reviving books that can continue to live in us, to enrich our lives.

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There is an article in the weekend Globe & Mail by Joe Queenan about his year of trying to read a book a day.  (An interesting exercise in stunt journalism given his over-the-top railing against  A. J. Jacobs’s The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, in which Jacobs chronicles his year spent reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Hats off to Jacobs for his humorous rejoinder to the hatchet job.) 

In order to be able to meet his goal, Queenan decided he’d have to limit himself to books of less than 200 pages.  He discusses the many wonderful books he discovered simply by virtue of having to scan the library shelves for slim volumes, including Penelope Fitzgerald’s book about books, The Book Shop.  He fell off pace six months into the project, so has not met his goal, but he does meet like-minded readers.  Queen Elizabeth II speaks for him on the pages of another book about books, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, a wonderful little book about the queen and a bookmobile, when she thinks,

one book led to another, doors opening wherever she turned, and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

No.  They never are.

But how, even when not keeping up the pace of a book a day does one keep up the enthusiasm?

I loved these books.  They were in my life for only a day–two days at most–but that made those days special.  Reading longer books, no matter how good they are, can turn into a chore.  Reading Moll Flanders is hard work.  Reading Germinal is drudgery.  Reading these 250 tiny volumes was never drudgery.

How do  the days stay special when there are so many of them?  I loved reading the article, but as it drew to a close, I found myself feeling panic, of all things.  It was a vicarious experience of sharing the rush and push to meet the goal.  How can pleasurable reading happen when one is facing an entire year of a daily deadline of completing a book?  Buried in Print is, amazingly, back to regular posting after taking part in Dewey’s 24 hour Read-a-Thon, and I can just about wrap my head around a weekend of non-stop reading, but it’s not a pace I could sustain for a year. 

Have you read under conditions of extreme pressure, self-imposed or not?  What were the advantages?  Is it just about reaching a goal or are there some more long-lasting rewards?

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