Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On Books and Love: A Tale of my Inexperience with Literature

***I originally wrote this 4 years ago, on July 10th, 2010. It was a Saturday. It was very hot and I remember we had a very BIG catering to do that day. I present this in it's un-edited glory, mostly because I think it is still sweet and still very true. And, No, I did not finish The Children's Book, but will give it ago again someday down the road. ***

What is it that inspires the love affair between a person and reading? "Love Affair" may seem a little over-indulgent to some, but to me it is entirely the correct term to describe what connects people and books. For the people who make writing and reading books their life, there is certainly a love that comes from it. Reading is one of the only things I can say with certainty that I truly Love. Promiscuity with books is not looked down upon; you pick up a book, you fall in love. There is passion, there is anger, and then the inevitable end. "And then what happened?" as Neil Gaiman asks. What happens is you move on, and maybe you return to re-kindle that romance with a particular book or author, but it is never quite as exciting as finding the perfect book for the particular time in your life and experiencing something new, something different, something experimental.

Love is what got me through working full-time as well as taking on a full class load during college. Love is what inspired me to enter into college in the first place. I love books, so naturally an English Major was my calling.

Though I can remember at least one occasion after graduation that I cursed my college experience. "What did I pay for?" I asked myself. I should have saved that money for something else. I could have been traveling the world, learning to blow glass or ride a unicycle...I could have been working on my novel. Why did I put myself through strict schedules, sleepless nights and the feeling of isolation from my peers. I was an unconventional student-a few years older than the rest, living off campus and working. I didn't have the "university experience" so many 19 year olds have and it sometimes left me wishing I was more interested in house parties and football games than literature and photography classes. Now, when I think about what my life would have been like had I not gone to school, I chide myself for ever wishing I had done something differently.

For if I hadn't taken classes with Professor Butterfield, I would have never learned how "not to simply read books, but to allow ourselves to be read by them" as Mark Edmundson states in his book Why Read? This was such a beautiful concept to me. The idea the reason why so many young people find classic works boring is because we the reader have not matured enough for the book. Edmundson quotes Lionel Trilling's experience with his first unsuccessful trysts with writers like Kafka, Joyce, and Proust: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better,they came to have more sympathy for me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate."

I found this idea inspiring when I was in school. It helped me with the sense of failure I sometimes experienced with a classic work of fiction. The notion of myself being too young for a book gave me hope that someday I would be mature enough for that relationship to work; I had something to strive for.

October, 2009, two years after graduation, I find myself walking the streets of Philadelphia with a group of talented and creative individuals. A Photographer, an Actress, an Australian Scholar traveling America to work on her thesis, and a young but successful Editor from Chicago. I met all these people through the magic of the internet and we were together to celebrate the marriage of the Photographer to the Actress. It was quite the unconventional procession; it being so close to Halloween we looked like we were going to a costumed ball rather than a wedding party as we walked several blocks to where the festivities were being held. It was one of the most exhilarating and humbling walks of my life.
As we walked, our conversation turned to one of our most beloved commonalities: books. The Photographer mentioned how much he enjoyed A.S. Byatt's Possession, a book about two young contemporary scholars discovering a relationship between two Victorian Poets, and in the process of this discovery finding their own hidden meanings. Several people in our group chimed in how much they enjoyed Possession, but I said I found it difficult to read and slow moving. And the Photographer, a man I greatly admire not only for his creative abilities with his camera, but also for his ability to inspire creativity in others, says to me something along the lines of "Really? I quite enjoyed it...probably because I was an English Major". Now, imagine how I feel at this moment. I'm walking down a street in a strange city, having traveled some distance by train from Wisconsin to attend the wedding celebration of two people I really admire...and I basically have told one of my artistic role-models that I disliked one of his favorite books. One word will suffice: Mortified.

Not only that, but I was an English Major as well! What did he get from the book that I didn't? I felt so inadequate, so inferior, so young! The night went on, and I tried to put this small conversation behind me. I am often prone to bouts of nervousness over things I have said or done that I perceive as being very big deals, but in reality no one even notices. I hoped the Photographer didn't think me a total undeveloped cad, and I am sure if it was brought up to him now he probably wouldn't remember anything I said about the book.

It got me thinking about it despite myself; and the next day after the party, as I made my way to the train station and visited Washington D.C. for the first time in my life, and then back on the train bound for my home in Wisconsin-really, what was I missing from this book that everyone else found so captivating? As I sat on the Amtrak I vowed to myself I would dig the book out of it's resting place in the garage when I returned home and give it another go. I was going to read this book, beginning to end and hopefully come out differently on the other side.

I followed through and read the entire thing, but something happened when I finally made it past the first 50 pages that were so difficult the first time I tried reading it and then put it down. I understood it. Not only did I understand the motivation of the book better, but there were words I understood I knew I didn't recognize the first time around. I understood and even appreciated the style of the book, the intricate layers of poetry, letter writing, and footnotes. I began to cherish the footnotes, because it was all fiction cleverly disguised in the best way as fact. When I finally made the plunge down the rabbit hole of Byatt, I came out the other side knowing what all the fuss was about.

That is when I realized the reason I didn't "get" the book the first time I tried it was because I was reading it before I was in college. I had just moved to Wisconsin from Montana and was in a terrible relationship and grossly homesick. All I could remember from the book was the deceptions that take place, and it hit a little too close to the heart. I was too young for the book, I was boring it. The book wanted to take trips through France and visit museums; I wanted to read comic books and go to the movies. A serious case of bad timing.

As I finished the book, I understood the reason I now appreciated it was because of the education I had made myself endure. Just like the Photographer, I too enjoyed the book because I was an English Major, not only because I was more well versed in classic literature, but because the book as a whole deals with academia on many levels and it is something ex-students are bound to identify with.

Now I am finding myself quite engrossed with contemporary Victorian Literature. Recently I finished Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and I found A.S. Byatt's recently published The Children's Book at my library. This time with Byatt I know to be patient, not to try and rush things. As I grow older I begin to understand some things are better enjoyed slowly, but there will always be the youth inside me ready to dance and go wild when the right book comes along.
No matter what, I know that what motivates me above all else is that desire to try something new, to find a new fiction to fall in love with and to maybe learn something new about myself on the other side.

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