Thursday, June 24, 2010

Words words words: my life through books

I learned to read fairly young--from what my parents tell me, I was just about three years old when I started to put together letters and create words. I used to follow my mom around and ask her how to spell different words. In fact, let's give much of the credit to my parents: my dad started reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to me when I was two. To this day, I have the urge to look in closets for my own Narnia (and yes, I realize that Lewis had problems, and he could be an asshole, but let me have my Narnia, okay?).

So, yes. It was Narnia and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr. Seuss and all the kids' books you could imagine. I'd beg for one more chapter, one more reading of The Lorax. And then there was the Levittown Public Library. When I was a kid, this place was like the Convergence of All That Was Good In the World to me. Books, books, books. I couldn't get my hands on enough books. I'd take out fifteen, and the librarian would peer at me and say, "Can you really read all of those in a week?" (My dad's response: "Please. She'll be done in three days.")

My handwriting was crap (my first-grade teacher made me practice for hours), I couldn't do math (I have memories of my mom drilling me in multiplication tables during the summer after 3rd grade), and please don't get me started on art (I can't draw for beans). But I could read.

I caught flak for it, of course. There would be at least one kid in my class who'd make fun of me for carrying around books all the time (and probably because burying your head in a book does not a social butterfly make). And I did other things--played softball, swam on a team, ran around with the kids on my block. But the best things in life for me were books.

I think I lost the drive a little when I was in high school, if only because the rest of my life swamped me: I worked 10-15 hours a week, I played sports, I was involved in church stuff, and, oh, yeah, classes. So reading for fun fell by the wayside, though I'd still read anything you put in front of me. But I can say this, too: I got hella lucky with my English classes in high school. For example, eleventh grade AP English: Dante, Milton, The Bible, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner...along with Toni Morrison (and holy crap, guys, Paradise is still an amazing book on the third or fourth read). Twelfth grade AP English? The first six weeks, we had a paper due every other day. Makes you refine your reading and writing skills really rather quickly.

I entered college knowing one thing: I would study English if it killed me. (My conversation with my dad about it went like this: Me: "Maybe I should study something useful, like social work." My dad: "You would be miserable in social work. Study English. You like it.")

College as a whole is a whole 'nother ball game--I could write a dozen posts about Eastern University, and I still wouldn't be done. In terms of literature, though? I will be forever grateful to Dr. Cary for introducing me to Flannery O'Connor. (Oh, Flannery, what did I do without you?) And the English department, I have such love for them.

What I really discovered--or rather, remembered, because I think I knew this already--was that literature presented the world to me, opened it up, and then challenged it. Deconstruction, yo! It breaks down those binaries! And the funny thing was, suddenly, despite the fact that I was, again, swamped, I read and read and read. I discovered my love for the Modernists. I wrote my senior thesis on Eliot's Four Quartets, even though poetry's my weakness, and I can still quote chunks of it. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Isn't it normal to relate to Stephen Dedalus? And oh, Virginia Woolf. So brilliant. So tragic. Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse and "A Room of One's Own," which was presented at the One Damn Thing After Another Society (best name for a historical society ever) and is actually a very, very funny piece.

I got out of college, wandered through the next few years (more stories for later), and went back to grad school for English in a fit of "MA? PhD? Where the hell am I going?" I ended up with the MA and a decided "No" on the PhD, if only because I can't see myself doing research for the rest of my life.

Here's what I want to say about me and literature. I remember a professor of mine (my very favoritest prof ever) talking about stories. We were in Post-Colonial Women's Novels and talking about identity politics and post-structuralism and Martha Nussbaum and...well, Betsy said something to this effect: Literature is dangerous. It's dangerous because it forces people to imagine their worlds in different ways, and once you do that, you can change the world around you.

And that's the thing, right? Because books don't exist in a vaccuum. They sit in context, and their effects play out in the real world. Why else would people condemn Salman Rushdie and, hell, J.K. Rowling (yeah, I love Harry Potter)? Why else would the USSR ban Alexander Solzhenistyn in the '60s, for example? Because literature matters. Because books change things.

I picked up this book called Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. It was published in 1985, which in academic terms means it's just about ancient, but the author, Robert Scholes, says this in the introduction, and I find it interesting:
"[R]eading and writing are important because we read and write our world as well as texts, and are read and written by them in turn. Texts are places where power and weakness become visible and discussable, where learning and ignorance manifest themselves, where the structures that enable and constrain our thoughts and actions become palpable" (xi).

Or this, from Harold Bloom (who's kind of a blowhard, but still): "We read to find ourselves, more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope to find" (How To Read And Why).

That's me, and books. And this was a very long post. If you read the whole thing, I congratulate you.


  1. I read the whole thing! (A few days late because I was in San Diego when it went up, and wasn't actively checking the internets, but still!) Literature should be dangerous. Comedy should be dangerous. Christianity should be dangerous. If the boat's not rocking, you're doing it wrong.

  2. Also, on Lewis: lots of people are assholes who produce amazing work, and there are very few people in general who aren't assholes at least some of the time. I don't think that diminishes the contribution of the work, generally speaking. Eliot was also an asshole. And James Joyce. And Virginia Woolf. St. Augustine was definitely an asshole. Yup, it's assholes all the way down.

  3. Assholes all the way down! Our new slogan!